Early on in Lorrie Moore's 'A Gate at the Stairs', Tassie goes to her hometown for the Christmas holidays. Her younger brother Robert comes to pick her up and Tassie tells us a bit about their relationship which ends with her saying "in fact when I thought back to our many years together, he was, essentially, always nice to me,.. The words 'essentially, nice' are the key here. The entire relationship in encapsulated in 2 words, a relationship that is neither outwardly very sentimental nor a one with sibling rivalry, just your normal everyday brother/sister relationship. This brevity is the hallmark of Moore's writing. There is no in your face brilliance to take your breath away, the prose is unassuming, even almost shy to come in the spotlight.The words are like pearls which are silently gathered together to form a beautiful necklace and you see only the completed necklace but never the process of making it. We never realize where Moore is taking us until the sentence ends and then it hits us like "mmm, how did she do this, how did she take us to this place without us even noticing it a bit".
Starting from the events of 9/11 the book traces Tassie's life for about a year and a bit after that. Tassie is 20, from a provincial place, now studying at Troy (not that Troy). The college being her first experience alone and with the real world, away from her home, she is y pretty much like any 20 year old, unsure about her studies, body, future, unsure about how even to communicate in general with others, afraid she would either seem too casual and offend others or be at the other extreme and repulse them, home. As Tassie says
"I too often found myself having to do, to find a language, or even an octave in which to speak.". Tassie gets a job as a baby sitter for Sarah and Edward, a white couple who are planning to adopt a baby. They do adopt a Afro-American child. At this point, you are probably wondering, "Oh no, not another coming of age story, where the protagonist, undergoes life changing experiences, has a moment of epiphany which transforms everything." You would be only partially correct in thinking so. It is not your usual 'bildungsroman' novel. Yes, Tassie undergoes some experiences, but it's also a novel about what she sees other people experiencing and it's impact on her. And it's also in a way a novel about the coming of age of a country after 9/11, a country that couldn't just believe what had happened, couldn't believe that they could be hated so much by others, couldn't believe that the 'American Dream' could be snuffed out in an instant.
As Tassie baby sits Mary who has been adopted by Sarah/Edward, she sees a side of society she was not exposed to. A group of youths pass her by in a car and one of them shouts 'nigger' shocking her. It's not always the explicit manifestation of shock shown by people on seeing a white girl going out with a Afro-American kid. In some cases
"Few people were on the street, but the ones we passed smiled at me, then looked at Mary-Emma and then back at me, their expressions not exactly changed but not exactly the same: upon seeing us together, our story unknown but presumed, an observation and then a thought entered their faces and froze their features in place."
The last lines with 'presumed', 'observation', 'thought entered', tell the whole story, a story of discomfort about interracial relationships even in the new millennium, a story about otherwise law-abiding, good citizens who do not have any outward racial hatred, but cannot digest even the thought that a white girl could be the mother of a Afro-American child. And it's a paradox that this is all happening when the country is said to be fighting a war against bigotry (of religion), when at the same time there is an internal battle within the country against a bigotry of a different kind (race/color). All these subtle changes in the expressions of the people seeing Tassie and the kid are brought out even more subtly by Moore without any pontification. This is the type of writing that elevates a story from being merely good. Moore captures all the minor changes in expression, the slight hesitation before one speaks, the sudden silences and even the changes in the cadence of speech to tell us everything we need to know without mentioning them openly.
Though the book is entirely from Tassie's viewpoint Sarah and Edward too take their own shapes as viewed by Tassie. From the beginning there is a hint of a restlessness, a unknown X factor in the couple's relationship though they seem to be no better or worse than any normal couple. Then we are told something about them which shakes us up. Something that one does without even realizing what it could result in, something that actually should not have resulted in what happened, but due to bad luck/destiny whatever you call it, that something results in an event that never goes away and you are doomed to carry it around like albatross around one's neck, always thinking about "what might have been" or "if I had not done that".
9/11 is present throughout the book. However it's not like 'The Terrorist' (Updike) or 'Falling Man' (Don Dellilo) which are about people directly affected by 9/11. It's about the common people who are changed by the aftermath of 9/11, while being not directly impacted by it. When 9/11 first happens, it "seemed both near and far" to Tassie. Later, in the January of the next year when Tassie has to take a flight the first worry she has is about whether it could get hijacked. When asked about her perfume, an aromatic oil called 'Arabic Princess' she tells that she doesn't know the name, as she thinks it would be unwise to tell it. Later when her brother volunteers to join the army, her first thought is of Afghanistan. Make no mistake, this is an anti-war novel though the message is subtle as the entire novel. There are references to anti-bush demonstrations and other minor things which indicate that. Like, towards the end there is a scene where Tassie and her family see a news report of all volunteers (youngsters) who have died in Afghanistan. Youngsters, most of whom wouldn't have any ideology of any sort, who could have joined the Army for the minimum period of service which would entail them government scholarship for their future studies after their short army service. They are as much bystander victims of the war as the people of Afghanistan. If Dellilo and Updike tried an intellectual (I hate this word, but can't find a better substitute for it) and worldview understanding of 9/11 from the view of persons directly involved in/by the act, Moore places it within the framework of the lives of everyday Americans.
Just when you think that the writing cannot get any better, Moore goes one step ahead in the last 50 pages. It's a veritable tour-de-force in the last section, both in terms of writing as well as the emotional heft it has. There are about 10 odd pages where there is just the description the rural countryside as Tassie goes on walks and rides, through the woods, farms etc. There is no other character and no dialogue, like something out of a Cormac McCarthy novel, the difference being that the landscape is beautiful here. Not for one page or paragraph does it get boring. And Tassie's emotion just before the end, at this point the arc of her life becomes the same as Sarah/Edward, an irreversible arc due to something one does (or doesn't do) at a certain point of time.
The novel has been variously described as haunting, hilarious, poignant etc. It is all of them yes and more. The only thing I can add to it is by saying that the writing is delicious, you can relish each sentence as if relishing your favorite meal, munching every sentence until the entire flavor enters into you. It's not a slow or sluggish novel, but it cannot be read hastily, it's to be savored, during the reading as well as after it. I had read only a short story of her in Granta anthology, which made me look out for her other works. This novel has made me crave for her entire oeuvre. And to think that Moore is mainly thought of a short story writer and not a novelist. You can read Moore excellent story 'People Like That Are the Only People Here' here.