Friday, December 31, 2010

Lorrie Moore's A Gate at the Stairs

Lorrie Moore's short story "People Like That Are the Only People Here" has long been one of my favourite stories, so when her new novel was published, I was eager to read it. It doesn't disappoint. She has such a quirky-wise view of the world, an odd mix of melancholy and a certain optimism. Her sentences, lyric and narrative alike, fold in clauses describing the past, together with intricate, elaborate, conditional qualifiers -- all is contingent and considered. Her work is full of metaphors always grasping at the ineffable, trying and trying and trying to articulate -- signalling ever the escape of meaning, the separation of signifier and signified. For example: Mosquitoes with tiger-striped bodies and the feathery beards of an iris, their wings and legs the dun wisps of an unbarbered boy, their spindly legs the tendrils of an orchid, the blades of a gnome's sleigh. Their awfulness and flight obsessed me, concentrated my revulsion: suspended like mobiles, or diving like jets, they were sinisterly contrapted; they craved color; they were caught in the saddest animal script there was. (61) This description interrupts, or at least diverges temporarily from, the narrator's memories of her and her brother's shared childhood activities which memories, in turn, have interrupted her account of visiting with her brother on a Christmas trip home.

There are whole passages of this novel you'll want to grab someone to read out loud to, although appreciation of the sly humour perhaps better suits solitary savouring. The narrator's wonderful analysis of the rural, small-town speech she is particularly attentive to on her return from university is hilarious, at least to any reader who notices language: Prepositions mystified. Almost everyone said "on" accident instead of "by." They said "I'm bored of that" or "Wanna come with?" . . . And they used tenses like "I'd been gonna." As in, I'd been gonna to do that but then I never got around toot." It was the hypothetical conditional past, time and intention carved so obliquely and fine that I could only almost comprehend it, until, like Einstein's theory of relativity, which also sometimes flashed cometlike into my view, it whooshed away again, beyond my grasp. "I'd been gonna to do that" seemed to live in some isolated corner of the grammatical time-space continuum where the language spoken was a kind of Navajo or old, old French. It was part of a language with tenses so countrified and bizarrely conceived, I'm sure there was one that meant "Hell yes, if I had a time machine!" People here would narrate an ordinary event entirely in the past perfect: "I'd been driving to the store, and I'd gotten out, and she'd come up to me and I had said. . . " It never reached any other tense. All was back-story. All was preamble. The past was severed prologue and was never uttered to be anything but. Who else on earth spoke like this? They would look at the tattoo on my ankle, a peace sign, and withholding judgment but also intelligence, say, "Well, that's different." They'd say the same thing about my electric bass. Or even the acoustic one --That's different!--and in saying it made the samae glottal stop that they made pronouncing "mitten" and "kitten." (67)

While there is much humour, the tone of the book is more often of a pervasive sad knowingness, of wisdom acquired at the cost of pain, the journey from innocence to experience. I read this passage a few days after a similarly-aged colleague and I lamented together the changes we noted in social attitudes to reading and writing, a cultural shift this signalled being, we agreed, too accomplished, too large to continue kicking against: I suddenly felt like an old Indian chief, one who sees that the world has changed irrevocably, and that the younger generation would never know the old one, even the strongest, slumped on their horses at the end of some trail. (206)

The narrator later, responding to some truly bouleversant news changing her perception of people she thought she knew, comments that growing up she didn't really know what people meant when they said of themselves that they were "different people then." It seemed a piece of emotional sci-fi that a small town would not have allowed. (226)

And the final aperçu I garnered has to do with the nature of tragedies and stories:
Tragedies . . . were a luxury. . . . 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 [The stuff of tragedy] was awe-inspiring, wounding entertainment told uselessly and in comfort at tables full of love and money. Where life was meagerer, where the tables were only half full, the comic triumph of the poor was the useful demi-lie. Jokes were needed. And then the baby fell down the stairs. This could be funny! Especially in a place and time where worse things happened. It wasn't that suffering was a sweepstakes, but it certainly was relative. For understanding and for perspective, suffering required a butcher's weighing. And to ease the suffering of the listener, things had better be funny. Though they weren't always. And this is how, sometimes, stories failed us: Not that funny. Or worse, not funny in the least.

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