In How Fiction Works, the tutorial by the New Yorker critic and Harvard professor, James Wood writes, “Literature makes us better noticers of life; we get to practice on life itself; which in turn makes us better readers of detail in literature; which in turn makes us better readers of life. And so on and on.”
Contemporary fiction has produced few noticers with a better eye and more engaging voice than Tassie Keltjin, the narrator of Lorrie Moore’s deceptively powerful A Gate at the Stairs. For much of Moore’s first novel in 15 years—her short stories have established her as something of a Stateside Alice Munro—Tassie’s eye and ear are pretty much all there is to the book.
And they are more than enough, for the 20-year-old college student makes for good company. Perceptive, with a self-deprecating sense of humor, she lulls the reader into not taking the matter-of-fact events of Tassie’s life too seriously, until that life darkens through a series of events that even the best noticers might not have predicted.
Because her ostensible roommate now lives with a boyfriend, we get to know Tassie very well—as a fully fleshed character rather than a type—and spend a lot of time inside her head. She splits her year between the university community more liberal than the rest of the Midwest and the rural Wisconsin town where her father is considered more of a “hobbyist” farmer than a real one.
“What kind of farmer’s daughter was I?” she asks. A virgin, but more from lack of opportunity than moral compunction (she compares her dating experiences to an invisible electric fence for dogs), and a bass player, both electric and stand-up. Singing along to her instrument, she describes “trying to find the midway place between melody and rhythm—was this searching not the very journey of life?”
Explains Moore of her protagonist, “Once I had the character and voice of Tassie I felt I was on my way. She would be the observer of several worlds that were both familiar and not familiar to her…Initially I began in the third person and it was much more of a ghost story and there were a lot of sisters and, well, it was a false start.”
It’s hard to imagine this novel working in the third person, because we need to see Tassie’s life through her eyes. As she learns some crucial lessons outside the classroom, the reader learns as well to be a better noticer. Tassie’s instincts are sound, but her comic innocence takes a tragic turn, as she falls into her first serious romance, finds a job as nanny for an adopted, biracial baby and suffers some aftershocks from 9/11 a long way from Manhattan. The enrichment of such complications makes this one of the year’s best novels, yet it is Tassie’s eye that makes us better readers of life. And so on and on.