It’s Not You, It’s Me: Thoughts on Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs

September 3, 2009 | 3 books mentioned 24 5 min read

covercoverWe all came out of Lorrie Moore’s overcoat–or her frog hospital, her bonehead Halloween costume.  If you’re a young woman writer with a comic tendency, and you like similes and wordplay, and you traffic in the human wilderness of misunderstanding and alienation, then you most certainly participate in the Moore tradition.  I recognize her influence in the work of my peers, and in my own.  She is one of my favorite writers, and I can still remember how I felt reading her first collection, Self-Help:  delighted, stunned, moved, humbled, and most of all, grateful.  By now I’ve read all of her books; I kept Anagrams at a distance for as long as I could, until I really needed a literary jump start.  And, waiting for me were terrific passages like this one:

The problem with a beautiful woman is that she makes everyone around her feel hopelessly masculine, which if you’re already male to begin with poses no particular problem.  But if you’re anyone else, your whole sexual identity gets dragged into the principal’s office: “So what’s this I hear about you prancing around, masquerading as a woman?”  You are answerless.  You are sitting on your hands.  You are praying for your breasts to grow, your hair to perk up.

Wowza, right?

coverYou can imagine how excited I was to read her new novel, A Gate at the Stairs, which has just been released.  I remember taking it to the tub (where I do all my best reading), and emerging wide-eyed.  “Oh that Lorrie!” I might have exclaimed to my husband.  It started out so well.  And then…And then.  Oh, reader, I was disappointed by this novel!  Deeply disappointed.  Once my father failed to call me on my birthday.  It felt sort of like that.

I decided I wasn’t going to write about A Gate at the Stairs because I love Lorrie Moore too much to criticize her first book in ten years.  And, besides, I figured other reviewers would succinctly articulate my disappointment for me.  But then, last week, Michiko Kakutani’s review came out:

Ms. Moore has written her most powerful book yet, a book that gives us an indelible portrait of a young woman coming of age in the Midwest in the year after 9/11 and her initiation into the adult world of loss and grief.

Jonathan Lethem, also for the New York Times, liked it as well:

Great writers usually present us with mysteries, but the mystery Lorrie Moore presents consists of appearing genial, joshing and earnest at once — unmysterious, in other words, yet still great. She’s a discomfiting, sometimes even rageful writer, lurking in the disguise of an endearing one. On finishing A Gate at the Stairs I turned to the reader nearest to me and made her swear to read it immediately…

Upon reading these reviews, I was dumbfounded, and also, oddly, relieved  (I feel protective of Ms. Moore–so what if she’s not my real-life pal?)  But now that a praise-fest has begun, I must voice a dissenting opinion.  Whereas Kakutani is willing to overlook what she calls the book’s “narrative stumbles,” I cannot.

Like the novel’s narrator Tassie Keltjin, I was twenty years old in 2001, and like Tassie, I attended college in the midwest, and I was at that college on September 11th–and after.  Certain passages at the opening of the book captured perfectly my own experience, for although I wasn’t raised on a small potato farm, I too felt as if  “someone had led me out of the cave” and into a “life of books and films and witty friends.”  That is not to say that I only liked the book when it reflected my own life.   Here Moore writes deftly Tassie’s experience:

My brain was on fire with Chaucer, Sylvia Plath, Simone de Beauvoir.  Twice a week a young professor named Thad, dressed in jeans and a tie, stood before a lecture hall of stunned farm kids like me and spoke thrillingly of Henry James’s masturbation of the comma.  I was riveted.  I had never before seen a man wear jeans with a tie.

The above passage differs from my own experience in important ways, and it’s still believable and comic.  I was not “a stunned farm kid,” and although I knew nothing of Henry James, I knew something about the sartorial possibilities for men.  (I am from Los Angeles, after all. )  Without the jeans-and-ties line, this description wouldn’t be as funny, just as the farm kid line juxtaposes wonderfully with Henry James line.   Overall, and most importantly, I believe in Tassie’s reaction to Thad, just as I believe in the uncertainty and discomfort she feels around Sarah Brink, the woman who hires Tassie to babysit her adopted daughter (before she’s even been adopted). This material in the novel was successful and meaningful to me.

Throughout, Tassie’s ruminations on the differences between young and middle-aged women rocked me in the way that only a character’s specific vision can:   “These middle-aged women seemed very tired to me, as if hope had been wrung out of them and replaced with a deathly sort of sleep.”  And, right on the third page: “Then we fell into a kind of hysteria–frightened, guilty, hopeless laughter I have never actually witnessed in a woman over thirty.”  Likewise, certain material about people’s complicated relationship with race also struck me as right-on, and surprising:  “When I was a freshman there was a girl in my dorm named Rachel.  Because her dad was black and her mom was white, her friends called her Inter-Rachel.  She would always laugh.”    In these moments, Tassie felt complex and real, and for a novel that asks me to have an emotional reaction to its narrator’s isolation, to the secrets kept from her, to the injustices of a country, of a town, of one family–I need to believe the narrator and regard her as multidimensional.

Unfortunately, as the novel continued, Tassie’s perspective felt less and less true to me. This is a retrospective account of Tassie at twenty, which means she is under thirty when she tells the story, perhaps still capable of that laughter referred to at the opening.  And, yet, this narrator did not feel like a twenty-eight year old woman. It’s difficult to figure out why exactly.  It wasn’t so much that her cultural references were before-her-time (they were, although one could classify this as one of Tassie’s distinctive characteristics), but that Moore failed to fully inhabit her first-person narrator.  This wasn’t Tassie’s vision of the world, but the author’s–or some version of Lorrie Moore that I’ve known and loved in previous books.   Either I’ve fallen out of love, or this book and its deeply complicated and ambitious subject matter requires more, or something different, than what my favorite author has previously offered.

In A Gate at the Stairs, Lorrie Moore’s beloved and well-known authorial perspective comes at a cost: the narrator is subsumed by it, and, unfortunately, so is the plot.  As Tassie became less of a character, more of a simile- and observation-generator, I felt less connected to the events occurring.  But, at the same time, I was also frustrated when the story stalled to describe things, like the speech patterns of Midwesterners; no matter how funny or sharply observed, these passages felt off the spine of the story.  I had the distinct sense while reading this novel, that it would have made a wonderful short story.  A Gate at the Stairs feels stretched out, thinned, with uneven pacing, slow sections and redundant scenes. I hate to say this, but I was often bored by A Gate at the Stairs.  My mother always said, “If you’re bored, read a book.”  But what do you do when the book you’re reading bores you?  And what do you do when the book that’s boring you is by your favorite author, and you’ve been waiting for it for so long?  Even now, I don’t know if my problems with the novel stem from the novel itself, or are my own.  It may be that I’m simply being too hard on it, or that my needs as a reader have changed.  Do we need to go to couple’s therapy, Lorrie?

In Lethem’s review, he considers giving A Gate at the Stairs to a friend of his who finds Moore “too punny.”  I don’t think that’s such a  good idea, for in this new novel, Moore’s gifts become the book’s greatest burdens.  If you’re a fan of Lorrie Moore, you must read this novel (and I sincerely hope you like it), but if you aren’t, or if you haven’t read her before, I suggest exploring the rest of her dazzling oeuvre first–you won’t be disappointed.

is a staff writer and contributing editor for The Millions. She is the author of the novella If You're Not Yet Like Me, the New York Times bestselling novel, California, and Woman No. 17. She is the editor of Mothers Before: Stories and Portraits of Our Mothers As We Never Saw Them.


  1. Jonathan Dee, writing in the September issue of Harper’s, also didn’t like A Gate at the Stairs.

    Darn. I really want to love this book, but after having read an excerpt, I think you’re going to be right.

  2. It’s interesting that you feel like the critics are giving Moore a free pass. I felt similarly about Yiddish Policemen’s Union, another long-awaited book by a critical darling. It seemed like the critics were won over by Chabon being Chabon (genre-bending, history-twisting, etc.) rather than making a real assessment of the book.

  3. Thank you for the review. I have always wanted to read L.M., but now I know to start with something else. Max, totally agree about Y.P.U. And thanks for your dissent, colleagues. Now I feel brave enough to say that the praise for The Skating Rink seems insanely overblown to me.

  4. Thanks for the thoughtful review, Edan. I think I enjoyed the book a bit more than you, though I did not love it either. Your comments on the narrative voice are particularly interesting, because it’s something that I did notice but was able to pass over. The grown-up Tassie speaks of men with such world-weariness that I often had to keep re-calculating her supposed age in my head. But I did not find that this hindered my enjoyment of Moore’s book. What did was (in my opinion), the rather clumsy handling of the “big reveal” before Tassie returns home. I’ve seen that same device used to a much better pay-off in John Irving (won’t mention the book in case of spoilers), and though I liked where Moore ended up taking her readers after that moment, I remained rankled by it when I finished the whole thing. Maybe my expectations were too high. Ten years is a long time. And I feel I should like this book more because the subject matter feels like it should be important. But that’s about the dumbest reason to like anything. In short, I feel conflicted about it. I guess I’ll just have to go bury my head in ‘Birds of America’ for another decade.

  5. I thought the excerpt in the New Yorker was entertaining enough that I’ll read this, but I had the same feeling about the narrator that you do—it simply didn’t seem like the person it was supposed to be. Throughout the story (I blamed this on the fact that it was an excerpt at the time) I was confused as to when the story was supposed to have taken place.

    Maybe she could have used a different narrator—it would be outside the usual Lorrie Moore box to bring in a Nick Carraway, but the added clarity may have been worth it.

  6. Thanks, all, for your comments. Max and Lydia, we are all in agreement about the YPU. I couldn’t handle that novel–but I am not such a fan of Chabon in general.
    I wonder if critics want to love this book because Lorrie Moore is so talented in general; perhaps there’s a real desire for her to be more than a “writer’s writer”–that is, she deserves wider recognition–higher sales, perhaps, or a big fat literary prize. Maybe it’s time for her to get that–I’d love that. But with this book? I don’t think so…

    I wonder, Danup, if a third person narrator would have solved some of my problems with the protagonist…

  7. As a similarly devoted and disappointed Lorrie Moore fan, I was relieved to read your post. I enjoyed the book’s beginning so much that I made premature recommendations I’ve since had to retract. Things seemed to first go downhill with those interminable dialogues from Wednesday night support groups. At first, it seemed like she was trying to illustrate how tedious and pretentious these people were, but she took so much time doing so that I began to wonder, nervously, if she actually meant their discussions to be interesting. Yikes. And don’t get me started on Reynaldo.
    The tone became so maudlin toward the end that I actually found myself shouting, “Oh, fuck this!” aloud when (for the sake of those who want to read it) the last “bad thing” happened. Sigh.

  8. I was similarly disappointed by the book…although conversely, I felt the last third of the book was the strongest section. I reviewed the book for the Austin American Statesman (I won’t post a link, but it’s available online for anyone curious enough for a different view). Later, when I read the Kakutani review, I felt she at least acknowledged problems with the book. The Lethem review, however, led me to think that he’d considered Moore’s reputation more than the work at hand.

    Unquestionably then, I think the book has been better received because of who Lorrie Moore is, and also because it was so long coming. Certainly a writer of Moore’s proven talent has earned some benefit of doubt, but I feel posterity will record that it’s one of her lesser works.

  9. Max:

    I agree with your comment about YPU but not about the underlying premise behind it.

    I believe that most reviewers (and readers) bring their own baggage to each one. In fact I wonder if the fact that Edan and other Lorrie Moore fans had to wait for 10 years for this one didn’t skew expectations a touch and therefore lead to a greater disappointment with the book.

    Every book and every review (pretty much) is colored by the weight of previous work, reader expectations etc.

    I suspect if nobody had heard of Lorrie Moore and if this were her first book, maybe Edan would have been less disappointed.


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  11. I really loved this book and appreciated that LM incorporated grander themes of politics, race, gender, post-9/11 society– they were all very strong and she wove them into the book in an impressive way.

    I thought an older narrator was telling the young protagonist’s story, I think LM made that apparent throughout. There was very much the “writer’s hand” at work here, and I liked that. I thought the Wednesday meetings were hilarious. I think she should win the Pulitzer for this book.

  12. I also felt it was absolutely devastating what happened to Emma, and her parents are such tragic (yet awful) characters. I felt that plotline was a criticism of white liberalism — I think Moore really calls out this idea of progressive-ism that’s lip service only. (I am far to the left, so this isn’t a “conservative” reading.) How about the scene where T. eats in the restaurant — beautiful, incredible food, yet so indulgent, and such indulgence ultimately cannot last.

    I think it’s rare for writers to tackle such issues and I think her book is going to last.

    It’s not a lyric piece like Frog Hospital but the book has beautiful, profound lines, and funny ones as well. The characters are all strong and well-realized.

  13. Also, I would argue that Jonathan Dee did very much like A Gate at the Stairs. Dee is a very thorough reader and thinker. He read it very closely and wrote quite eloquently about what LM does with language — sometimes it lands, other times it doesn’t. But he’s admiring of her work. And paid close attention to her entire body of work. We should have more critics/writers like him.

    The negative responses seem to be rather general; people who don’t like it seems to be speaking of the book’s issues. I think readers have become rather lazy — the book isn’t a thriller or a potboiler with a fast-paced plot. LM is wrestling with something here, and it’s very interesting. Not perfect, but interesting.

  14. I’ve just finished the novel today and wish that I had read your review first, Edan. To me, it was a big disappointment. Unlike you, though, I’m a Lorrie Moore virgin. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve never read her other works. Maybe it’s time to read “Birds of America,” which has been on my list a long time.

    I’ll have to disagree with Lorraine and wouldn’t paint myself as a lazy reader. That’s not why I didn’t like this work. After 40 pages or so, the prose was wonderfully inviting. I was intrigued by Tassie. And then mid-way through the book, Moore lost me. The characters seemed like exactly that: characters. The Wednesday-night conversations that Tassie overheard through the vents, for example, were not believable. And throughout the rest of the book, I couldn’t do anything but concentrate on what Moore was doing as an author, rather than let myself be swept up in the experience.

  15. “A Gate at the Stairs” is a very bad book. It could be used as a text for writers: show, don’t tell. Lorrie Moore writes exquisite descriptions of decaying fruit and the MIdwest’s cold, but she failed to tell a sensible story. I would say it’s Gothic, but that’s not fair to the genre. It’s not a black comedy or a coming of age story. It’s just bad.

    This book is poorly plotted and paced; we don’t feel for the character’s relationships, so when they end, we don’t care.

    It’s unbelievable to me, as a long time reader of literary and other fiction, that Lorrie Moore, her agent, her editors, her publisher, let this one out of the (sorry) gate. It is positively anemic. The set up isn’t, and the story — if told well — could have been spectacular. A friend gave it to me with “no backs”. Now I know why. Shame on Times reviewers for not calling it what it is: a failure.

  16. Having just closed ‘the gate at the stairs’ in every sense I found this site when having a first look at reviews which I’d succeeded in actively avoiding.
    It’s true that there are moments in the tricky second act when little happens and Tassie begins to ring untrue – and the puns start to protrude so that you read too much into everything. The lift in the building I’m in has a sign saying Blinking Indicates Help is on it’s Way and the world was suddenly becoming a Lorrie Moore one. ( in the Irish language a ‘lorry mor’ is a large truck).
    The stasis though is like the rug being labouriously woven so that when it’s pulled out from under you with the first of the revelations you almost have to physically steady yourself. By the time you reach the church scene ( to avoid spoiling anything) not crying becomes your next physcial objective. This is her power – consistant right through all her short stories and previous work.
    I’m not going to say I loved it. but I loved it.

  17. I agree totally with this insightful and admiring but deeply critical review. I have read–and loved–with the exception of Who Will Run the Frog Hospital (came close to loving that one)–all of Moore’s work, but the exclamatory reviews for this one, and I read every word of the novel, escape me. The novel operates on surprise instead of internal conflict. Tassie’s troubles are virtually all external without the wisdom and hard reality of a Camus-like vision.

    But wow can Moore turn a phrase and hold the reader despite all that. I still admire her and wish her the best but this novel does not do her brilliant mind and gift with language justice.

  18. I share this reviewer’s disappointment with A GATE AT THE STAIRS. I love Moore’s short fiction, but this was the first novel of hers that I’ve read. It may be my last. Her humor and punning and wit are winning in a short story. But it gets tedious in long fiction. I felt annoyed by the constant insistence that I notice how profound and funny she is. It’s the same feeling I have if I meet someone who is desperate for attention: I want to push that person away.

  19. Edan, congrats on this post making the long list at the 3 Quarks Daily competition. All my best…

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