What not to say when breaking up: Islamobabble

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Lorrie_Moore_Gate_at_the_Stairs.jpgLori Moore's new novel, A Gate at the Stairs, is about loss and maturation in post-9/11 America.  One of the first instances in the novel of these linked phenomena occurs when the narrator, Tassie, a 20 year-old college student, is dumped by her boyfriend and classmate, Reynaldo.

Tassie and Reynaldo met in their Intro to Sufism class.  He's Brazilian, she's a virgin; need more be said?

Their break-up comes without warning.  Tassie leaves her babysitting job and heads for Reynaldo's apartment, only to find all the lights out and the apartment stripped bare of its furniture.  Reynaldo sits on the floor, staring at his laptop.  He looks up at her and announces that he's moving to England.  Then, without prompting, he says:

"I'm not part of a cell" . . . .

"I'm part of an Islamic charity for Afghan children.  That is all.  They think I'm part of a cell.  I'm not.  If anyone asks you, if they question you when I'm gone, please tell them that I'm not."
(p. 204.)  Not unreasonably, Tassie immediately assumes, in a vague way, that Reynaldo is part of some Islamist extremist organization:

"You are a haddi: some sort of jihadist[," Tassie says.]

"It is not the jihad that is the wrong thing.  It is the wrong things that are the wrong things."

"Thank you, holy warrior, for the Islamofacist lecture."

"As Muhammed said, we do not know God as we should."

"And whose fault is that?  That's not yours or mine!  Maybe God has not stepped forward enough.  Maybe God has not done a sufficient job of meet-and-greet."
(p. 206.)  Throughout this overlong, similarly stilted and disconnected conversation, Reynaldo continues to make remarks that suggest sympathy with the cause of violent Islamic extremism ("A lie to the faithless is merely a conversation in their language" (p. 208)).  Tassie continues to respond with weak arguments ("Listen!  The jihadist leaders - they don't respect outsiders.  They think these fervent recruits are all crazy, coming from another country as they do, and they use them and laugh at them." (p. 210).)  And Reynaldo continues, to the end, to deny that he's part of a cell.

Writing in The New York Times Book Review, Michiko Kakutani rightly called this scene "absurd."  But I focus on it not merely because it's utterly unbelievable, but because, in the context of A Gate at the Stairs, this scene well represents the national conversation about Islam and terrorism.  In a novel (and a country) where people have learned to parse issues of black-white relations so finely that the returns are plainly diminishing, people haven't learned to speak about Islam or terrorism with basic comprehensibility, let alone sophistication.

This shortcoming is important for many reasons.  In the real world, the inability to hold knowledgeable and sensible dialogue about issues as important as violent Islamic extremism will obviously impair our ability to address the problem.  In the world of A Gate at the Stairs, Moore's inability to write this scene in a way that makes sense alienates the reader.  I could not empathize with the loss Tassie was supposed to have experienced because the break-up scene was too joltingly unreal: was Tassie supposed to have been sleeping with a terrorist?  If not, what was going on?  And if yes, then why didn't Tassie take any of the responsible actions she should have taken, like alert the authorities?

And in neither real life, nor the world of the novel, can maturation flow from loss unless the conversation about that loss is more accurate, piercing and honest.  Lori Moore seems to make this point herself in another part of the novel: she provides a portrait of a couple whose wrenching loss occasions little-to-nothing in the way of maturity because their lives - and, necessarily, their conversations - are too convolutedly deceptive.

In losing Reynaldo, Tassie is supposed to be experiencing her first heartbreak, an experience that - for many of us - lays the groundwork for maturation.  Conversations that precede heartbreak are horrendous, but Lori Moore doesn't allow Tassie and Reynaldo to have that conversation.  "There was no room in this conversation for 'What about us?'" Tassie thinks.  (p. 204.)  Instead, Moore shoves on her characters a conversation that makes no sense.

Later in the novel, Moore seems to want to excuse herself.  She has Tassie reflect:

I had learned that in literature - perhaps as in life - one had to speak not of what the author intended but of what a story intended for itself.  The creator was inconvenient - God was dead.  But the creation itself had a personality and hopes and its own desires . . . . The story itself had feet and a mouth, could walk and talk and speak of its own yearnings!
(p. 263-64.)  But this insight cannot explain the debacle of the Reynaldo-breaking-up-with-Tassie scene.  A Gate at the Stairs may speak of its own yearnings, but those yearnings (from what I can tell) are to tell a story of loss and maturity in post-9/11 America.  The dialogue that Moore wrote in the novel's first example of its overarching theme undermines, rather than advances, this purpose.  This missed opportunity is unfortunate because few topics are more vital to our future happiness than insightful exploration of loss and maturity in post-9/11 America.

(Image from Vogue)

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This page contains a single entry by Maya published on May 11, 2010 11:13 AM.

Getting bugged by the writer's life was the previous entry in this blog.

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