Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Lorrie Moore's new novel, A Gate at the Stairs, is tinged with a very special kind of madness that I have not experienced at such a pitch since reading Virginia Woolf for the first time as a young college student (around the same age as Tassie, Moore's narrator-protagonist). (I have, however, recently encountered it in Barbara Comyns's The Vet's Daughter, which was my favorite novel of those I read last summer, in the few free days of non-school-related reading.) It is, as J. Robert Lennon has remarked, a very strange novel. Moore, as always, is interested in the slippage of language, and she has given us here a narrator who is increasingly unmoored in language, constantly searching for a firm grip in a stream of retreating signifiers, and Moore has placed her in a plot in which certainty after certainty, object of desire after object of desire, is stripped away, laying bare the extreme lack at the center of something or other, a center always fading. God is dead, Moore tells us, as if we needed reminding, and we do, and all our spiritual seeking tells us that, if we are only brave enough to admit it. There is no wisdom, which is a kind of wisdom, but not a wisdom we can rely on. There is perhaps only poetry, only so long as it doesn't get maudlin or annoyingly sentimental. Tragedy is for those of a certain upper-level tax bracket, and comedy is for the poor who need to make laughter out of the worst possibilities. Moore's novel is neither tragedy nor comedy, though there is plenty (more than plenty) tragic in it (Amazon.com reviewers' constant complaints of this fact reveal American readers' impatience with unhappiness or loneliness in fiction, which is probably why not many people I know have read St. Kitts-born, British novelist Caryl Phillips, who piles on the tragedy much more heavily than Moore, and yet can't be accused of getting it wrong, in a global sense--check out A Distant Shore), and it is not a comedy, though there is plenty to laugh out loud about (every single sentence in this novel sings, which is perhaps a fault, though not much of one). It is neither comedy nor tragedy, or both, or some absurd hybrid. I am grateful for this novel, in spite of, because of, alongside of all of its beautiful failings.