Lorrie Moore's A Gate At the Stairs.

Reading between the lines.
Sept. 7 2009 7:09 AM

What Nanny Knew

Lorrie Moore's new novel is all about lies.

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Moore is only warming up, but already the specter of children's vulnerability—so haunting in "People Like That Are the Only People Here"—looms. And she doesn't hesitate to be heavy-handed, though in typically joking Moore style: It is her first day taking care of Mary-Emma, and Tassie has to battle her way through a series of little gates to reach the baby, who is crying in her crib. Sarah warns Tassie about the gate: "And you'll need to be watchful with that baby gate upstairs. I don't want her tumbling down. ... Babygate! Now there's a scandal."

For a while, not much happens. Tassie takes care of the baby, does her homework, and falls in love with Reynaldo, a Brazilian student she meets in her Intro to Sufism class. Sarah works at her restaurant and starts a support group for parents of biracial children. Then and only then does the plot begin in earnest. Incident crowds the last one-third of the book, like furniture crammed into the far end of a room. This plot, the plot that surges forward in the final part of the book, involves children getting hurt, but not in any expected way. No one falls through the gate.

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All kinds of other horrific stuff does happen; and it all comes as a surprise. (I'll try not to give away too much plot.) The people around Tassie are hiding their real identities. Sarah is not who she says she is; neither is Reynaldo. Even Tassie's family surprises her with rash, out-of-character decisions.

Events sneak up on Tassie because, despite her observant nature, the truth eludes her. She is constantly trying to figure out what is really going on with the people around her. Moore has a clever, and of course funny, device for showing the girl's search for clarity. When Tassie listens to other people talk, she translates their words into literal truth. A character says something is "hogwash," and Tassie reflects, "I had once seen a hog washed. In whey." Another character uses the word bullshit, and Tassie thinks, "I had seen bullshit. I had seen chickens run after it and eat it warm." She is the ultimate Midwesterner: At first these responses make Tassie seem kind of slow; after a while, they serve to make the other speakers appear dissociated from the basic realities of life. Tassie, with her literalism, is looking for some solid truth.

Tassie, age 20, is in many ways still a child trying to figure out what the adults are up to. As Sarah's employee, she is also a servant. Moore reinforces the servant theme (if subtly) by having her zip around on a Suzuki scooter. Here's the connection: The opera Madame Butterfly is threaded through the novel—it makes appearances in both the epigraph and the text of the book—and Butterfly's faithful servant was named Suzuki. As both a young person and a servant, Tassie is doubly dislocated from the action at the center of the book, doubly powerless, doubly susceptible to being lied to.

This is a novel about lies of all kinds: deliberate disinformation, dainty obfuscation, and flat out bullshit, not the kind eaten by chickens. It is no accident that it is set at the outset of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Moore could be saying this: We were all Tassies then, being lied to, trying to piece the truth together. When a letter comes from the Army, announcing the death of one of the characters, it is incomprehensible, an evasion told in acronyms: "There was a BBIED but no QRD, which were all in TK or J-bad along with all the MREs; they were equipped with AKs but even a routine land-mine sweep can go awry." Language is no longer a servant of the truth.

In Who Will Run the Frog Hospital, the narrator thinks: "And it makes me wonder how many things have begun this way, as jokes. Love, adolescence, marriage, life, death; perhaps God is looking down saying 'Geeze, y'all, lighten up. This is funny. You're missing the intonation.' " Moore began with jokes, with intonation, with funny. The narrator was often the joker; as readers, we identified with the person performing the wordplay. Not so in this novel. Sarah—the mother, the liar, the adult, the compromised person—is the one who cracks the jokes. Tassie is the one who begins to suspect that the joke is on her.

Moore has performed a brilliant feat. She has retained the shining, fluid, and, yes, funny surface of her earlier work. But she has also given us a narrator who attempts to peer through the shimmering veil of language to the truth behind.

Claire Dederer is the author of Poser: My Life in Twenty-three Yoga Poses.

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