A Gate at the Stairs

Lorrie Moore started writing fiction in the early 1980s. Her work was a welcome arrival. Like Jay McInerney, the only one of her contemporaries who is also her peer, Moore offered an appealing mixture of garrulousness and impudence - appealing at least in part because it was so different from the bungalow miserabilism of Raymond Carver.

Moore is best known as the author of around forty short stories, most of them characterised by her pithy-pensive style. Her progress as a novelist has been slow. In A Gate at the Stairs, her third novel, she is at the same stage as McInerney was at over 20 years ago with his third novel, Story of My Life: writing from the perspective of a 20-year-old girl who gabs a mile a minute. And just as the "postmodern girl" Alison Poole cuts the standard McInerney figure (hedonist-with-a-heart), so the post-9/11 girl Tassie Keltjin is a familiar Moore type. Beneath her caffeinated exuberance and swift perceptions, she is a mess of anxieties, the very portrait of muddle and drift.

“I was looking for a job," Tassie explains, and she finds a job. So when she is not taking classes at Troy College (wine-tasting, Sufism, soundtracks to war movies) or falling in love with a Brazilian classmate (they have sex with "tender but energetic adhoccery"), Tassie takes care of the toddler Mary-Emma while surveying her intriguingly inscrutable adoptive parents. Tassie ambles along, clueless as to what the future may hold, but it is worth recalling that "Take all the babysitting jobs you can get" was one of the injunctions in Moore's early story "How to Become a Writer".

The principal criteria for a monologue of this kind are plausibility and pleasure, the latter being partly dependent on the former. Tassie's half-Jewish, 20-year-old, vulnerable female voice is plausible enough, though more in the consistency of its habits (pop knowingness, defensive self-criticism) than its resemblance to anything one might have heard on the bus.

The book works best as a Bildungsroman sceptical of the claims of the Bildungsroman. Tassie recalls the year following "the events of September" from a point at which it seems "distant and shrunken". This is the dialectical first-person approach tapped by Saul Bellow in The Adventures of Augie March: "I see this now. At that time not."

But Tassie does not see all that much now, nor does she bother with the standard Bildungsroman experiences. She has some interaction with love, poverty and war. Generally, however, her attention is directed to loftier matters: "I had never before seen a man wear jeans with a tie"; "It was the first iPod I'd ever seen". And even though she is keen to avoid "the half-life of regret", she adopts a different attitude to Bellow's Great Question: "What was I alive for? I would not always know or make it my troubled concern."

In the absence of answers, Tassie makes do with data. There is more detritus and bric-a-brac - more stuff - in Moore's fiction than in that any other significant writer. She is a specialist in the garbage of verbiage. Her recurrent theme has been the perplexities of love and the salve of female companionship, both of which are shown to be rooted in language.

In this book, as elsewhere, Moore demonstrates an inexhaustible capacity and enthusiasm for verbal play. Tassie spends a large part of the novel bemoaning the absence of her room-mate Murph, "a nose-pierced, hinky-toothed blonde from Dubuque" who specialises in puns. She observes bumper stickers and placards ("'Not in our name', whatever that one meant"); she decodes menus ("À la carte meant soup or salad; dinner meant soup and salad"); she trades in homophones ("a maize maze of water stains") and oxymorons ("I only like to be gratuitous when it's absolutely necessary").

Language is a continual source of comedy in A Gate at the Stairs, but it is also a tool of manipulation and concealment. Tassie talks of "Starbucks with its Orwellian sizing - 'tall' means 'small'!". As in her previous novels, Anagrams and Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, Moore is vigilant to the potential for contortion both across languages and within them. For everything that is said, jauntily or repeatedly or at length, there are many things left darkly silent, and Tassie is assailed by at least two important verbal revelations in the second half of the book.

The obvious danger with Moore's writing is that it offers little more than a string of highlights; and because (rather than in spite of) its glories, A Gate at the Stairs is a tiring book. It is both insistent about its own insouciance and naggingly proud of its fluency and cleverness. Moore struggles with the mechanics of novel-writing - the shaping of chapters, the revelation of detail. In Anagrams, she overcame this incapacity by creating a heroine who was constantly spinning fantasies from the raw data of her life; a book full of such variations proved the ideal short story-writer's novel.
A Gate at the Stairs is organised on a principle of accumulation rather than movement. As a result, it is congested rather than propulsive. Placed closely together, in their hundreds, Tassie's responses to the enormities of daily life form a gruesome pile-up of glib "perceptions". Her interminable nature-notes, initially responsive and exacting, begin to seem mere reflex, not on her part but on Moore's - the novelist's cumbrous descriptive duty.
And because the narrative gives no impression of where it is heading, the tension and interest must be applied retrospectively, read back into the book's opening 200 pages. Moore's prose remains a vivid and attractive vaudeville, but it is not enough.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman's lead fiction reviewer. To read more of his writing, visit: newstatesman.com/writers/leo_robson