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Pun-ishing plot

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Brad_Leithauser.jpg
I'm going to be reading more of Brad Leithauser's writing.  Thus far, I've read only his criticism in The New York Review of Books, but he is also a novelist, poet and verse novelist.  Obviously, a major talent (and did I mention MacArthur Fellow?).

He is also a very polite critic.  His NYRB review of Lorrie Moore's A Gate at the Stairs caught my attention with its opening paragraph:

Lorrie Moore's novels are remarkable for the number of linguistic detours they embark on.  Off in the distance, a plot is likely hatching.  But its unfolding will patiently have to wait until the characters - nearly all of whom have a penchant for wordplay - have explored the far-flung implications of the language that entertains and envelops them.
"Remarkable" sounds good, but it could also bear less positive connotations (e.g., remarkably misguided).  That the plot is "likely" hatching evinces a positive attitude about what could be a serious failure (i.e., if the plot didn't materialize).  And what must be "patient" with Lorrie Moore is not the plot, but the reader, who like Leithauser (and this reader) "kept looking for someone [in Moore's novel] who didn't parse and pun." 

As Leithauser observes,

Moore's fiction proceeds by "near misses": misapprehensions, mishearings, misidentifications, misunderstandings.  An innocent utterance floats out into the atmosphere, which turns out to be a hazardous and transformative medium, everywhere subject to misinterpretation.
. . . .
It's rare in contemporary American fiction to meet a writer so preoccupied with this sort of linguistic dissonance.
The reason for such rarity, I submit, is that stories don't proceed by linguistic "near misses": they proceed by action.  The action can be physical, emotional or psychological, but it cannot be solely linguistic.  (As Leithauser notes, "poets are another matter."  In a sense, poetry is by definition linguistic action: the rhythm of the language stirs our viscera.)

The weakness of Moore's approach is plain in her plot, which Leithauser (even with his critical delicacy) highlights.  "I turned skeptical, and a little feisty" when the protagonist, Tassie, and her boyfriend break-up (a scene which also caused me grief), Leithauser admits.  "Pesky questions of plausibility arose again" when Tassie accidentally poisons her roommate, Leithauser continues.  But worse awaits - "an utter suspension of suspension of disbelief," in Leithauser's words - when Tassie climbs into her brother's coffin.

To some extent, Leithauser excuses these problems with the explanation that

[m]any writers who are led by the ear, as I think Moore is, have little facility for visual detail.  But she has an arresting gift for the one-line imagistic simile or metaphor.
While this statement may be true, the plot of A Gate at the Stairs fumbles, not because Moore has little facility for visual detail, but because she's trying to power a plot with linguistic acrobatics - puns, similes and metaphors - instead of action.  Moore's is not a methodology worth replicating.  Over 322 pages, the experience of verbal-shenanigans-in-search-of-the-plot-in-the-distance is, even for the patient reader, remarkable. 

(Image of Brad Leithauser from Johns Hopkins University website)

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)

Gate crashing

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Lorrie_Moore_1999.jpgIn his New York Times book review of Lorrie Moore's new novel, A Gate at the Stairs, Jonathan Lethem begins

I'm aware of one - one - reader who doesn't care for Lorrie Moore, and even that one seems a little apologetic about it. "Too . . . punny," my friend explains, resorting to a pun as though hypnotized by the very tendency that sets off his resistance.
Although I am plainly beyond the scope of Jonathan Lethem's awareness and likely to stay that way, I don't care for Lorrie Moore, and I'm not apologetic about it.  On the contrary, I'm mystified by Moore's success.  Rather than finding her, as Lethem writes, "the most irresistible contemporary Ameri­can writer," I find her among the most over-rated.  Maybe it's me.

Biases disclosed, allow me to move on to the opening of A Gate at the Stairs.  As anyone who has ever tried to write one knows, openings of novels are hard.  (P.G. Wodehouse - by any measure a master of the machinery of plot - begins many of the Wooster-Jeeves novels by overtly complaining about the difficulty of starting.)  

That said, the worst that most bad openings do is fail to draw me in.  I can't think of another novel that offended me so deeply within the first 60 pages.  And this from a novelist feted by Jonathan Lethem as "brainy, humane, unpretentious and warm; seemingly effortlessly lyrical; Lily-Tomlin-funny."  I don't see it.  Maybe it's me.

The assault begins on page 5, on the morning of 9/11.  The protagonist, a 20-year old college student, Tassie, receives a phone call:

My roommate, Murph . . . had met her boyfriend on September tenth, and when she woke up at his place, she'd phone me, in horror and happiness, the television blaring.  "I know, I know," she said, her voice shrugging into the phone.  "It was a terrible price to pay for love, but it had to be done."
I raised my voice to a mock shout.  "You sick slut!  People were killed.  All you think about is your own pleasure."  Then we fell into a kind of hysteria - frightened, guilty, hopeless laughter I have never actually witnessed in women over thirty.
Eight million people live in New York City.  Two-hundred and fifty thousand live in Washington, D.C. (on 9/11, myself included) and millions more live in the surrounding states of Maryland and Virginia.  These millions of people endured the closest experience Americans have had to being bombed by foreign attack on their mainland.  As members of the so-called East Coast literati, some not insignificant group of these people might be expected to be counted among Lorrie Moore's readers.  And they might feel queasy, repulsed, disgusted or otherwise off-put by this callous, unsympathetic, cosseted and immature depiction of a college-aged provincial response to 9/11.  Irresistible you say?

Two pages later, Moore is joking about the owners of a Chinese restaurant who assure Tassie, "'Take your tie!  No lush!'"  For real?  In this day and age, Lorrie Moore thinks this mushy racism make for a good laugh?  In a book that is at least partially about racism (the plot, such as it is, involves adoption by a white couple of a part-black baby girl) - a book, I might add, that contains pages of redundant, tiresome, supposedly-intelligent analysis about black-white race relations - Moore manages to forget that Asians are also "people of color" subject to racism (as in, her own)?  

In fairness to Moore, I'm sympathetic to the problems of rendering the dialogue of people who don't speak English perfectly.  In my fourth novel, The Celebration Husband, I have a handful of characters with imperfect English to juggle.  The answer that I've struck upon is not to "clean up" the dialogue, but to ensure adequate characterization of the characters, so that they have dignity and humanity notwithstanding their clunky speech.  If I don't have an opportunity for such characterization, I won't subject the character to ridicule based on a toss-off line of dialogue.  Moore doesn't make a similar choice.  Maybe it's me.

After demonstrating her skills in conjuring shockingly cavalier 9/11 reactions and racism-lite, Moore moves on to grossing-out the reader.  At evoking this response, Moore excels, and the examples abound (see page 48 for Tassie's gift to her brother of dog poop in a candy box).  Here's Moore describing Tassie's use of a sex toy:

[Murph] had bequeathed me her vibrator, a strange swirling, buzzing thing that when switched to high gyrated in the air like someone's bored thick finger going whoop-dee-doo. . . . I kept the thing on the kitchen counter where Murph had left it for me and occasionally I used it to stir my chocolate milk.
(p. 12-13.)  If this passage is meant as an example of Moore's allegedly "Lily-Tomlin-funny" humor, I have to protest on Lily Tomlin's behalf.  Lily Tomlin is funny.  This "joke" is merely unhygenic.  (And I say this as a novelist who, in Portnoy's Daughter, wrote a scene in which a couple has anal sex with highlighters.)  In the first place, using someone else's vibrator - however washed it is - is the kind of idea that could only occur to an individual without even the most rudimentary exposure to germ theory.  Second, using someone else's vibrator in your food is right up there with using menstrual blood as a condiment in terms of its laugh value.  Even in American Pie, no one ate the pie after Jim Levenstein fucked it.  

And then there's Tassie's casual cruelty towards her mother, a sad woman whose inept parenting seems - in Tassie's description - to be no more noteworthy than average, and a good deal better than the mothering many receive.  Yet Tassie seems to hate her:

"Oh, well, someday maybe I'll open a restaurant," [Mom] said now, sighing brightly, which seemed about as happy as she got - a sigh with some light in it.  She then added a remark that typified the sort that filled me with loathing for her.  "You know, with the new year approaching, I've come to realize I've done nothing these past decades but devote my energies to the interests of others.  So, soon?  I'm going to start focusing on myself."
(p. 53.)  Loathing?  Tassie loathes her mother because she expresses a desire to live for herself now that her daughter's in college and her son's about to graduate from high school?  In case that reaction seems extreme, here's Tassie on her mother's favoritism for the son in the family, Robert:

He had, however, the same loneliness in him that I did, though he had always been my mother's favorite.  Where had that gotten him?  My mother's love was useless.
(p. 60.)  Loneliness, of course, is an attribute notoriously unresponsive to the ministrations of loved ones, especially mothers.  Nonetheless, rather than seeing loneliness as an existential condition, Tassie blames her mother for it.  Tassie's rage at her mother suggests some profound issue, but A Gate at the Stairs never explicates it.  As a result, Tassie's baffling hostility makes her merely a brat with whom it's difficult to identify.

Or maybe it's me.  Lorrie Moore is nothing if not a darling of the critics, and even Michiko Kakutani, who observes in her New York Times review some of the serious structural problems with A Gate at the Stairs, smooths over her criticism as follows:

If Ms. Moore, who started out as a short-story writer, demonstrates some difficulty here in steering the big plot machinery of a novel, she is able to compensate for this by thoroughly immersing the reader in her characters' daily existences.
Such immersion is exactly what the offense of the first 60 pages prevented me from achieving.  So - with all this praise swirling around a book that struck me as wholly unappealing at the outset and, as I intrepidly continued reading, a complete mess by its end - I have to wonder about the source of this disconnect.  Possibly Moore's person - she comes across as a sweet and likable individual - has managed to sway America's book critic clique.  Or potentially Moore's writing irks me unreasonably for irrational reasons - there's no accounting for taste, after all.  Or perhaps Moore, ensconced in the Mid-West, taps into some emotional current that Americans in the States share to the exclusion of expats like myself.  Maybe, to phrase the matter in Moore's "brainy, humane, unpretentious . . . warm . . . lyrical [and] Lily-Tomlin-funny" way, by virtue of the distance I have from America, I can see that Moore appeals to those with sentiments like the "bubot or eelpout" fish served on Fridays at the Wie Haus Family Restaurant in Tassie's hometown, fish that are called "lawyers" because "their hearts were in their butts."  (p. 7.)

(Photo of Lorrie Moore in Madison, Wisconsin, 1999, from The New York Review of Books)  

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This page is an archive of recent entries in the A Gate at the Stairs category.

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