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Voices in the Heartland

Lorrie Moore’s novels are remarkable for the number of linguistic detours they embark on. Off in the distance, a plot is likely hatching. But its unfolding will patiently have to wait until the characters—nearly all of whom have a penchant for wordplay—have explored the far-flung implications of the language that entertains and envelops them.

The wordplay typically appears early. On the second page of her second novel, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, a husband and wife share an amiable confusion over gâteau and gato; fallen arches turns into fallen archness; and arrondissement becomes aggrandizement. In Anagrams—her first novel and my favorite—the first few pages offer us O what a beautiful mourning and milk ducts/Milk Duds/ducks. In the opening of her new, third novel, A Gate at the Stairs, we encounter the phrase to gild the lily-livered, a pun on hanky panky, and a Chinese restaurant owner hospitably calling out, “Take your tie! No lush!”

To call this sort of linguistic play “punning” is perhaps a bit limiting. Probably it would be more accurate to say that Moore’s fiction proceeds by “near misses”: misapprehensions, mishearings, misspeakings, misidentifications, misunderstandings. An innocent utterance floats out into the atmosphere, which turns out to be a hazardous and transformative medium, everywhere subject to misinterpretation, either deliberate or inadvertent:

Christmas music from the radio downstairs, playing through all twelve days of it, wafted up: “Rejoice, rejoice,” sounded like “Read Joyce, read Joyce”—and so I did, getting a head start on my Brit Lit.

Or:

Oh, say…” She stopped not for consideration but for nerve, it seemed, and dragging out the words like that made them sound like the beginning of the national anthem.

Or:

Contents may shift during the flight, we had been told. Would that be good or bad? And what about the discontents?

Or:

My Intro to Sufism was taught by a self-described “Ottomanist,” which made me think of someone lying back with his feet up on a padded footstool, with a remote, in autumn.

Or:

I like a wine that’s oaky.”

Oaky and…just a little dokey,” I said.

Dialogue in Moore’s novels recalls the exchange in P.G. Wodehouse where one man on a train asks if this stop is Wembley, the second replies that, no, it’s Thursday, and the first answers, I am too—let’s go for a drink.

It’s rare in contemporary American fiction to meet a writer so preoccupied with this sort of linguistic dissonance. (Poets are another matter. Many poetic edifices—one thinks especially of John Berryman’s brilliant Dream Songs—have been erected on the assumption that our world is half-heard, half-misconstrued.) In Moore’s novels, as well as her three collections of short stories, characters rarely hear each other clearly. Certainly, the gulf that divides men and women is vast enough to produce all sorts of distortionary echoes.

As I carried Moore’s new novel around, I kept misremembering its title, which seemed only appropriate given the book’s slippery language. In my mind it was called not AGate at the Stairs but A Gate to the Stars—a misconception encouraged by its dust jacket illustration of a mobile stairway ascending toward the door of an airplane that isn’t there.

The novel’s setting fosters a similar sense of unplaceability. Moore sets us down in Wisconsin, though I’m not sure the name of the state actually appears in the book. Its narrator is an inexperienced twenty-year-old undergraduate, Tassie Keltjin, and most of the story unfolds in a college town called Troy, which bills itself as “the Athens of the Midwest”—a designation I’ve seen also applied to Ann Arbor and Milwaukee and Iowa City.

In other words, we’re deep within—another immodest label—America’s Heartland, and Moore does a marvel- ous job with its landscape and weather: the wind-bitten winters, the sun-dazed slumberous springs. She riffs on the seasons in a jumpy, jazzy way reminiscent of the poetry of L.E. Sissman. The poet who detected in springtime “A comic softening/Of the wind’s blade to rubber” and who saw autumn as a time when “The twigs take umbrage, publishing a sea/Of yellow leaflets as they go to ground” would surely have admired a novelist for whom spring is a period when “the town had started to throw off the monochromatic winter to reveal its bright lunatic pajamas beneath” and autumn is a festival of “yam- and ham-hued maples.”

The book gorges on the region’s formidable cuisine. Traditional midwestern food may offer an easy and obvious target, but Moore goes at it with likable and strong-stomached gusto (I was especially taken with the menu that offered cheese-curd meatloaf and steak “cooked to your likeness”). However, most of her culinary mischief is reserved for a different sort of meal entirely, which might be termed Prairie Pretentious. Tassie’s remote and feckless father is a “hobby farmer” who grows specialty produce for high-end restaurants. The region’s agricultural landscape may be strikingly flat, but it’s changing. Haute cuisine has come even to the Midwest. Near the family farm some cheesemakers have set up “an artisan cheese factory, done with syringes of mites and vegetarian rennet.”

As the book opens, Tassie seeks a part-time babysitting job for the start of January term. She is interviewed by a woman named Sarah who runs a gourmet restaurant in Troy called Le Petit Moulin and who does not have a baby; she is looking to adopt. But Sarah is willing to hire Tassie immediately, since she wants her sitter present as the adoption process unfolds. Meanwhile, Le Petit Moulin is serving up dishes like crab mousseline with a shellfish cappuccino. The establishment sounds almost designedly doomed—it’s no surprise to see it shuttered by novel’s close—but in the interim its ovens will glow against the dark of a midwestern winter. If Troy is “the Athens of the Midwest,” Le Petit Moulin might call itself “a corner of Paris in Troy.” A Gate at the Stairs is keenly alive to that common midwestern suspicion, fleetingly but unshakably felt, that the real world, in all its heightened televisual pigments, is happening elsewhere—and much of the scenery before you is operating at a couple of removes from its original models.

Sarah and her husband soon complete the adoption and Tassie becomes part of a new ménage. The child’s name is Mary-Emma. She is a “biracial African-American,” and the scene is set for satirizing the politically correct pieties of an academic community. After a leather-jacketed teenage boy on the street shocks Tassie by calling Mary-Emma a “nigger,” Sarah forms a support group for families of color. Their get-togethers are overheard by Tassie as she babysits, and she chronicles the dialogue at length—too much length, I felt, though some of the earnester-than-thou exchanges are amusing.

Tassie is on the dean’s list, but she is taking courses like Wine Tasting and Soundtracks to War Movies. She is neither a stellar student nor a washout. From the university’s perspective, she is apparently a placeholder on a couple of classroom rosters. If A Gate at the Stairs is a bildungsroman, few of the significant lessons our heroine learns stem from her formal education. Her most edifying experience may be watching Sarah’s marriage unravel.

Although Tassie is outwardly unremarkable, her fate turns out to be intricately linked to something far-reaching and extraordinary: the string of national catastrophes that blazed on September 11, 2001. Though the novel opens some months later, most of the plot’s darker windings are revealed as the eventual consequences of that hell-bent and long-smoldering morning.

A Gate at the Stairs incorporates, then, a variety of structural pressures. There’s a tension in tone between the innocence of twenty-year-old Tassie and the mordancy of the narrator as she looks back on herself some half-dozen years later. (Here and there, the tension snaps and the story’s believability disappears, especially in moments where Moore seemingly can’t resist supplying undergraduate Tassie with sharp little aperçus inconsistent with her greenness.) There’s the contrast between the story’s modest scale—its heroine culturally, geographically, sexually an ingénue—and the growing global warfare it distantly encompasses. And there’s the tugging between the book’s jokey, punny, voluble prose and the suspicion that some tragedies are so vast as to compel a respectful silence.

Moore’s novelistic voice has been distinctive and consistent throughout her career. The tone in A Gate at the Stairs is a verbal cousin to that of Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, and an even closer relation—a sibling—to that of Anagrams. Her characters drift through an Oscar Wildean world of competitive bon mots, perpetual badinage. The deepest friendship in A Gate at the Stairs, between Tassie and a girlfriend nicknamed Murph, reprises the primary friendship in Anagrams, between the narrator, Benna, and her sidekick Eleanor. Some of the bantering exchanges could be transposed from book to book with little disturbance in atmosphere:

A veteran of the gender wars.”

Yeah, well, me, too. But I’m afraid those were never declared.”

Fucking do-nothing Congress!”

(A Gate at the Stairs)

Why are we supposed to be with men, anyway? I feel like I used to know.”

We need them for their Phillips-head screwdrivers,” I said.

Eleanor raised her eyebrows. “That’s right,’” she said. “I keep forgetting you only go out with circumcised men.”

(Anagrams)

Murph and Eleanor each bring salt to their respective friendships; the worst sorts of outrageous or off-color puns can be foisted off on them. (A Gate at the Stairs is full of phrases like “something Murph would say.”) In all three novels, I kept looking to encounter somebody who didn’t parse and pun, one of those plodding, reassuringly earthbound characters who chuckle uneasily and tardily after it becomes apparent that a joke has been told.

And yet Moore’s verbal freneticism ultimately contributes to her considerable charm. She takes on a stand-up comic’s burden to entertain nonstop, even in peripheral moments. (She’s a great one for jamming exclamation points into remarks lodged inside parentheses and dashes.) There’s hardly a paragraph in any of her novels that feels perfunctorily assembled. The pressure to amuse remains constant, and time and again—amenably—she meets it. She exuberates down the page.

As similar as the two relationships are, I found Benna and Eleanor’s friendship in Anagrams far more satisfying than Tassie and Murph’s. Essentially a comedy, Anagrams belongs to a realm where questions of plausibility are rarely troubling. In a comic masterpiece like Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall, for instance, no sensible reader balks when the book’s prissy hero, Paul Pennyfeather, unjustly goes to prison for trafficking in prostitution, or when his friend Prendergast is beheaded by a madman, or when Paul, escaped from prison, returns to his former life disguised only by a mustache. Likewise, in Anagrams, we feel charmed rather than cheated to learn that many of the dialogues are pure fantasies and that the heroine has invented a child for herself.

But A Gate at the Stairs is different. The vanished Twin Towers serve as the book’s compass point, and even in their absence they remain real. I turned skeptical, and a little feisty, when Tassie’s first boyfriend, to whom she’d given her virginal body in a series of tender and ecstatic acts of lovemaking (“Kissing was urgent yet careful, luminous and drinklessly drunk”), was revealed as a disguised potential terrorist, possibly bent on extending the devastation of September 11. Pesky questions of plausibility arose again when Tassie inadvertently poisoned Murph, nearly killing her—a blunder to turn even the soundest sleeper into a lifelong insomniac, but Tassie is supplying jokes a page later, and the near tragedy tracelessly vanishes.

I had my greatest difficulties—an utter suspension of suspension of disbelief—during the book’s climactic scene. Tassie’s younger brother, Robert, enlists in the military and is sent to Afghanistan, where he is soon killed by a dismembering bomb. At his funeral, Tassie surreptitiously climbs into his casket, closes the lid, and is carried some distance, lying beside him (“He had no legs, it seemed, so there was room for mine.”) For any reader who does not go along with this—who does not feel enclosed in a casket of horror—Moore’s extended description will look less like a display of imaginative empathy than of authorial willfulness:

One sleeve was filled with stuffed newsprint, a paper sausage, which crunched when I lay my head on it. The hand protruding from the uniform cuff was a mannequin’s hand, knuckleless as a fish. I could see that death had settled him, flattened him, the way that a salad—of, say, three-season spring greens—flattened and settled after initially being fresh and buoyant and high in the bowl. How he had once been fresh and buoyant and high in the bowl!

Many writers who are led by the ear, as I think Moore is, have little facility for visual detail. But she has an arresting gift for the one-line imagistic simile or metaphor. Even as I was resisting the passage above, I was detachedly admiring “knuckleless as a fish.” Each of her novels brims with quirky, sharp-sighted observations: “All that preparation was the futile preening of a fly” or “The log was fake and the fire rolled around it blue and cold as water—an ornamental fountain more than a hearth.” Moore often draws the reader’s senses adroitly together, as in this sketch of a beautiful teenage girl in Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? : “her eyes a deep, black-flecked aquamarine, her skin smooth as soap, her hair long and silt-colored but with an oriole yellow streak here and there catching the sun the way a river does.”

Her visual similes, too, are often a sort of “near miss”—a misperception or miscategorization, a temporary cognitive slippage during which a resemblance is fleetingly caught on the wing. ” X is Y,” the brain announces, and Lorrie Moore knows how to make use of these momentary mistakes. It’s a talent any writer would envy: a flair for erring felicitously.

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