Lorrie Moore has, until now, been best known for her short stories, collected in such works as Birds of America. They are stories largely about women on the edge of loneliness, neurotic and Cassandra-like, full of vim and wit. They are blunt, bold women who blurt awkward truths, and they are often semi-desperate for love. They are protagonists bent just slightly askew by fierce independence - coming along, as they do, at what might be called the tail end of feminism. Intelligent, professional women who suffer grand longings for romance and sometimes for children, and yet they are, absurdly, no-nonsense and cannily clear-eyed. Often in their thirties or forties, Moore's hapless women are caught in the no man's land of no available men, with the biological clock/bomb ticking - and they're out there, pretty much alone - armed only with a wicked sense of humour and a piercing insight.
In Moore's third novel, A Gate at the Stairs, this kind of woman makes an appearance in the character of Sarah Brink. Sarah is a chef who runs her own restaurant, and the soon-to-be mother of an adopted biracial toddler. She hires the young Tassie Keltjin as a nanny. Along the way, Sarah, somewhat inadvertently, initiates Tassie into in the ways of being a woman, and becomes an unwitting, wavering guide through the minefields of love and motherhood, betrayal, loss, self-reliance and sadness. Sarah Brink is as vivid as any character one could hope to come across in a social comedy by Jane Austen, and just as poignant and multifaceted.
But it's Tassie Keltjin, this novel's voice and moral compass, who grips the reader and doesn't let go.
Moore's writing is full of irony and wordplay, fast quips, snappy dialogue, broad-sweeping slapstick and the deeper, darker sort of joke that makes us hee-haw at those moments that can turn out - in a flash - to be sinister and stabbing. It's the kind of laughter that ambushes, the kind that reveals unexpected, painful truth. This is dark/bright writing, affecting and stripped down.
Though no sentence is wasted, Moore's is not the minimalism popular in the 1980s, when her stories began to garner critical praise. There's too much jam-packed into each line. She makes language do double duty; her language stands back from itself to explore the nature of language. How a name can alter a thing, how slippery meaning can be, the unavoidable folly of trying to pin down what we feel, what we want, who we are, how we love.
The novel is full of what critic James Wood calls "the language of the world," a kind of speak or lingo that defines and parodies notions of class, or enclave, cult or professional community; in other words, the stuff of great satire. Here is foodie lingo, for example, from a menu in Sarah's restaurant: "And at last, as I looked down through some of the most amazing writing I had ever read, everything shaved, braised, truffled and 'finished with' - cipollini confit! Beauty heart radish! Horseradish aioli! - there were my father's potatoes: roasted Bo Keltjin Farm butterballs and fingerlings."
Or the cant and clichés that burble up from the support group for parents of biracial children that Sarah forms to deal with racism.
A snippet from such a meeting: "'I'm here to representing the Pottawatomie, the Oneida, the Chippewa, the Winnebago and the Ho-Chunk. I am here to tell you we weren't successfully integrated because we weren't given real jobs, let alone intimate jobs in your homes and on your property. Only on high bridges and tall office buildings. Your relationship to us from the beginning wasn't even exploitive. It was homicidal.'
"'Dave, sit down. You're mostly white.'
"'Is this the pot calling the kettle black?'
"'I think when the pot calls the kettle black the pot is merely expressing its desire for community.'"
It is a cant not so different from the fundamentalism Tassie's boyfriend later spouts - a language fluffed with passion, devoid of meaning, except as kind of death knell for any true communication.
Language in Moore's stories and novels is reversible, like those clever garments that can be worn inside out, or outside in; she shows that language can point at itself and at the same time expose - always unsentimentally - human pain and hope, vulnerability and strength, what's funny, and what's not funny and how everything, eventually, is both.
A Gate at the Stairs differs from Moore's stories only in that it offers a larger canvas. The sentences are still taut and singular. But there is a breadth here that perhaps allows for a deeper political and social analysis of America. The novel begins in September, 2001, just before "it became known as 9/11." It was a September like "a cat's mouth full of canaries."
Tassie Keltjin is a Midwestern 20-year-old farm girl leaving home for college, to come of age, to find a job, to fall in love, to note the quaking instability of love and to experience how the long-term repercussions of that September began to insinuate themselves into the lives of ordinary people everywhere.
What happens? Moore casts the net wide. She shows how misguided the war on Iraq has turned out to be, and she alludes to its vertiginous costs. She shows how obdurate and stone-stupid fundamentalism of all stripes can be. She shows the cracks and fissures through which racism and hatred bubble up in the seemingly homey and secure Midwest, pulling the rug out from under the notion of homeland security. She shows how vulnerable children are in the United States, the unwieldy, ineffectual flailing of adoption bureaucracy, how it severs ties and casts the innocent - children - adrift. Moore takes no prisoners.
But this is a novel, like Moore's stories, chiefly about character.
Moore dispenses with the more mechanical demands of plot - which a novel sometimes seems to require - quite effortlessly. Two of the major turning points in the story are simply revealed through dialogue during scenes that seem designed, mainly, to move things along. Over a glass of Chardonnay, Sarah tells Tassie the secrets of her past and how they have come to destroy the hoped-for future.
Tassie's boyfriend similarly reveals his own deeply buried secrets, ratcheting the action through new unexpected twists. Moore gets away with these abrupt shifts in the terrain of the story because she knows that the true alchemy of a successful plot is character.
Character is plot, because character moves, leaves traces, is formed and reformed and doesn't stand still. Character is action. Character is a shifting, mesmeric entity in the hands of a skilled writer, and it is the changes in a character that create energy in a novel, that propel it forward.
Tassie is a riveting character from the first page. She is quick, funny, indelible. The novel begins with a description of the weather in that fateful season of 2001: "The cold came late that fall and the songbirds were caught off guard." In Tassie Keltjin, Lorrie Moore has created a bird's-eye view of America in the midst of a cold, dark, changing season. Here is a voice clear and sweet, but like the canaries', full of warning, dark and bright.
Lisa Moore's most recent novel is February. (Any relation? She wishes!)