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Monday, October 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 53.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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Lorrie Moore, at long last
The acclaimed author's hotly anticipated new novel doesn't quite click
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At 52, novelist and short-story writer Lorrie Moore has lived in Madison nearly half her life. She moved here 25 years ago to join the English department faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Yet Moore, in both her work and the way others perceive her, retains a curious insider-outsider relationship to the Midwest. The literary journal Ploughshares described "the predicaments of East Coast sophisticates landlocked in the Midwest" as a recurring theme in her work.

The London Review of Books was even less subtle: "Self-Help [Moore's first book] starts out in the Manhattan everybody dreams about, but later stories unfold in the sort of unglamorous, family-friendly Midwestern suburbs she would have got to know after taking up a post at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1984."

So, apparently, banishment to the hinterlands - a place considered to be the cultural equivalent of mom jeans - is just about the worst fate imaginable to some literary commentators.

Moore, however, seems tired of this cliché about her work. As she said in an email interview, "I can tell you this much: I have never been an East Coast sophisticate and can't say I write about them much either. But I am interested in conditions of dislocation, as this is the American story and there are a million versions of it."

Indeed, sense of place - and whether or not one feels in sync with a place - has been a recurring theme in Moore's work. That theme is intensified with the Sept. 1 publication of her new novel, A Gate at the Stairs (Knopf), set in a made-up college town with an uncanny resemblance to Madison.

The comparison game

Local readers will find it nearly impossible to read Gate without mentally comparing fictional Troy with Madison. There are references to real places and things (from A Woman's Touch to Prairie Fumé), as well as fictional ones that resemble real-life examples.

One of the main characters, Sarah Brink, is a chef and restaurant owner whose establishment, Le Petit Moulin, bears similarities to places like L'Etoile in its upscale nature, French name and meticulous attention to local sourcing.

Madison and Troy, though, are not one and the same, Moore insists, and she's not much interested in playing the comparison game. "The largest fact about Madison - that it is the state capital and home to the state government - is nowhere in the book. So it couldn't be Madison. But I wanted a Midwestern college town, so I made one up, though of course there are similarities.... I do get worried that people don't know how to read fiction anymore. That it all has to be attached to an idea of reportage."

A Gate at the Stairs is Moore's third novel and her eighth book overall (if you include her book for children, The Forgotten Helper, and the publication of her collected stories last year). It is her first book of all-new material in 11 years, and she'll go on a tour this fall to promote its much-anticipated release.

Along with fellow Wisconsin writer Michael Perry (of the magnificent Population: 485), Moore will headline an event at the Orpheum Theatre for the Wisconsin Book Festival Oct. 8. Expect a packed house.

Three days later, Moore will be inducted as a Fellow of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters. Other inductees this year include painter David Lenz and neuroscientist Ian Duncan. Moore was inducted into the New York-based American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2006. Other accolades include a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship and the PEN/Malamud Prize.

Moore is universally considered one of the top writers of literary fiction. With A Gate at the Stairs, critics and general readers alike will be looking to see if she further cements that position, and if her latest has been worth the wait.

Brisk, fascinating

Whether by chance or design, Moore's books have alternated neatly between short stories and novels. She made a name for herself with 1985's Self-Help, composed of short stories she wrote while earning her M.F.A. at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. The New York Times proclaimed her "a writer of enormous talent."

Though shot through with humor, Self-Help takes on a number of difficult subjects: a desultory and doomed affair, divorce, the death of a parent, and a mother who embezzles and shoplifts.

Anagrams, Moore's 1986 novel, plays with readers' expectations of novelistic form. Some characters are imaginary, and Moore keeps rearranging characters' occupations and relationships to one another.

Other works include the 1990 and 1998 story collections Like Life and Birds of America, and the 1994 novel Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?

In the past, Moore has described the essence of her work as sad, despite its flashes of comedy and goofy punning. A Gate at the Stairs doesn't break that streak. It centers on the 20th year of Tassie Keltjin, a college junior from the small town of Dellacrosse who attends school in Troy, dubbed the "Athens of the Midwest."

Tassie does plenty of the things you might expect a 20-year-old to do: She goofs around with her roommate, acquires a boyfriend and takes a babysitting job. Yet the novel also packs some surprising plot twists and losses that Tassie is forced to endure.

"Stories are interested in those crisis moments in people's lives," Moore told the Sydney Morning Herald about the short-story form. In this new novel, what we're immersed in is really Tassie's crisis year.

While some of the plot twists didn't seem entirely credible to me - and I hesitate to go into any kind of detail since to do so would give them away - the novel begins at a rollicking pace, seeming both more fluid and more purely entertaining than Moore's early work. While books like Self-Help were celebrated for their psychological acuity and precision of language, there was also an airless, somewhat stiff quality at times.

During the winter following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Tassie seeks a part-time job and winds up as a nanny for the well-heeled, mid-40s couple of Sarah Brink and Edward Thornwood. But when Tassie and Sarah first meet, Sarah's not a mother yet; she and Edward are actively seeking a child through adoption.

After a false start, Sarah and Edward are matched with little Mary, who is nearly 2 and living with a foster family. In a move that reveals their narcissistic approach to parenting, they rename the child Mary-Emma and soon are calling her just "Emmie." The child's preexisting identity and her sense of continuity are of little concern to them.

The issue of race adds another wrinkle: Mary-Emma is black and the Thornwood-Brinks are white. To share advice about raising a black child, Sarah starts a Wednesday-night discussion group in her home.

The conversations among members of this group are some of the most brisk, fascinating parts of the book. They're a strange brew of soul-baring and self-conscious, bourgeois liberalism. (As Sarah says to Tassie about raising an adopted black child, in a bit of humorlessness and self-aggrandizement, "We are pioneers.... We are doing something important, unprecedented, and unbearably hard.")

Of course, all of this is filtered through the eyes of Tassie; it's what she remembers of the past and what she cares to tell us in the present. Because Tassie is the babysitter, we're not sure what Sarah is like as a mother when left alone with Mary-Emma. For his part, Edward seems strangely disconnected from the whole affair, as if he's agreed to the adoption just to pacify his wife.

Back home in Dellacrosse, Tassie's brother is an unmotivated student who is finishing high school and considering the military as his next step. Tassie's father is a potato farmer who supplies gourmet varieties to farmers' markets and high-end restaurants, including Le Petit Moulin.

Bombshells

There are some rich, juicy themes here, including interracial adoption, the self-conscious liberalism of Troy but also its racism, and looming war. Yet A Gate at the Stairs might have been a stronger novel had it not tried to cast so wide a net. The adoption and parenting/caregiving issues that surround Sarah, Edward and Tassie as their part-time nanny offer plenty for a satisfying book.

As it is, the multiple bombshells that go off in the book have the odd effect of reducing rather than amplifying impact. It also feels as if Sept. 11 doesn't figure into the story as organically or prominently as it should, given the very specific time frame in which the action is set.

On the plus side, Tassie is a quirky and compelling narrator. Moore writes with the sharp bolts of insight for which she's long been known. "Birth mom. It seemed like one of those faux-friendly terms invented by the adoption business itself," Tassie comments drily as she observes Sarah and Edward navigate through the adoption process.

Yet there are also aspects of Tassie that don't seem realistic, or perhaps call for more fleshing out. Tassie's views of both Troy and her rural hometown of Dellacrosse are surprisingly harsh. They leave the reader wondering where she is now, in the indeterminate present in which she's narrating the story.

Thoughts like "Fattening in the butt, shy, petty, carsick except in a truck, perhaps I was more suited to country life than I'd ever understood" seem bizarrely caustic. Without knowing more about why Tassie thinks the way she does, we're left with fairly stereotypical impressions of a hick rural hamlet and a navel-gazing, lefty college town.

An attempt to deal with military subject matter also feels a little hastily put together. In trying to capture the rapid-fire barrage of military acronyms, Moore includes "they were equipped with AKs" but the U.S. military has never used the AK-47 (they're equipped with M-16s). Granted, it's a minor error, but a distracting one that undermines the authenticity of Moore's descriptions.

The first two-thirds of A Gate at the Stairs are the strongest, before various shockers are revealed and the novel feels as if it is both spinning a little out of control and straining for broad social commentary.

As Moore herself has said, "Literature contains more intimacy than life." Gate is at its best when it's running alongside the small, telling and at times uncomfortable intimacies between Tassie and her fellow travelers through this tumultuous year.

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