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.

A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore.

I was in high school, and my mom, inveterate finder of great new books, brought home Lorrie Moore's newly published first story collection, Self-Help (1985). She left it sitting on the side table by the big checkered chair in the den. I picked up the book, idly curious. The first story, of course, was "How To Be an Other Woman." I had never read a story in the imperative voice and was immediately drawn in. And then, a few pages in, there it was, embedded in an exchange between two lovers:

The next time he phones, he says: "I was having a dream about you and suddenly I woke up with a jerk and felt very uneasy."

Say: "Yeah, I hate to wake up with jerks."

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I stared at the book, as at a creature at the zoo. A joke. I was not sure I had ever seen one like this before, folded into what was obviously literary fiction, unafraid of looking dumb, unafraid of being dumb, just sitting there, totally unembarrassed and undisguised, unapologetically doing its job. Which was to soften the blow. And make it hurt more at the same time.

All of a sudden, new things seemed possible in a short story. Publishers are forever touting fresh voices; this one really was something that belonged to itself, a voice as tight and resonant as a drum. But a funny drum.

The collection was spiked with "How To" stories, as they have come to be known, all jokey and dark and crammed with wordplay. Moore's achievement was recognized by readers and critics; she was almost immediately anthologized and taught. Two more excellent collections followed; her 1998 Birds of America was a bestseller and contained a story generally considered a masterpiece, "People Like That Are the Only People Here."

She also wrote two novels, Anagrams (1986) and Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? (1994), books that felt curiously tethered to the short stories. They dealt with the kind of wry, disappointed women who featured in many of the stories; they were experimental (Anagrams) or fast-moving (Frog Hospital). They were playful, melancholy, smallish affairs.

In A Gate at the Stairs, bulkier than her other books, Moore has now written something that looks a lot more like a traditional novel. It has a sympathetic protagonist. It has a plot! This is quite a change for Moore, whose short story "How To Become a Writer" contained this immortal line: "Plots are for dead people, pore-face."

Tassie Keltjin, the narrator, is a lonely Midwestern farm girl who has come to college in a big (or biggish) city that sounds much like Madison, Wis. The time is just after Sept. 11, 2001. But Tassie is hardly the person suggested by this thumbnail description. Her father is a weirdo organic farmer; her mom is a buttoned-up transplanted East Coaster; her brother, who hates high school, is doing yoga to cheer himself up and considering going into the military.

There is nothing typical about this family, but that does not keep Tassie herself—who plays the bass and rides a scooter—from feeling, in the manner of many heroes of the bildungsroman, fatally cut off from the town where she grew up. Most importantly, Tassie is someone who observes everything. She is not one of Moore's charming jokers, at least not out loud. Her observant nature isolates her from other people; she sees more than she says.

At the opening of the book, Tassie's main human contact is with her new boss, a more familiar Moore figure. Sarah is a fraught, nervy, compulsively jokey chef married to Edward, a mysterious figure who seems always to be away on business. The two want to adopt a baby; Tassie will be its nanny. Together Tassie and Sarah begin to meet with potential moms: girls who may or may not give away their babies. Eventually Sarah and Edward adopt a biracial daughter named Mary-Emma.