A Gate at the Stairs, By Lorrie Moore

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The Independent Culture

The landlocked Midwest is an uncompromising place to live. In this novel by Lorrie Moore, there's a sense that she has wrung every last drop of mirth and meaning from dispiriting surroundings. The author of three celebrated short-story collections and two previous novels, including the memorably titled Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, Moore returns after an 11-year intermission with a masterly work that examines how Americans have educated themselves to endure the unendurable. The novel's narrator, 20-year old Tassie Keltjin, has just enrolled at Troy university, "the Athens of the Midwest". The daughter of a Lutheran farmer and a Jewish mother, she's hungry for enlightenment. Engaged by her classes (Intro to Sufism and a module in war-movie soundtracks) and happily scandalised by her roommate's warped jokes, Tassie has never eaten Chinese takeaway or seen a man wear a tie with jeans. Her life gets yet more piquant when she accepts a child-minding job with a glamorous local couple. Sarah and Edward are only part-way through the adoption process – her charge is yet to exist - and Tassie comes to understand she's a witness to a stage-managed act whose true complexity will only revealed as the novel progresses.

When Mary-Emma, a mixed-race toddler, eventually arrives, Tassie is almost exclusively in charge. Baby risotto is Fed-exed to the house, and she's instructed to call 911 in case of emergency. The adoption process is formally polished off in a flurry of support groups and politically correct mantras, each sounding to Tassie as if "it had the sharp edge of a weird lie poking into it". Still a child herself, Tassie lavishes love and lavender yoghurt pops on Mary-Emma, but also trundles her off in her "kick-ass American stroller" to visit her new boyfriend, the ethnically unknowable Reynaldo.

Alternating between the playful and the tragic, Moore, is the kind of writer who shifts invisible gears to reveal chasms beneath. Like a younger and insouciant Anne Tyler, she replays commonplace observations from everyday life in new and subversive ways. The narrative might ostensibly be about 11 September, inter-racial America and an unspeakable personal tragedy, but it's Tassie's induction into adult deception and double-speak that lies at the heart of the novel. "Death and dessert," Tassie thinks at one point, sizing up a bowl of cream and a bowl of artificial sweeteners. "Sweetness and doom...I was coming to see that this was not uncommon." It's what Moore's fiction is all about.