A Gate at the Stairs, her first novel in 15 years, follows Tassie Keltjin, a 20-year-old desperate to escape the provincialism of her father’s farm. Moving to the university town of Troy, which wryly styles itself “the Athens of the Midwest”, she hopes to find a “brilliant life of books and films and witty friends”. Predictably, things refuse to go that smoothly.
As the US gears up for war in Afghanistan, Tassie takes work as a nanny for Sarah and Edward Brink, a glamorous pair who have moved from the east coast and are adopting a mixed-race child. What follows is an irreverent look at the complexities of American family and culture in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, something which proves to be an unreal odyssey.
While Sarah has risotto for her child delivered via FedEx, the adults have regressed completely, experiencing “the very particular sadness of a vanished childhood yoghurt now found only in France” or “reading Harry Potter while every newspaper in the country goes out of business”. An emotional fantasy land populated by posing, self-conscious liberals and casual racists, Moore’s America skewers everybody equally. All, that is, but the “scholarly, unjudging and angelic” two-year-old Mary, rechristened Mary-Emma by Sarah, and who then becomes simply Emmie.
A Gate at the Stairs is as pithy as one has come to expect from its knowing, acerbic author. Sarah and Edward’s life, at first attractive to the naïve Tassie, gradually unravels into a grotesque, preposterous charade. Then again “nobody’s perfect”, as Edward says. “Everybody has a relative or two that’s come down with some crud or stuck a fork in someone’s eye or dynamited a perfectly good shed.”
Such philosophising elicits numerous double-takes from the reader, and from Tassie, who faces each ludicrous development with the Midwestern girl’s response to everything: “OK, sounds good.” She is a marvellous character. Completely alive, Tassie clings to a bullish innocence in the face of increasingly discordant events. Relentlessly down-home, she rejects airs and graces for a plain-spoken honesty.
Set during the Bush administration, A Gate at the Stairs reveals the contradictions of growing up in a nation defined by 9/11. Paranoia and anger are everywhere, crystallising to resentment beneath an American can-do spirit stymied by ineffectiveness. While the tightly spun narrative meanders somewhat towards the end, it comes to reflect the characters’ aimlessness and growing lack of certainty.
Suffused with Moore’s beautiful, endearing style, the tone of the novel is balanced perfectly between thought-provoking cheerfulness and cringe-worthy profundity, much of which is hilarious. The sheer quotability of Moore’s writing is awe-inspiring, as are the hefty emotional punches she repeatedly delivers.
A Gate at the Stairs is a minor masterpiece.