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Wonder, Bemusement Reign In Moore's 'Gate'

Lorrie Moore's style is one of kind. Her "day job" is teaching writing at The University of Wisconsin, but the irony there is that unlike, say, Hemingway or Dostoyevsky, the style of Moore's own short stories and novels could never be taught through worshipful imitation. It's swirling and wry and messy and sucks you in, like a literary cyclone, so that you feel like you're at the center of some great life force, even if you can't always understand the meaning of all the things whipping around you. And, that feeling of simultaneous wonder and bemusement is intensified to the max in Moore's latest natural phenomenon of a novel, called A Gate at the Stairs.

As in her last novel, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, which came out all too long ago in 1994, Moore uses the convention here of an adult narrator looking back on her younger self. In the present time of the novel, the fall of 2001, Tassie Keltjin is a 20-year-old college student in the Midwest. Untethered from her childhood on the family farm, Tassie is eager to be seduced by ideas. She encapsulates the excitement of college thusly:

Tassie is also ready to be emotionally seduced by people and she finds herself swept up into the lives of a sophisticated couple named Edward, a research scientist, and Sarah, owner of an upscale restaurant. When Tassie first meets Sarah, she describes her as "one of those women who instead of laughing said, "That's funny," or instead of smiling said, "That's interesting."

The couple hires her to be a part-time nanny for the child they hope to adopt and because they're white and their toddler daughter, when she arrives from foster care, is part-black, political questions about race and adoption come to the fore. Back on the farm, Tassie's younger, goof-off brother, Robert, is graduating high school and he decides to join the military and head over to Afghanistan, as a way of sidestepping his alternative fate: the local Diesel Driving School. By novel's end, everything that seems solid in Tassie's life sorrowfully melts into air.

If you're one of those paranoid readers who believes that every detail means something — and in a Lorrie Moore story you can never be too paranoid — you might catch on to the fact before I did that the A Gate at the Stairs surrealistically layers the essential Jane Eyre elements of a hyper-observant nanny (a "governess," if you will), a key character of mixed race, a dread secret and a remote cad of an employer named "Edward."

It's alone worth reading this novel just to see how Moore, on her last page, raucously upends the famous closing lines of Jane Eyre, "Reader, I married him." But the overarching reason to read Moore is to surrender yourself to how perceptively she reads the world. Sometimes her language makes you laugh, because you're taken by surprise by how "on target" it is, like when Tassie describes her middle-aged mother's thickening face as being framed in "a cameo of meat."

Other times, Moore's ability to nail the ineffable is chilling. When Edward enters the story for the first time, late for an adoption meeting with the birth mother, no less, Tassie describes how he looks around the room and then: "turned to his own paper cup of coffee, which he sipped from, as if it were not just delicious but urgent, and I could see he was showing us himself, his aquiline profile, ... so that for a minute he did not have to trouble himself to admire us but to soak up our appreciation of him ... [I] could see it was his habit to imperceptibly dominate and insult."

Maybe that's too much for any college kid — or even for the older Tassie — to read into a pose. But, who cares? Moore's penetrating and singular voice as a writer is one I could listen to for years and years.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.