Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A Gate at the Stairs: imperfection

(There must be spoilers...read this at your own peril of knowing too much about a novel you haven't yet read)

Lorrie Moore's A Gate at the Stairs is not completely satisfying. In particular, Gate's point of view and its narrator's voice create a discord that's impossible to ignore.

Tassie, the novel's narrator, is telling a story about a year in her life that begins in late 2001, where she is in college and is seeking a part time job in her college town. Obviously, the date is the setpoint from which we must infer a whole country destabilized by terrorism.

But Tassie tells this story from an undefined future. We are given no sense about how much time has passed. Is it far enough removed from the events for her to have accrued wisdom, and if so, where is evidence of this wisdom the text? Is she years ahead of us here in 2009? Is the world worse off in terms of war, famine, and climate?

The narrator doesn't, or won't, tell us.

The worst breech of point of view uncertainty comes when Tassie's employer reveals her big secret, over--frustratingly and unbelievably--a period of several days. The woman, Sarah, sits down with Tassie, pouring wine, and starts her confession.

However, the story slips into third person (presumably told by Tassie, but we don't know this for sure) and we're given many details that couldn't possibly have been given by Sarah to Tassie in her confession session. The passage relates much more than Tassie could have known, and this wrecks the point of view arrangement we have had up to this point.

For example, "She [Sarah] had grown up in a family where men were always cruel to other men--in what seemed a conventional way. She had never know what a woman's role should be in these masculine rites, which were all a kind of refinement of malice" (Kindle location 4122-29).

Whose insight is this? It must be Sarah's, but Sarah never speaks more deeply to Tassie (or at least in Tassie's summation of the many conversations) than a tidbit of info, an order, or a joke meant to lighten the mood. Tassie could not have known with any certainty about Sarah's ruminations about gender roles and how they play into the greater tragedy of her story.

Or take this, "Speed was John's solution...At this, Gabriel, seeing his parents speed by, took a tentative darting step out onto the freeway but then withdrew" (Kindle location 4129-36). Sarah could have supposed that her son took these actions, but she was in a speeding car and could not have seen both a tentative darting step and withdrawl. If this is what Tassie guessed what happened, we need to be told. The passage goes on and on, being drawn with colors Tassie couldn't have seen, and in language we never hear from Sarah's speech.

If the internal logic of the narrative allows for such big leaps of supposition, it must be consistent throughout. I couldn't accept the drama on face value because this whole Sarah/Gabriel interlude is a leap from the novel's conventions. It thwarts its own form.

Apart from Moore's POV problems, the novel also suffers from its emotional manipulations and plot points that seem completely inauthentic.

[Major spoilers right here:] Where some of these events (climbing into a coffin, undetected from the church to the graveyard; not being able to distinguish between a Portuguese man from a middle-eastern terrorist; running around for a whole summer in a bird costume; having parents who were responsible for the death of their son assume new identities and be able to pass the background check of an adoption agency; the unlikelihood of an unread email and the weight of the hammer with which the event pounds the reader into emo submission) might be suitable in a short story because its events and mood and impact are necessarily compacted. But in a novel that hasn't been set up as surreal or hyper-real until it's convenient to further the plot-- the events ring false and out of touch with the rest of the novel.

Perhaps 2001 is still too recent to effectively allow us to understand how its events fit into our present. By the time we've had enough time, this novel will have been forgotten.

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