It’s been more than a decade since a new Lorrie Moore book has graced the bookshelves. A lot has changed since Birds of America took flight in 1998, but Moore’s trenchant, witty, and deeply wrought prose reemerges just as we remembered it; and while books not concerning boy wizards or teenage vampires are rarely events nowadays, Moore’s astonishing A Gate at the Stairs deserves to be fetishized.
A Gate at the Stairs is, at its heart, post-9/11 literary fiction, yet Moore’s treatment of the event and its aftermath is deft and subtle. Tassie Keltjin, the narrator, is both geographically and emotionally distant from the events in New York and Washington, but they cast a pallor on Moore’s narrative. The attacks are barely acknowledged (at Christmastime, her brother confides to Tassie he is considering joining the military. “It’s peacetime,” he says, leaving her to remind him of the war waging in Afghanistan), but the ensuing upheaval of order is everywhere: thunderstorms on Christmas day, characters running up the down escalator. A Gate at the Stairs treats the events as a mood.
The narrative centers around Tassie’s relationship with Sarah and Edward, the adoptive parents of the biracial toddler she has been hired to babysit. But few people are who they seem, and Tassie’s friends devolve into strangers. While the novel is suffused with loss and grief, it’s remarkably funny as well. Moore’s narrator offers hilarious metacommentary, and her wordplay and inventive prose acrobatics are unmatched. A Gate at the Stairs is a marvel for its careful construction and astonishing insights; by the book’s end, all of Moore’s characters (and more than a few of her readers) are irrevocably changed.