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January 7, 2010

From the first 122 pages of Lorrie Moore's new novel, 'A Gate at the Stairs'


At the cash register small boxes of broken fortune cookies were sold at discount. "Only cookie broken," promised the sign, "not fortune."

It had started to worry me that if I wasn't careful my meekness could become a habit, a tic, something hardwired that my mannerisms would continue to express throughout my life regardless of my efforts — the way a drunk who, though on the wagon, still staggers and slurs like a drunk.

So I was left with the ambivalence of having to pay with aloneness for an apartment I could not alone afford. It was not miserable — often I did not miss her at all. But there was sometimes a quick, sinking ache when I walked in the door and saw she was not there. Twice, however, I'd felt the same sinking feeling when she was.

I tried not to think about my life. I did not have any good solid plans for it long-term — no bad plans, either, no plans at all — and the lostness of that, compared with the clear ambitions of my friends (marriage, children, law school), sometimes shamed me. Other times in my mind I defended such a condition as morally and intellectually superior — my life was open and ready and free — but that did not make it any less lonely.

"You know?" she continued. "I always do the wrong thing. I do the wrong thing so much that the times I actually do the right thing stand out so brightly in my memory that I forget I always do the wrong thing."

After a childhood of hungering to be an adult, my hunger had passed. Unexpected fates had begun to catch my notice. These middle-aged women seemed very tired to me, as if hope had been wrung out of them and replaced with a deathly, walking sort of sleep.

Education had not entirely elevated my concerns in life. It had probably not even assisted my analyses of these concerns, though that was the most I could hope for. I was too fresh from childhood. Subconsciously, my deepest brain still a cupboard of fairy tales, I suppose I believed that if a pretty woman was no longer pretty she had done something bad to deserve it. I had a young girl's belief that this kind of negative aging would never come to me. Death would come to me — I knew this from reading British poetry. But the drying, hunching, blanching, hobbling, fading, fattening, thinning, slowing? I would just not let that happen to moi.

The house struck me once more with its warm neglect and elegant poverty — the Hitchcock chairs that were beat up, uncared for, never treated as special antiques but as serviceable items that had to earn their existence on this planet the hard way: at our house, a kind of hard-knocks house for furniture.

He had, however, the same loneliness in him that I did, though he had always been my mother's favorite. Where had that gotten him? My mother's love was useless.

So I stayed quiet with him. It is something that people who have been children together can effortlessly do.

After that, things moved with swiftness and awkwardness both, like something simultaneously strong and broken.

"We're flying to Packer City," she announced. "We are?" I was scarcely awake. I was going to to have to become a new person biologically just to associate with her.

Sarah handed me the map. "Mind being the navigator? she asked, or sort of asked. "Not at all." I opened the map, knowing it would never again be folded back correctly, at least not by me. I had map skills, but not that kind.

I always had the sense with her that she didn't suffer fools gladly but that life was taking great pains to show her how.

I noticed that when older people got tired they looked a lot older, whereas when young people got tired they just looked tired.


Let me say this, as a preliminary functional review: after 122 pages (of a total of 322), I only wish it were three times lengthier so I could stay with the author and Tassie Keltjin, the protagonist, that much longer.

You can read the first chapter here.

Browse within the book here.

January 7, 2010 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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The fact that I wish I could write like this confirms that I too still harbor fairytales in my cupboards. Absolutely gorgeous writing. Sounds wistful and sad though. I think I'll have to steel myself for reading it. Thanks for the review Joe.

Posted by: Milena | Jan 8, 2010 10:43:29 AM

TY again BOJ!

God, to spend a New England winter with her would be like an eternal rare day in June.

Posted by: Joe Peach | Jan 7, 2010 4:46:54 PM

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