Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs and the Successes of Realist Fiction

mooreThis weekend N & I were in Oak Island, N.C., where my sister got married. I did the ceremony. You may as well prepare for a long post on all this. It was, maybe, a once-in-a-lifetime event: getting to the write the words that people listen to while they watch a couple ceremonially join their lives. People seemed to like what I came up with, and it was fun standing there and being in charge and just feeling only happiness when they kissed right in front of me, and then it was over.

Good food at the restaurant, which was right on the water and reserved, the whole place, just for all of us. The centerpieces consisted of orange candles and sand set in glass vases and were, anyone could tell, a little unfortunate. The tops of the candles extended beyond the rims of the vases. They looked awkward, like a kid in clothes he’s well outgrown. The colors on the cake ran and the edible shells melted and looked wrong. You could tell they were meant to be shells and many of them were but some weren’t.

I’m not trying to be a dick. I’m just relaying a part of the experience of being at the wedding. I’m doing it wrong, though. Because, I mean, what are the options? When telling a story in whatever yer medium is, how do you render such details? TV gets it all wrong. TV puts stuff like this in shows called BRIDEZILLA and uses careful editing to create post-produced “drama” it couldn’t quite find on camera. On TV, an outsized candle or droopy marshmallow shell is the cause for life-stopping hell to be raised.

For the sake of brevity let’s skip all other media and go right to fiction. Even here you’ve got lots of options. The candle and the cake could be symbols for whatever theme on the state of things in the world yer trying to develop. They could be set dressing, rendered through a jack-knifed assembly of words no one has quite seen before—artful, stylized, “languagey”. But it feels a lot of times to me like a kind of lie to do either of these, because the fact of the candle, if it is a fact, is that it was fine, in the end. I mean, yeah, it was higher than the vase, but the sand inside was taken right from the very beach where the couple was wed, which made guests’ getting to take these centerpieces home all the more nice. Plus there was a ribbon tied plainly but attractively around the widest part of the vase. The misfortune of the candle was something anyone could notice and that everyone would forget about moments later.

Isn’t this, then, the effect one should go for in writing? Noticing and then forgetting? Being able to remember if you need to but not being forced to remember against your will?

The cake, well all I can say about it is that it was by needs gluten-free and tasted way better than the gluten-rich cake the restaurant provided for those unheedful of wheat in their diets.

I asked my sister whether she was upset and she seemed not to care too much. And then I kept looking for that part of her that was covering up the fact that this small part of her big day had been ruined, but I never found it. It wasn’t there. It wasn’t a big deal. There was so much else worth everyone’s concern.

Sometimes when I think about it, I have myself convinced that the only reason I return again and again to novels is just to find moments like these given language in which to be pinned down for observation. Novels as entomological collections of the banal details that fill our days. I’m a person who at some point or another has come to believe that I don’t know what anything means until I read something written about it, and I come to novels to be told what the details of life mean. The dumb stuff that fills the air. The thing I felt when I saw my sister’s centerpieces: what was it? The way she shrugged off the post-pickup status of her wedding cake: if it meant nothing what kind of nothing did it mean?

I mean, who’s with me? How else to explain the tremors in my heart as I read last night on a long-delayed plane this unforgettably forgettable passage? Tassie and her parents are at their town’s July 4 festivities:

Once the sun set completely, its murky rose stretched taffylike across the horizon, the air grew cooler, and the show began. Like the operation of a rocket ship, the fireworks were staged to burst at designated points across the sky. Peonies and chrysanthemums bloomed forth from spasms and explosions. Were we having fun? Dripping sparkle sizzled and dissipated, then resumed; the deathly silence before each burst began to fill me with dread. Screeches, whistles, booms: the barium green and copper blue held too many intimations of war. We were a glum trio, my parents and I, our necks nonetheless arced and our heads dropped back onto the flattened hoods of our sweatshirts, watching all this lit-up drizzle. Our snack was gone. We had eaten the whole container’s worth.

Would it have been so bad to have remained a colony of England? I wondered fiercely with every bang. Would it have been so terrible if every dessert was called a pudding even if it was a cake, to grow up saying “in hospital,” to lose a few articles, to spell gray with an e, to resprinkle the r‘s, to have an idle king, an idle queen, and put all the car steering wheels on the right? Well, perhaps the steering wheels would be worth fighting for. Perhaps our Founding Fathers had had an intimation of that one.

“There was a lot of smallpox in the eighteenth century,” I said on the way home, squeezed between my parents in the front of the truck.

“There sure was,” said my dad. “But they started the inoculations around the time of the war, I think.”

“Well, we can celebrate that, at least,” said my mother. “Sometimes I think it might not have been so awful to be English.”

“Oh, my God—I was just thinking the same thing!”

“Torries in the lorry!” exclaimed my dad.

“Well, how awful could it be? England looks great in pictures. You went there on your honeymoon!”

“We would have been colonists,” said my dad.

“So? Would we have had to wear big scarlet Cs around our necks?”

My father leaned past me to say to my mother, “You send a kid to college, and look what you get.”

“Corrine Carlten wears a big gold C around willingly,” I said.

“How is Corrine these days?” asked my mother.

“I really wouldn’t know,” I said, and then fell silent. Every exchange with my parents ended up in some boring place I didn’t want to be.

“And how about Krystal Bunberry, since her did got sick and all.”

“Dunno,” I said. “She was nice to send that toilet paper, though!”

“If we were still English,” said my father, “we’d be drinking more and driving on the wrong side of the road—pretty much what people do on the Fourth of July anyway.”

“I don’t like all the words in our national anthem,” my mother said. She had given up on me and my friends as a topic of conversation. “‘Bombs bursting in air.’ What kind of song is that to sing? When sung in large crowds, everyone takes a deep breath and it sounds like ‘bombs bursting in hair.'”

“Hush,” said my father.

Then we all looked out at the road. The high crucifixes of phone and electric poles, in line on either side, multiplied and shrinking in the distance almost to a vanishing point, made me think of the final scene of Spartacus.

“Think the corn’s knee high?” asked my mom, and soon our truck lights swung and shone onto our driveway and we were home.

I might hope otherwise, but the bulk of my life as I understand it is filled with these uninteresting times of dumb silliness and cordial chitchat, and because it takes up so much of my waking hours, isn’t it better to hope it has some meaning, some import? Lorrie Moore is so unimaginably good at capturing this mess of life. Like: I can’t imagine how she does it.

I think I know what it takes, maybe. Intelligence, right? I mean, of a kind. And it’s not the kind of intelligence you can test, the kind that teachers reward or that makes mothers proud. And it’s not the thing people seem to be referring to when they speak so knowingly of “street smarts,” whatever they are. It’s a different kind, a kind of intelligence yer friends try to overlook when they invite you out for things. An intelligence that comes probably from a lifetime of close and careful observation, the sort of thing no one can teach because it has only one impossible lesson: watch and learn.

Lorrie Moore is a writer who shows us all we can learn just by watching people fill the spaces of their lives with words and deeds. I don’t think I need the novels I read to do anything else.

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