A Gate at the Stairs is a novel that is a stylistically ambitious coming-of-age story tackling subjects of race, adoption, and life in Wisconsin.
The single most remarkable element of Lorrie Moore’s 2009 novel is the density of metaphor presented in the novel. Nearly every sentence holds a metaphor, a comparison, or an allusion to works of popular culture. This is not a post-modern novel, and not a genre novel at all. A Gate at the Stairs is the work of an original writer expanding upon her own stylistic vocabulary as she lays the groundwork for future works that might just be great pieces of literature.
A Gate at the Stairs is not a “great novel”. It is very good, entertaining, socially relevant and emotionally moving, yet the force and beauty of the novel are undercut by a few inconsistencies. There are sections of unattributed dialogue that stand apart from the style of the rest of the book, reminding me of John Dos Passos and his topically-driven interludes.
During these sections of unattributed dialogue, the discussion turns to race and racial politics in America with a special interest in the types of reactions people have in the face of a national culture that marginalizes and minimizes the value of one race.
These sections are interesting to read and they are funny. They are also dropped into the novel without much care for context or explanation so, ultimately, the comments of these unnamed characters read like they do not belong to A Gate at the Stairs and have been included to bolster what might otherwise be a passing attempt to grapple with the complexity of race issues in America (and Wisconsin).
Reading this Lorrie Moore novel, I found myself believing in her as a writer of great potential. Upon finishing A Gate at the Stairs I was full of respect for her talents and for her willingness to take on serious issues. One of these days, soon, she will write a truly great novel.
Already she is on track. Her work attempts to say something that is both large enough to be telling about all of us and intimate enough to be relatable and evocative of very personal struggles. This is art.
But it is also tinged with a “workshop” quality that makes you wonder if she was writing for an audience of her peers who insist upon comedy in their tragedy, detailed settings to keep the work grounded – to the point where it is like ground pepper in places, extremely grounded – but who also push her to do very good work and develop her highly original voice.