Lorrie Moore's first two books, the story collection Self-Help (1985) and the novel Anagrams (1986), introduced a writer possessing an appealing comic touch, lightly applied but not reducible to mere "humor," and a modest if still palpable impulse to formal experiment. Self-Help incoporated as a formal strategy the conventions of direct address found in the genre of nonfiction named in the title. Thus this passage from "How to Be the Other Woman": "Shave your legs in the bathroom sink. Philosophize: you are a mistress, part of a great hysterical you mean historical tradition. Wives are like cockroaches. Also part of a great historical tradition. They will survive you after a nuclear attach--they are tough and hardy and travel in packs--but right now they're not having any fun. And when you look in the bathroom mirror, you spot them scurrying, up out of reach behind you." Or the beginning of the book's fourth story, called simply "How": "Begin by meeting him in a class, in a bar, at a rummage sale. Maybe he teaches sixth grade. Manages a hardware store. Foreman at a carton factory. He will be a good dancer. He will have perfectly cut hair. He will laugh at your jokes." Anagrams presents us with the stories of "Benna" and "Gerard," except that in the novel's five sections these are never quite the same characters (although also not completely different, either), their lives rearranged and recombined as narrative anagrams. It contains the kind of verbal comedy also characteristic of Self-Help and that would come to be a distinctive feature of Moore's fiction: "Eleanor and I around this time founded The Quit-Calling Me Shirley School of Comedy. It entailed the two of us meeting downtown for drinks and making desparate pronouncements about life and love which always began, 'But surely. . .' It entailed what Eleanor called, 'The Great White Whine': whiney white people getting together over white wine and whining."
These two books made me think Lorrie Moore might be counted among a younger generation of adventurous writers neither programmatically postmodern nor retreating to the sparer comforts of minimalism, following up on the radical departures of postmodernism in a perhaps less confrontational, more accessible way. Unfortunately, her subsequent books have evidenced a sad, uninterrrupted decline into bathos and convention, each of them more disappointinly trite than the last. Even the story "People Like That Are the Only People Here" (collected in Birds of America), which is ritually cited as Moore's finest work, seems to me mostly an exercise in sentimentality, its supposed mordancy of tone notwithstanding, invoking that most maudlin of narrative devices, a child in distress, without redeeming it. It relies entirely on the reflexive emotional reaction many readers have to this device, but I, for one, don't really need to be convinced that having a sick baby is a woeful state of affairs or that the American health care system is deplorable. As far as I can tell, this story only exists to "say" these things.
Neither Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? nor any of the stories in Like Life or Birds of America exhibit the interest in alternative narrative forms found in Self-Help and Anagrams. They are all conventionally structured narratives employing the kind of strategies designed to "connect" us to their characters, establish appropriate narrative "arc," and provide "telling" and "vivid" detail reinforced by every creative writing program in the country. And while many of them are leavened by what the dust jacket of Birds of America calls the "wit, brio, and verve" manifested in dialogue and by the occasional first-person narrator, the "wit" becomes non-threatingly humorous and essentially ornamental to the "human interest" most reviewers now find central to Lorrie Moore's approach.
Moore's 2009 novel, A Gate at the Stairs, shows the most precipitous decline into banality and unearned emotion yet. It may be the worst novel by a "name" author I've ever read, which is made all the more dismaying by the fact it comes from a writer I once admired. Once again this is a story that leans heavily on the initial emotional appeal of children, but in this case although an orphaned child is introduced and her plight made a center of interest for a while, utlimately this narrative thread has very little emotional weight and is finally dropped, not to be taken up again. Other potentially emotion-laden episodes are introduced as well, but they all remain surprisingly inert, both in narrative and emotional effect. Thus, while the situations evoked in the novel are potentially mawkish, they are executed with so little imagination and formal integrity they essentially just arise and recede without making much of an impression at all. The death of the protagonist's brother, for example, seems so arbitrary, so clearly the product of narrative convenience that her reaction to it is almost grotesquely overwrought. We've been given so little reason to care about the brother, or so little insight into the relationship between sister and brother, this episode as the novel's climactic event falls disastrously flat even in a narrative that never gets off the ground anyway.
A Gate at the Stairs chronicles one year in the life of Tassie Keltjen, a Midwestern college student, shortly after the events of 9/11/01. Apparently, this context is meant to be significant, the story Tassie tells in some way inflected by or representing allegorically the immediate aftermath of 9/11, but exactly why it is significant or how the story "responds" to the period after the Twin Towers collapsed and before the Iraq war began I am not able to say. In his review of the novel, Ron Charles asserts that it contains "profound reflections on marriage and parenthood, racism and terrorism, and especially the baffling, hilarious, brutal initiation to adult life." I can't find any "profound reflections" on any of these issues, most especially terrorism, although this may be a function of my disinclination to read fiction for "reflections" on anything rather than the failure of the author to make her reflections more tangible. Moreover, if the nature of her reflections were suddenly to become more apparent to me, I'm pretty sure this would only clarify further exactly why I find this novel so unpalatable, providing additional evidence that Lorrie Moore has abandoned aesthetic adventurousness for dreary "engagement."
The novel certainly does depict "marriage and parenthood," as Tassie finds herself working as a nanny for a couple who have adopted a biracial child. This presumably also introduces the issues of race to which Powers alludes, but the closest we get to "reflection" on racism is through a series of inane conversations among a group of adoptive mothers of cross-racial children that Tassie overhears. Tassie's employers probably are meant to be "colorful" characters whose marriage provides a contrast with Tassie's own parents back on the farm. They are, however, so superficially portrayed--the menu at the wife's gourmet restaurant is more interesting than she is--that "reflection" on their obviously foundering marriage is hardly possible. Further, the eventually revealed backstory explaining their situation, including their desire to adopt, is so astonishingly implausible that whatever resonance Tassie's experience with them might have is completely lost. Tassie's parents are actually more interesting, although their son's death at the book's conclusion reduces them to a generic set of grieving parents, emblematic, I suppose, of the many other grieving parents created by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The scenes focusing on Tassie at home and interacting with her parents are the best in the book, but they are overshadowed by the interminable accounts of Tassie at work and at school.
The latter include an interlude in which Tassie takes up with a fellow student named Reynaldo, who presents himself as Brazilian, but turns out to be an American muslim from New Jersey. I think. Apparently he's a proto-terrorist, or terrorist fellow traveller, or something. If we are to take seriously the notion that a Wisconsin farm girl at an upper Midwestern state university finds herself involved with a budding terrorist, then these scenes are unquestionably the most embarrassing in the novel. Otherwise, they're just impossibly muddled.
One quality of Lorrie Moore's fiction that initially made it attractive to me does survive in A Gate at the Stairs. As narrator of her story, Tassie Keltjin frequently enough exhibits a comedian-like sense of humor:
Adoption seemed both a cruel joke and lovely daydream--a nice way of avoiding the blood and pain of giving birth, or, from a child's perspective, a realized fantasy of your parents not really being your parents. Your genes could thrust one arm in the air and pump up and down, Yes! You were not actually related to Them!
"You know," Tassie recalls saying to a date who has just announced to her he's gay, "if you concentrated you could be straight. I'm sure of it. Just relax, close your eyes once in a while, and just do it. Heterosexuality--well, it takes a lot of concentration!. . .It takes a lot for everybody!"
On the other hand, there are passages that struggle for cogency, as when Tassie muses about women's fashion:
What would be cool was something different, more murderous, and not depticable. From what I could see, the best look would involve not just something new, but something with insouciant jewelry and ominous leather goods denouncing something old that lay within yourself and others. Probably I would never accomplish this. Without explicit instructions I had no feel or instinct, at least not for the new part. I felt, however, that if called upon, I could do the other part--denunciation--but privately. Privately part cool, since I partook of denouncing (silently, violently) all the time.
These reflections are clearly enough laboring to "say" something significant, but I don't really know what it is.
The contrast between the sure-footed comedy of the first two passages and the straining for effect of the last seems to me to encapsulate the fatal flaw of A Gate at the Stairs. Moore retains, on a verbal level, her essentially comedic vision and skills but ulimately allows them to be subjugated to a ponderous effort to be "about" something more "serious." A writer who began by writing funny, formally agile fiction has now produced an emotionally overworked, formally dull novel only intermittently relieved by a funny line or facetiously rendered scene. I have said this is one of the worst books I've read, but the experience of reading it is really more depressing than anything else.