There are a select few people from whom I view a book recommendation, done properly (impassioned, fervent, urgently, usually over drinks), as a lifeline. A postcard into a world that person desperately desires me to glimpse, to join them in, to become a part of. A good book, a really good book not simply a “pass the time where the heck is the G train oh wait it’s the weekend and that means the G is like a unicorn” book, is a permanent addition to your working psyche, a tattoo of a set of words placed in a distinct order by another forever embedded in you.
(That’s some heavy-handed waxing right there, but it’s the truth and you know it so deal.)
From these select few people, I know the phrase “you have to read this”, said after 7 PM and in public places, is a huge deal. From these, book recommendations don’t come lightly, as a result of that friend everyone has (possibly even the same friend) who blathers on and on about, well, erm, The Kite Runner, telling everyone within earshot about how it’s “such a good book, y’all”. These people, one could say if one wanted to quote the 2009 social media phrase that pays, are “agents of trust” when it comes to recommending what to read.
One such person in my life is my friend Kelly, who I’ve known as a result of the magic that is the internet for ages now and under whose roof I lived when I first moved to New York. She’s getting ready to leave NY for greener pastures (literally-moving to Minnesota), and, out for drinks the other night, the conversation turned to Lorrie Moore-one of Kelly’s all-time favorite authors, with a new book out, a rare-from-Moore full-length novel A Gate At The Stairs, and someone I’d never read anything by. She insisted that Moore’s Who Will Run The Frog Hospital, at novella-length, was “perfectly crafted”,with every world “intentionally placed”.
(Full disclosure: not sure what Kelly’s actual verbiage was, but the essence of those quotes is 100% truth.)
I took a trip to my favorite friendly not-in-my-neighborhood bookstore, WORD, and the slim, tender size of the paperback version of Frog Hospital I purchased felt light and alive in my bag on the way home. I don’t read standing up waiting for the subway, ever (my balance isn’t good enough and I’m too clumsy, if I make a habit of reading while waiting for a train I’ll eventually meet my end toppling over onto the subway tracks), but I broke that rule and dived in.
The book is absolutely brilliant, beautifully crafted and paced in a way that causes progression to be less like page-turning and more like peeling. …Frog Hospital centers around two girls, Berie and Sils, told from the former’s perspective, and the summer when Berie was 15. Really, though, it’s a story about adolescence, growth, and, in the end, home and how it shapes a person.
What struck me most was Moore’s incredible use of language, her ability to tease and twist the very heart of a sentence:
Things, I know, stiffen and shift in memory, become what they never were before. As when an army takes over a country. Or a summer yard goes scarlet with fall and its venous leaves. One summons the years of the past largely by witchcraft-a whore’s arts, collage and brew, eye of newt, heart of horse. Still, the house of my childhood is etched in my memory like the shape of the mind itself; a house-shaped mine-why not? It was this particular mind out of which I ventured-for any wild danger or sentimental stance or lunge at something faraway. But it housed every seedling act. I floated above it, but close, like a figure in a Chagall.
I know. I KNOW. Believe me, I know. One of Moore’s most impressive strengths is that she writes like the gorgeous red-head in your undergrad creative writing class who would string together lush words and compose stories that would drip off the page like jam, yet with Moore the words don’t just look and sound attractive, they hold meaning.
Since this is less about …Frog Hospital and more about my first bit of exposure to Lorrie Moore, rather than attempt to encapsulate the plot (too late), here’s an excerpt from my “I just finished this book and can’t move” email to Kelly:
i think there’s something inherently, intrinsically linked to the
female adolescent experience in this book that anyone not RAISED as a
girl-not meaning female-identified, no, but anyone very very much not
RAISED as a girl, in the society that is, the society of young girls
and their weirdness and awkwardness and quirks-will never have access
to. as such, the last chapter didn’t slay me, it merely allowed me to
close the book softly and breathe and accept what a fucking piece of
magic i’d just read. the end for me was her driving back from her
reunion, and if it’d ended there i’d have been happy but the story
wouldn’t have been told, it wouldn’t have ended properly, and i know
So Who Will Run The Frog Hospital? Absolutely incredible 130 pages, perfect, flooring, a triumph of language.
Then I moved on to her new novel A Gate At The Stairs.
Oh, god, I hadn’t realized: see that cover there? The illuminated, well-crafted staircase leading into the air and eventually to a bright, shiny nothing? It’s unfortunate that that’s the perfect metaphor for the book itself.
A Gate At The Stairs is called a “post-9/11″ novel, which apparently is supposed to mean “discusses racial interaction, fear and tension in an awakened America”. If that’s the case, A Gate At The Stairs couldn’t be further from that label. For a tense, realistic pulse of race-relations in modern America, pick up H.M. Naqvi’s recently-published Home Boy. For a grab-bag of plot threads that never flesh themselves out fully, including the have-to-be-capitalized Ideas of Identity, Race, Love and War? Yeah, that would be A Gate At The Stairs. Feeling less like a novel written by a master of language and more like a very pretty series of digressions, Moore’s novel centers around college-aged Tassie Keltjin, the daughter of a potato farmer, who becomes the nanny to a a restauranteur/chef and her husband. Moore would have us believe Tassie’s literature-obsessed, love-sick for a classmate and lost in her own impending adulthood, but somewhere she loses the plot (both literally and figuratively) and we’re left holding strings tied to nothing.
Very, very pretty strings, yes, very attractive strings that sing with heartfelt emotion, but nonetheless strings tired empty air. If this had been the first of hers I’d read, I’d be asking myself, and others (mostly others) right now “really? Really? This is the great, powerful, incredible Lorrie Moore?”
I feel, for those who have been waiting the 11 years since Moore last wrote, that I’m ruining a literary Christmas. I wondered if maybe my reading Who Will Run The Frog Hospital? immediately before beginning A Gate At The Stairs meant this disappointment was inevitable, but a hard and honest poll of friends have proven that to not be the case. The consensus is such:
Lorrie Moore is a genius of language, yes. A treasure of literature, and one who simply must be discovered. She writes the sort of stories, the sort of short fiction, that’s good enough to live on and live for. A Gate At The Stairs, stripped of its attempts at Important Themes, would have made for an intensely emotional short story. Stretched to over 300 pages (which isn’t what I’d consider “long” for a novel), A Gate At The Stairs feels bloated, tired, unimportant. And that’s a shame from someone who I’ve only recently come to realize is by far one of the most important voices and pens in modern fiction.
Fortunately, I have all of Lorrie Moore’s other works ahead of me.