The dust jacket of Lorrie Moore’s new book “A Gate at the Stairs” informs us that she writes about “the anxiety and disconnection of post-9/11 America, the insidiousness of racism, the blind-sidedness of war and the recklessness thrust on others in the name of love.” This summary, which could describe any number of post-millennial novels less accomplished than Ms. Moore’s, offends most of all in the way it evokes the bombastic, manic tone of a thriller: “A Gate at the Stairs” is many things, but it is rarely exciting. Like the residents of Troy (the Midwestern college town where the book is mostly set) who, in thermals, sweaters and scarves, move cumbersomely in the deep winter chill, Moore’s many-layered novel adopts a deliberate and measured pace.
Troy is a proxy for Madison, Wis., where Moore has lived and taught for several years, and the book takes as one of its subjects the foibles and insecurities of that city’s left-leaning bourgeoisie. Our heroine is Tassie Keltjin, fresh from her father’s potato farm in the countryside surrounding Troy (though not quite a country bumpkin — her father is the son of a university president, her mother Jewish.) Tassie arrives in the city as a newly enrolled student and takes a job as a “childcare provider” with a sophisticated middle-aged couple who are in the process of adopting a baby girl of mixed race. Soon her employer Sarah, a thin, nervous woman who owns a gourmet restaurant in town, forms a support group for (mostly) white parents of black children. These well-educated, anxious parents gather in Sarah’s parlor while Tassie watches the children upstairs, and the fragments of conversation she hears serve as a kind of comical Greek chorus on the state of race relations in America:
“Racial blindness is a white idea.”
“School is white. And school is female. So it’s the boys of color who have the hardest time …”
“Your sense of humor is too dark.”
“Don’t say dark. It’s racist.”
These interludes are funny, but too topical to say much that is new or interesting. Tassie’s inner life, as she struggles to adjust to college and womanhood, is more convincing and affecting. Moore captures beautifully Tassie’s feeling of her own unseemliness.
When, at an expensive restaurant, she is first presented with an amuse-bouche she muses, “I was like a giant raiding a dollhouse … I was a monster to myself.” Ever attentive to her “daily studies in the humanities both in and out of the classroom,” Tassie falls in love, has her heart broken (spoiler alert: her first real boyfriend may or may not be a member of a terrorist cell) all the while imbibing the verse of Rumi and Sylvia Plath, elixir and depressant. Mostly, Tassie feels prosaic, unimpressive, surrounded by men who are bound to disappoint her. (In an interview with Times’ Book Review Editor Sam Tanenhaus, Moore admitted that Tassie was intended to be a kind of everywoman, shouldering the burdens and apprehensions of a whole sex.)
But she is also an everyman, and as tragedies shatter Tassie’s boredom, “A Gate at the Stairs” increasingly resembles a fable in the tradition of “Candide,” posing what Einstein famously considered the ultimate question: “Is the universe friendly?” More than once, characters in the book voice this dilemma directly: “Maybe everybody’s lucky,” Tassie tells Sarah, who is about to lose her adopted child. “Or maybe in the end everybody’s unlucky.” God is no succor to the skeptics who populate Troy; Tassie, though she considers herself spiritually alert, usually reserves religious imagery for her descriptions of sex and food.
Moore sensibly leaves Voltaire and Einstein’s question unanswered, but at least suggests that some wisdom comes with experience. By the end of the novel, Tassie has learned some useful coping strategies, and is a little more self-aware. In one of many wry reflections, she concludes that “tragedies were constructions of an affluent society, full of sorrow and truth but without moral function. Stories of the vanquishing of the spirit expressed and underscored a certain societal spirit to spare.” Lorrie Moore’s characters (and Lorrie Moore, for that matter) may not live in the best of all possible worlds — and, to be clear, “A Gate at the Stairs” is not by any means an optimistic book — but their thoughts and words, which sparkle with wit and warmth, are an abiding comfort to the rest of us.