Caroline Moore

Joking apart

Free association underpins the comedy of Lorrie Moore’s writing — or perhaps the verb should be ‘unpins’, since her prose spins off in tangential, apparently affectless riffs.

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A Gate at the Stairs

Lorrie Moore

Faber, pp. 322, £

Free association underpins the comedy of Lorrie Moore’s writing — or perhaps the verb should be ‘unpins’, since her prose spins off in tangential, apparently affectless riffs.

Free association underpins the comedy of Lorrie Moore’s writing — or perhaps the verb should be ‘unpins’, since her prose spins off in tangential, apparently affectless riffs. Even the title of A Gate at the Stairs tugs in different directions. It is a baby-gate; since this novel starts as a comedy — of sorts — about adoption. (But, as the adopting mother says, while mashing flower bulbs into a poisonous puree, the French ‘have jokes that end “And then the baby fell down the stairs.” ’). In the comically maudlin songs of two heartbroken college girls, however, the stairway is the shining stairway to love, locked ‘at the foot of the stairs’ by rejection; or the gate may be St Peter’s gate of Heaven.

Moore is celebrated on the back cover of this novel as ‘one of the funniest writers alive’; but no reader will expect unmixed comedy from a novel that begins, ‘The cold came late that fall and the songbirds were caught off their guard.’ Moore’s humour, however, is not the controlled, ironic focus of black comedy, which proves that comedy can be crueller than tragedy. The jokes which come almost obsessively thick and fast throughout this novel — puns, deliberate mishearing and misinterpretations that spin off into fantasy — are not cruel but zany: a nervous reaction, ‘babbling during grief . . . jokes while dying.’

The novel begins with 20-year-old Tassie Keltjin looking for a job as a baby- sitter. She is the ‘half-Jewish’ daughter of a potato farmer, studying in the local university town of Troy, ‘The Athens of the Midwest’, where she is taking courses in ‘Geology, Sufism, Wine Tasting, British Literature, Soundtracks to War Movies.’

Troy seems to Tassie thrillingly sophisticated:

Twice a week a young professor named Thad, dressed in jeans and a tie, stood before a lecture hall of stunned farm kids like me and spoke thrillingly of Henry James’s masturbation of the comma. I was riveted. I had never before seen a man wear jeans with a tie.

Nothing is more exotic than the food. In her home town, the ‘high end’ of sit-down eating is a restaurant serving ‘cheese curd meatloaf and steak “cooked to your likeness” ’, with ‘Grandma Jell-o’ for dessert; in Troy, there is a Chinese café, ‘the vegetables fungal and gnomic in their brown sauce’, dispensing random wisdom in fortune cookies.

The couple Tassie goes to meet as a potential babysitter seems glamorously urban. Sarah Brink, with short autumn-dyed hair and maroonish brown lips (‘like a highly controlled oxidisation experiment’), runs a pretentious restaurant, Le Petit Moulin, offering unknown dishes which sound to Tassie ‘like instruments — timbales, quenelles .…’ But 20-year- old Tassie, in a state of ‘incipient adulthood’ (which still dissolves at home into ‘an unseemly collection of jostling former selves’, sulky or joshing), is just grown up enough to begin to look beyond her own ‘hunger’ to be an adult: ‘unexpected fates had begun to catch my notice.’

Under the ‘bright desert grass’ of her hair, Sarah has her own tragedies. Tassie wonders about her, and her husband Edward — a ‘flamboyantly self-involved’ academic, balding but long-haired, ‘like he was wearing a head cape’ — but, one suspects, she does not wonder as much as perhaps she should. Unexpected fates are indeed on the way.

Tassie embarks upon her own first love affair, with a Brazilian co-student. Tassie’s ignorance prevents her from spotting that, mysteriously, he knows no Portuguese, though she does notice that in all the languages he professes, he never says he loves her. She begins ‘a protracted misunderstanding of Romance languages’, including ‘the physical language of a boy’s love.’ ‘What was an involuntary grimace I took to be rapture . . . . What was an urgent, automatic back-and-forth of the body I thought of as the eternal romantic return of the lover.’

Moore is excellent at the foolish, touching, fresh intensities of first lust. She is superb, too at the combination of achingly sensuous tenderness and equally aching tedium that go into looking after a young child. There is plenty to admire and plenty to make one think in this novel. Indeed, there is, at times, almost too much.

Lorrie Moore’s — or Tassie’s — narrative voice is restless, flitting from joke to joke like a zig-zagging fly dodging invisible swatters. There is, it is true, a point to this. Moore is interested in the psychology of jokes: from the truly juvenile jokes of very small children, through the regressively puerile ones of nervous teenagers (the hysterical laughter of teenage girls, as Moore notes, is never replicated after 30) to family in-jokes, Jewish humour, the Ephron-esque wisecracks of the damaged middle-aged (‘ “the problem with seeing one’s marriage as a farce”, she continued, “is that all the slamming doors are in your heart” ’), down to the surreal thoughts that intrude into moments of alienated depression, or the more severe dislocations of profound grief.

Moore is particularly brilliant at the last categories. Until the cold snap of tragedy concentrates the narrative, however, Tassie’s voice seems all over the place. Some of the riffs — about Midwestern food, Midwestern adolescents, God lacking a good proof-reader — seem slightly rechauffé (what Sarah would call ‘home-cooking’, which is ‘restaurant-ese for throwing something back in the pot when it has landed on the floor’); and some of the jokes try too hard, becoming self-consciously wacky (dwarf irises and bearded irises, Tassie muses, call for bearded dwarves).

This relentless cascade is surprisingly hard to read over a prolonged period; and I began to wonder whether Moore’s dislocating jokiness might be better suited to the short story: her prize-winning story of taking a baby to a cancer clinic evoked anxiety of sickening intensity in a small, joke-crammed span. But the best parts of A Gate at the Stairs perform the same uneasy miracle. In retrospect, one can then appreciate more clearly the register of the restless early part of the novel: trying too hard, making comic routines of one’s origins, after all, are part of being young. In another novel, they would have been part of Tassie finding her own voice; in Moore’s universe, however, there is no truth of self to find. ‘Life … skittered and blew. It was a mound of random trash, even as you moved through the hours like a ghost invited to enjoy a sparkling day at the beach.’