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Monday, December 07, 2009

Master-narrative dirigibles

I hadn't loved Lorrie Moore's new novel A Gate at the Stairs the same way that I loved her Anagrams, but I was blown away by David Wallace-Wells' review of the book in The Nation. His review made me rethink the function of some of the things I didn't like as much about the novel--namely, I thought the jokes about academia, punk rock, and foodies were about 15 years out of date and the plot twists came out of nowhere--and it also made me think about the contemporary social novel in a way I hadn't considered before. This paragraph doesn't really contain spoilers, but the review itself talks about major plot twists and explains their function brilliantly:
One of these sensational twists might be forgivable in a novel as engaging as this one; two of them would be inexcusable for a writer like Moore, who has always demonstrated such dexterity and narrative control; three of them, however, must be willful, and as the histrionics accumulate in the second half of the novel, A Gate at the Stairs begins to appear more and more a 9/11 farce, mocking the very enterprise of fashioning a coherent and conventional novel from those terrible events and the chaotic years that followed. Moore seems to be mocking, too, the novelistic impulses of our hyperbolic public life, in which private histories are reconfigured into broad narratives dictated by distant events. She offers instead a Gothic melodrama for our particular age of anxiety, a new model novel wrapped in its own cautionary tale. In presenting her readers with both a poignant domestic story and a series of contrived and grandiose narrative flourishes, intrusions that seem more to obscure than to illuminate the lives of her characters, Moore appears to be suggesting that social novels need not be master-narrative dirigibles like those favored by Don DeLillo and Jonathan Franzen, among others. They can be assembled instead, like much social history, from the ground up, piecemeal, from minor and private testimony. They can be as local and ragged as a patchwork quilt. The history might even be better that way.

(As a sidenote, I did like one of the epigrams at the beginning of the novel, from the Hayden Planetarium: "All seats provide equal viewing of the universe." It reminds me of when I was in fifth grade Drug Abuse Resistance Education class, and the police officer was admonishing one of my classmates for forgetting his DARE binder. "I left it at The Center of the Universe," the boy said. This excuse totally infuriated the police officer, but the boy kept repeating it as though it made perfect sense. Finally, the teacher explained that The Center of the Universe is an [unintentionally grim] concrete sculpture on the University of New Mexico campus, popular less for providing cosmological epiphanies and more for skateboarding and being the victim of crimes, as it's just four concrete passageways that intersect and make for lots of dark corners for lurking. This feels like a Lorrie Moore anecdote to me...)

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