Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs

In this witty, Midwestern novel, sadness laps around the edges of every joke. Here, for example, Moore dissects Wisconsin speech patterns --

“’I’d been going to do that’ seemed to live in some isolated corner of the grammatical time-space continuum where the language spoken was a kind of Navajo or old, old French. It was part of a language with tenses so countrified and bizarrely conceived, I’m sure there was one that meant ‘Hell yes, if I had a time machine!’ People here would narrate an ordinary event entirely in the past perfect: ‘I’d been driving to the store, and I’d gotten out, and she’d come up to me and I had said…’ It never reached any other tense. All was backstory. All was preamable. The past was severed prologue and was never uttered to be anything but.”

Moore’s characters lead fragile lives. Her prose relentlessly probes the uneasy implications of the everyday.

“Women now were told not to settle for second best, told that they deserved better, but at a time, it seemed, when there was so much less to go around. They were like the poor that way, perhaps. What sense did anything they were being told possibly make, given the scarcity of their world?”

In Moore’s America, everyone’s being educated not to see the elephants in the room. Civilization itself comes across as a form of denial. The point of every joke seems to be the emptiness at the heart of everything. Here she is on cookbooks –

“They were the opposite of poetry, except if, like me, you seldom cooked, and then they were the same.”

As if not being used is enough to make something beautiful?

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