Magazine article The Spectator

Joking Apart

Magazine article The Spectator

Joking Apart

Article excerpt

A GATE AT THE STAIRS by Lorrie Moore Faber, £16.99, pp. 322, ISBN 9780571195305 . £13.59 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Free association underpins the comedy of Lorrie Moore's writing - or perhaps the verb should be 'unpins', since her prose spins off in tangential, apparently affectless riffs. Even the title of A Gate at the Stairs tugs in different directions. It is a babygate; since this novel starts as a comedy - of sorts - about adoption. (But, as the adopting mother says, while mashing flower bulbs into a poisonous puree, the French 'have jokes that end "And then the baby fell down the stairs." ').

In the comically maudlin songs of two heartbroken college girls, however, the stairway is the shining stairway to love, locked 'at the foot of the stairs' by rejection; or the gate may be St Peter's gate of Heaven.

Moore is celebrated on the back cover of this novel as 'one of the funniest writers alive'; but no reader will expect unmixed comedy from a novel that begins, 'The cold came late that fall and the songbirds were caught off their guard.' Moore's humour, however, is not the controlled, ironic focus of black comedy, which proves that comedy can be crueller than tragedy. The jokes which come almost obsessively thick and fast throughout this novel - puns, deliberate mishearing and misinterpretations that spin off into fantasy - are not cruel but zany: a nervous reaction, 'babbling during grief . . . jokes while dying.'

The novel begins with 20-year-old Tassie Keltjin looking for a job as a babysitter. She is the 'half-Jewish' daughter of a potato farmer, studying in the local university town of Troy, 'The Athens of the Midwest', where she is taking courses in 'Geology, Sufism, Wine Tasting, British Literature, Soundtracks to War Movies.'

Troy seems to Tassie thrillingly sophisticated: 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.

Nothing is more exotic than the food. In her home town, the 'high end' of sit-down eating is a restaurant serving 'cheese curd meatloaf and steak "cooked to your likeness" ', with 'Grandma Jell-o' for dessert; in Troy, there is a Chinese cafe, 'the vegetables fungal and gnomic in their brown sauce', dispensing random wisdom in fortune cookies.

The couple Tassie goes to meet as a potential babysitter seems glamorously urban. Sarah Brink, with short autumndyed hair and maroonish brown lips ('like a highly controlled oxidisation experiment'), runs a pretentious restaurant, Le Petit Moulin, offering unknown dishes which sound to Tassie 'like instruments - timbales, quenelles . . . .' But 20-yearold Tassie, in a state of 'incipient adulthood' (which still dissolves at home into 'an unseemly collection of jostling former selves', sulky or joshing), is just grown up enough to begin to look beyond her own 'hunger' to be an adult: 'unexpected fates had begun to catch my notice.'

Under the 'bright desert grass' of her hair, Sarah has her own tragedies. Tassie wonders about her, and her husband Edward - a 'flamboyantly self-involved' academic, balding but long-haired, 'like he was wearing a head cape' - but, one suspects, she does not wonder as much as perhaps she should. …

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