“Mordancy: there was something that could not really be taught. But it could be borrowed. It could be rubbed up against. It could scrape you like bark.” The words belong to Tassie Keltjin, the narrator of Lorrie Moore’s third novel, A Gate at the Stairs, and in their incisiveness they maybe tell us a bit too much about both the character and her creator. Tassie is twenty, a student in the midwestern college town of “Troy”; Moore herself teaches at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. And mordancy is for Tassie the kind of grown-up sass she associates with a restaurateur in her forties named Sarah Brink, for whom she works as a babysitter. Sarah is the same age as the girl’s own parents. Yet in her clothes, manners, and makeup—“her lips maroonish brown”—she seems to come from an utterly different world, and if she can’t give lessons, Tassie can still learn from her. She can let Sarah’s way of talking, of being, not only scrape and bruise her but also caress her like silk. Though maybe she’s got that particular style to start with. This narrator may believe “that if I wasn’t careful my meekness could become a habit,” but she also thinks of Sarah’s restaurant as a place where every dish comes “freshly hairy with dill.”
Of course Moore herself has always specialized in the mordant—cue the obvious pun. It’s there in her first book, Self-Help (1985), whose stories have titles like “How to Be an Other Woman.” It’s the puckery look you get just before you let yourself say something both funny and wounding. It’s an attitude, a posture—an attitude askew, even a little bent and crooked, a falsetto brightness that shows up the world’s dark side. The refined quality of her mordancy owes to its self-suspicion, its distrust of its own frantic jokiness. What makes her great story about pediatric oncology, “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” so entirely unbearable is that it’s also so desperately funny. Hysterical, in every sense. Tassie may want to be a bit like Sarah—but she’s afraid of it, too.
Moore’s title finds its literal meaning in the gate used to keep a kid from either climbing up or toppling down, and A Gate at the Stairs itself is a rather broken-backed production, part coming-of-age story and part 9/11 novel. It touches on, among other things, interracial adoption, Jane Eyre, Afghanistan, sleeper cells, vibrators, and potato farming. But it’s a less consequential novel than it looks at first, and both its linear narration and its naive-though-reliable protagonist make it the author’s most conventional work to date. The story begins in the late fall of 2001 and closes at the end of 2002. Afghanistan seems over, Iraq hasn’t yet begun, and though the date will prove determinative, Moore often allows us to forget about it, as though it weren’t eventually going to bite. Instead, she focuses on Tassie’s relations with Sarah, her husband—an elegant older man named Edward Thornwood—and Mary-Emma, the bi-racial toddler they adopt. “I liked children,” Tassie tells us on the book’s first page, “I did!—or rather, I liked them OK. They were sometimes interesting.” Yet for Mary-Emma she feels something more, enough anyway to be pained by the dagger looks she gets from the black women who assume she’s the girl’s mother.
A Gate at the Stairs follows Moore’s 1998 Birds of America, the collection that made her into something more than a writing-program cult figure. That work remains one of the two or three best volumes of stories that any American has published in recent decades, but eleven years is a long time. I’m not the kind of critic who’s going to look into that gap, but I am interested in the question of continuity, of development and change. This new novel is more than twice as long as Moore’s last one, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? (1994), and meanders in comparison. It does, however, have that book’s feeling for the contours of adolescence—its intense friendships and emotions, its disbelief at the things grown-ups do. For Moore, those issues are inseparable from an interest in the mores of small-town life, as though the provinces were by definition where adolescence happens. Tassie has grown up with her younger brother, Robert, in the fictional midwestern farming community of Dellacrosse, and though the two of them love their parents, they also know they haven’t been prepared for much; Robert in particular is rudderless. Tassie will ful-fill her responsibilities to Mary-Emma. But she will also believe that she has failed her brother, who expects her to talk him out of enlisting.
This question of military service signals a new tack for Moore—an engagement with public issues. This involves looking at questions of race and class as they play out in a college town like Troy, white and liberal and marked by an equal mix of rectitude and irony. Moore has an wicked eye for social detail, and it’s especially alive in the dialogue she provides for the support group that Sarah hosts for families like hers. The kids are mostly “of color” though most of their parents are white; as the adults talk, everyone’s toes are ready to be stepped on, and the room goes cloudy with cliché. One character even claims that describing someone’s sense of humor as “dark” is racist. Unfortunately, this is only one among a number of other, less deliberate clichés, and those that touch on 9/11 feel like missteps. Tassie has a brief relationship with a boy who says he’s Brazilian but whose yoga mat turns out to be a prayer rug. Robert ships out, with predictable consequences—wouldn’t it be nice, just once, if the soldier brother didn’t get killed? That plot point is too predictable for its revelation here to stand as a spoiler. His death does, admittedly, lead to the novel’s single most powerful moment; still, it seems tacked onto quite a different story—the relationship between Tassie and Sarah.
A Gate at the Stairs is really a bildungsroman: Tassie encounters what looks, at first, like a tempting model of adult life, tempting because it’s so radically different from the one her parents have provided. Her mother is “frugal and clueless,” her puckish father grows fine heirloom potatoes but isn’t taken seriously by the local wheat farmers, and at home Tassie can’t escape a sense of “small slightly thrashing, not quite deforming shame.” With Sarah, she seems briefly to find a kind of substitute, fairy-tale family, one that lets her learn her way around Bach and sauvignon blanc alike. But eventually she begins to see the cracks in Sarah and Edward’s marriage, and then also the fissures in the woman’s own carefully crafted self. The allusions to Jane Eyre become especially apt as Tassie comes to learn that the woman upstairs, however alive she may seem, isn’t someone Tassie ever wants to be.
“When I looked at her, I no longer really knew what I saw,” Tassie tells us. Her uncertainty springs in part from the difference in their ages. Moore—who was born in 1957—has until now used protagonists close to her own age. Sarah is just “old enough” to be the narrator’s mother, but Tassie—barely out of her teens—is something new from the author. It’s hard to escape the sense that the young narrator sits in judgment, not only on the woman she doesn’t want to become but on an entire older generation. This critique—Moore’s most provocative gesture and, perhaps, her most problematic—rests on our acceptance of Tassie. But her voice—the voice of a fully achieved and, yes, mordant maturity—isn’t remotely believable as that of a twenty-year-old. “Childcare, like healthcare, had become one word. I would become a dispenser of it.” Not even the young Moore herself had quite that poise, that full and flexible tone; still less a girl who presents herself as meek and unengaged by the life around her.
In addition, the book suffers from more particular problems. Its narrative lines never fully converge, there are some anachronisms of phrasing, and Sarah is so rarely absorbed by her restaurant’s day-to-day routines that her career seems little more than the author’s attempt to make her into an arbiter of style, someone whose sophistication contrasts with Tassie’s lack of it. Moore does, admittedly, try to finesse the difficulties this narrative voice presents by asking us to imagine that the story is told by an older Tassie. “Years later”: Every fifty pages or so we get a little phrase like that. But how many years? Even today she’d be under thirty, and there’s no gap here in either diction or sensibility between the student and her presumably older self. After such a long absence, it’s good to have something new from Moore, to taste the bite and pith of her sentences once again. There’s a wonderful line—mordant and richly so—on every other page, but A Gate at the Stairs never adds up to more than the sum of those moments.
Michael Gorra teaches English at Smith College. His books include a new critical edition of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, to be published this fall by Norton.