‘Let yourself look into the abyss,’ commands Manage Your Mind: The Mental Fitness Guide. ‘Put into words the catastrophe that you fear . . . Sometimes it seems not too bad when it is brought out into the open.’ So what’s the worst thing that could happen? You lose your kid. Hardly! Try this: one of your kids kills the other one. Or one of your kids kills your other kid and a lot of other people’s kids besides. No sympathetic neighbours bringing over casseroles now. Or maybe you’re the one who kills your kid, in madness or by accident. The abyss is deeper than you knew.
Lorrie Moore’s new novel is her first in 15 years and thematically her most ambitious. Her characters are affected by racism, 9/11, the military, jihadism, global warming, the internet, farming and food culture, adoption laws, sex and academia – but all of these subjects are overpowered by the story Moore tells of parents who are responsible for the death of their child. ‘What further horror could match this?’ asks the chorus in Medea. In Moore’s earlier fictions, the death of a child is an imaginative no man’s land: no stories can come out of it or after it. In one of Moore’s short stories, a mother with a sick child can only imagine her son’s death as an end to all existence: ‘We are nothing without you. Without you, we are a heap of rocks. We are gravel and mould. Without you, we are two stumps, with nothing any longer in our hearts.’
The death of a child – or at least the child of a main character – has only ever emerged in Moore’s fiction as a possibility, to be sniffed and inspected, fortuitously avoided. In ‘People Like That Are the Only People Here’, a woman’s toddler has cancer: ‘What words can be uttered? You turn just slightly and there it is: the death of your child.’ But the cancer is less severe than she’d feared. She leaves the hospital holding her baby, as other sick children’s parents look on enviously: ‘“No chemo?” says one of the nurses. “Not even a little chemo?”’ In another story, ‘Terrific Mother’ (improbably and fantastically, one of Moore’s funniest), a woman is holding a friend’s baby when she loses her balance; she causes the picnic bench she’s sitting on to collapse, and the baby falls and dies. ‘Adrienne went home shortly thereafter, after the hospital and the police reports, and did not leave her attic apartment for seven months’ – at which point she recovers, but it’s suggested that she would be in the attic still if it had been her own child. We learn nothing more about the baby’s parents, though we’re told that Adrienne’s boyfriend buys them a new picnic bench. (‘You did?’ ‘Did what?’ ‘You bought the Spearsons a new picnic bench?’) The death of their child is the end of their story; they must be written out of the narrative no less ruthlessly than they would have been had they ended their lives themselves. Another Moore parent imagines the death of her child: ‘I’ll spell out the general idea: R-O-P-E.’
A Gate at the Stairs is different. Two sets of parents lose their sons without anyone killing herself or the narrative looking away. ‘Life was unendurable, and yet everywhere it was endured,’ the novel’s narrator decides. She is Tassie Keltjin, a college student, and she Marlowishly, Nick Carrawayishly becomes the observer and recorder of other characters’ crimes. Like all Moore narrators, she is preternaturally wise and sharp, less like a real 20-year-old than the professional middle-aged writer for whom she stands in. As with most Moore characters, her dialogue – witty, allusive, never merely expository – is less a reflection of how real people speak than how they should. (This is sometimes said as a criticism of Moore, but it shouldn’t be. For readers who prefer their narrators to be drearily realistic mediocrities, there are plenty of novels to choose from.) What Tassie most has in common with her creator is a hyper-awareness of the way words sound, a double seeing that allows her to consider words apart from their meanings – Jonathan Lethem calls it Moore’s sense of ‘the thingliness of words’. Rhymes and puns are everywhere, with an extravagance that wouldn’t be out of place in a Renaissance drama. When Tassie’s dim younger brother fails a test because he ‘said Gandhi was a deer . . . I got Gandhi mixed up with Bambi,’ it almost seems like Moore is offering a self-parody. ‘I don’t know – words remind me of other words. Like the word hostage reminds me of sausage.’ When Tassie listens to Christmas music, ‘“Rejoice, rejoice” sounded like “Read Joyce, read Joyce,” and so I did, getting a head start on my Brit lit.’ All novelists can be said to create their worlds out of words, but few novels are as word-bound as this one. Places are often almost entirely evoked through their phrase-making: advertising hoardings and store names (‘Terry’s Taxidermy, formerly Dick’s Deergutting’), church boards announcing upcoming sermons (‘Love your enemies: you made them’), antiwar placards, T-shirt slogans and bumper stickers in abundance. Sensory descriptions recede: they are not necessary.
Many of Moore’s short story characters, like Moore herself, are New Yorkers transplanted to the Midwest, living in exile for the sake of a university job, mourning the lack of irony and coffee shops, surrounded by fat and complacent natives, ‘spacey from oestrogen from large quantities of meat and cheese’. But Tassie is a native, and the Wisconsin town she describes is closer to the places canonised in Sarah Palin’s campaign speeches, with its real Americans growing the nation’s crops – Tassie’s father is a potato farmer – and fighting its wars: her brother and many of his classmates enlist after ‘the events of September – we did not yet call them 9/11’. Which isn’t to say that everyone isn’t still too fat (Tassie blames air-conditioning: ‘There were no more hot summer places to take away their appetites and sweat them thin’), and although she has never lived elsewhere, she disdains the provincialism of the Midwest, where ‘Roquefort dressing was called “Rockford dressing”.’
When Tassie takes a part-time job baby-sitting for a sophisticated couple from the East Coast, how can she not find them fascinating? The woman owns a restaurant that ‘served things that sounded like instruments – timbales, quenelles’, where the portions are so tiny that they ‘seemed less like dinner than a metaphor for dinner’; the man is a cancer researcher, very handsome. They present themselves as an infertile couple who are lining up a babysitter in anticipation of adopting their first child. Tassie’s student life is jettisoned as she travels with the Thornwood-Brinks to meet possible birth mothers and she is with them when they first see the toddler girl they will adopt and inspect her medical records and sign the papers temporarily giving them custody. One of the few technical flaws of the novel is that in order for Moore to show the entire adoption process, Tassie often has to be in places where she has no business, like the narrators in Victorian novels who inevitably find themselves hidden behind thick draperies just as a crucial conversation in the drawing-room is to take place. Moore usually provides an explanation (when Tassie overhears both sides of a critical phone conversation, it may be because ‘Sarah was a little deaf and had the volume on everything turned up high’), but the effect is of seams showing, as if the story has gone beyond the scope of the person telling it.
There is nothing romanticised about this adoption, almost as if it were written as a corrective to entertainments like Juno or Friends which have glorified teen mothers who give their babies to elegant older women, to the grateful endorsement of the pro-life movement. Here the adoptive parents are desperate, willing to promise anything. (‘“Will you raise her Catholic?” “Of course,” lied Sarah.’) The birth mothers are hopelessly needy, wanting ‘rich, rich, rich. They wanted to know their babies would have all the things they hadn’t. And the babies would. They were cute; they would be fine. The person who most needed adopting, it seemed to me, was Bonnie’ – the birth mother. They’re not allowed to accept money themselves, while the lawyers rake it in. ‘One shouldn’t buy babies, of course,’ the husband tells Tassie. ‘As a society we all agree. And mothers shouldn’t sell them. But that is what we keep telling ourselves as these middlemen get richer and richer and the birth mother continues to empty bed pans while wearing her new wristwatch . . . They’re only allowed to receive tokens, like a watch. Nothing real.’
The swap completed, the novel delights in detailing Sarah Brink’s over-parenting. She bakes story books in the oven to kill germs, has a baby-wipe heater for luxurious nappy changing, and frets about Tassie singing ‘I Been Working on the Railroad’ to her part African-American daughter. (‘There’s just two things I’m worried about with that: the grammar and the use of slave labour.’) And the narration seems to mimic this mode of anxious parenting: whenever Tassie is babysitting, disaster seems a sentence away. Jane Eyre hovers over this novel – not for nothing is the husband called Edward Thornwood. The mad woman seems always on the verge of wandering downstairs. Tassie hears a ‘repeated bleating sound that could simply have been a plastic smoke alarm with a low battery’. The phone rings, but when answered no one speaks. ‘Out front a car was idling high but driving by slow . . . Whoever that is, they keep driving past: this is the fourth time this week and the second time today.’ The little girl, renamed Mary-Emma, likes to put Lego in her mouth; she plays in front of a slide while other children too quickly shoot down. Tassie puts her ‘on the counter . . . then stupidly turned away for a second to open a cupboard door’. But these are all red herrings: the horror that Sarah Brink is trying to prevent has already happened.
I’ve been told that Lorrie Moore once addressed an audience at a writers’ retreat and asked them to list their greatest fears, their most important relationships, the biggest problems facing the world. There, she seemed to be saying, that’s where your stories are. A Gate at the Stairs seems to have an auditorium’s worth of jostling nightmares as subplots. Tassie’s first boyfriend, who claims to be Brazilian but also claims his pidgin Spanish is Portuguese (and doesn’t know any of the lyrics to ‘The Girl from Ipanema’), turns out to be . . . an Islamist terrorist. In Wisconsin! Another mother’s son is killed fighting America’s wars. Careless parents are conflated with a careless nation, both operating as though they have boys to spare. And yet – it hardly seems possible – much of what follows is screwball comedy:
‘We should never have named him after you! Jews understand that. It’s bad luck! Why did you want that so much?’
‘I thought you meant it was bad luck for me,’ [the] father shouted back. ‘And I didn’t mind that. I didn’t care about some old world hocus-pocus.’
‘Well, look at that old world hocus-pocus now!’ she cried, then rushed back upstairs.
When the father watches the nightly news, and sees the pictures of dead servicemen, mostly ‘fresh-faced privates’, like his son, he thinks of them as ‘the faces of babies, babies in hats, and on the rare occasion that there was someone older, he would shout: “Aha! All right! They got a lieutenant-colonel!”’
For Freud, no form of humour was crasser than Galgenhumor, which he thought was the work of the ego exalting itself, denying reality in order to refuse being distressed. But Freud also realised that there was a kind of grandeur to gallows humour: if we don’t laugh, it’s because our pleasure is offset by admiration. When Tassie realises that Sarah Brink’s favourite expression, ‘the family that slays together stays together’, was meant in a Lady Macbeth sort of way (previously Tassie had heard ‘sleighs’ for ‘slays’), she’s impressed, and provides a gloss: ‘Where life was meagre, where the tables were only half full, the comic triumph of the poor was the useful demi-lie. Jokes were needed.’ That the tables are never close to being full was evident when Moore’s collected stories were published last year. A story about cancer (‘not the clean, confined sort I might have hoped for’ but like a ‘clumsy uninvited guest who is obese and eats too much, still finding, filling rooms’) is followed by one about a mother’s death; husbands abandon their wives; sons leave the house after an argument and don’t come back. ‘Their sadness occurred in isolation, lurched and spazzed, sent them spinning fizzily back into empty, padded corners, disconnected and alone.’ Moore shows the world at its most brutal, but renders it bearable.