Lorrie Moore is one of my favorite authors (Like Life and Birds of America, her story collections, are on my shelf of prized books), but I did not love her new novel, The Gate at the Stairs. I found it emotionally arid, the dialogue too clever by half, the twists, when they come, both unsurprising and unearned. I think it was a mistake for Moore to graft her own distinctive, sardonic voice onto the college-aged farm girl who narrates the story.
And yet. Moore is undeniably a good writer, a real writer. I marveled at her language, from the sound and simile of “In the sky the returning geese were winging over, their honking alto bark like the complaining squawk of a cart” to a starkly vivid “hot lemony sun.” The novel contains observations so acute and thoughtful that I had to restrain myself from underlining them in my borrowed book. (I used Post-Its instead.) Moore captures small moments in all their fibrous complication, as when the narrator catches a little girl before she tumbles to the ground: “Her face seemed to smile and sob at the same time, a look that said That may be fun for some people but not for me, and I placed her securely on my hip, feeling the biceps in my arm already beginning to strengthen and my jutted hip on its way to socket stress and limpage.”
Toward the end of the book, Moore makes a quiet, incisive comment about authorial intent that resonated with me, one that I think many writers can relate to. The narrator muses that “in literature — perhaps as in life — one had to speak not of what the author intended but of what a story intended for itself. The creator was inconvenient — God was dead. But the creation itself had a personality and hopes and its own desires and plans and little winks and dance steps and collaged intent. In this way Jacques Derrida overlapped with Walt Disney. The story itself had feet and a mouth, could walk and talk and speak of its own yearnings!”
As a writer, I find it freeing to remember that my conscious intentions for my work are only one part of it, that a fully realized story takes on a life of its own beyond the will and intent of the creator. This moment of insight – one of many such illuminations – redeemed the book for me.