Saturday, September 12, 2009

A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore

There's an MFA canon that runs parallel to but only occasionally overlaps (Hemingway, O'Connor, Welty...) the literature canon. It includes people like Alice Munro, George Saunders, Donald Barthelme...people who are always taught in workshops and loved by many many writers...and Lorrie Moore just might be the queen of that canon. Her story "How to be an Other Woman" was one of the most personally important stories I encountered as an undergraduate--it made writing seem both pleasurable and possible. So the truth is I probably wanted to love this novel too much--I set us all up for disappointment.

The first half--funny and sincere and believable--is everything I wanted. But then Moore gets REALLY big in her plot. I mean these people suffer. And you know what--I just didn't believe it. Normally I only blog about books I recommend, but I figure Moore--one of my writing heroes--can take a little criticism. Actually if I had read this book back in the early nineties when I read the rest of Moore's work and found it so influential, I probably would have liked it more. So maybe it's just my tastes have changed and the stage of my writing life that I'm in requires different influences.

But her sentences are so good--it may be worth the read anyway. What I struggled with were the four major dramatic events that happen in proximity to the narrator--one related to a boyfriend, one to her employers, one to her roommate, and one to her brother. I'm not going to spoil the plot, but let's just say these are BIG events. Each the kind of thing with the potential to change or end a life. And our narrator has four of them in one year. And none of them are caused by her but rather happen to people close to her. So not only did I struggle to believe what was happening (there is no such thing as "suspension of disbelief," people--you have to earn my belief with every sentence) but I wasn't superinvested because the narrator had nearly no way to interact with these events. All she could really do was grieve them.

Still it made me want to go back to Anagrams and Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? both of which I haven't read in a long time...

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