Friday, July 9, 2010

Book #16: Transient Family in Lorrie Moore

"For stray minutes we seemed like a family, laughing and chewing. I felt included. We were all in this together. But family life sometimes had a vortex, like weather." - Lorrie Moore, A Gate at the Stairs

When I read The Guardian review of Lorrie Moore's latest novel A Gate at the Stairs last year, I was still raw from throwing in the towel on my career as an English professor. After two years of teaching undergrads in small-town Nova Scotia, I found myself having a breakdown. So what Moore says in her Guardian interview hit a nerve. She talks openly about the transience of university towns like Madison, where she runs the University of Wisconsin's creative writing program, and reflects on still feeling like an outsider after being there for decades. Equally telling are Moore's doubts about whether creative writing should be taught in an institutional setting; she suggests that universities breed "niceness" in students and this is not a good trait in writers.

A Gate at the Stairs deals with this whirlwind of uncertainty and loss in post-9/11 America. The novel focuses on the relationship between Tassie Keltjin, a university student in the fictive Midwestern town of Troy (read: Madison), and Sarah Brink, an aging restauranteur who belatedly wants kids (despite the fact that she has reached the end of her rope with her womanizing husband). When Sarah offers Tassie a job as the part-time nanny for their soon-to-be-adopted, biracial baby, Tassie jumps at the chance. Sarah represents the allure of cosmopolitan sophistication. And in Sarah's eyes, Tassie's farm girl background gives her an air of homegrown authenticity. The two women improvise a household that actually works, in a strange way. For a while at least, until reality sets in.

In Moore's world, there are no simple, happy endings.

Sarah and Tassie's feelings of homelessness and desperate searching for some substitute home and family come through vividly, filling my eyes with tears. I can relate all too well to Sarah's plight as "one of those out-of-staters who'd moved here a while back but only had a pieced-together knowledge of the town." Many evenings I'd spent sitting at the bar of the one good restaurant in my little town, as students and locals walked past the window and stared in. There I was, alone with my martini. My awareness of being an anomaly, as the sole Asian person in town - save a few international exchange students and the couple running the Chinese restaurant - made me feel horribly isolated. As a fourth-generation Japanese-Canadian, born and raised in Toronto, I don't speak any language other than English. So when shopkeepers greeted me with "Konnichiwa," and other words borrowed from samurai movies, I was left stammering. They knew more about being Japanese than I did.

During office hours, I found myself staring at the wholesome, freckled faces of students who would come see me the day before the exam. While I droned on in a zombie-like voice about modernist aesthetics, all I could think was, I wish I could stop being a professor so we could really talk and get to know each other.

But they were stressed, eager to get their mid-terms over, so they could head home for the holidays. I, on the other hand, was looking forward to a turkey sub for Thanksgiving.

Photo from: here


Naomi said...

I loved this book by Lorrie Moore for the characterization and the plot with many surprises. Years ago our family lived away from Canada. Although we made friends, we felt the most excluded at Thanksgiving and Christmas having dinner at a hotel with other expatriates. The turkey sub sounds very sad. I hope you had cranberries.

Suman said...


Anonymous said...

As a student I wished I could get to know my professors better, but the more I respected a professor the higher the barrier seemed between us. They intimidated me, no matter how nice. I loved what we were reading and hated my peers for being bored by it. I almost wanted to protect the professors I liked so much from the students' yawns and groans. In the end I only ended up feeling isolated even though I was silently thrilled by our discussions.

Leslie Shimotakahara said...

I'm glad that despite everything you still felt a sense of connection to some of your profs. Standing on the other side of the lecture podium, I have to confess it was difficult for me to assume a conversational style of teaching, even though I sensed that would be most engaging.... To teach without a script and talk authentically about what literature really means to me requires telling personal stories about myself (my family, my childhood, my love life) and what a scandal that would be.

L lost in KY said...

wow..exactly how I'm feeling now while in my small burb in KY....


Related Posts with Thumbnails

About Me

My photo
Toronto, ON, Canada
Leslie Shimotakahara is a writer and recovering academic, who wanted to be simply a writer from before the time she could read. Hard-pressed to answer her parents’ question of how she would support herself as a writer, Leslie got drawn into the labyrinthine study of literature, completing her B.A. in Honours English from McGill in 2000, and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Modern American Literature from Brown in 2006. After graduation, she taught English at St. Francis Xavier University for two years. Leslie woke up one morning and realized that she’d had enough of the Ivory Tower. The fact that she wasn’t doing what she wanted to do with her life loomed over her, and the realization was startling. It was time to stop studying and passively observing life and do something real instead. She needed to discover herself and tell her own story. This blog and the book she has written under the same title (Variety Crossing Press, spring 2012) are her foray. Leslie's writing has been published in WRITE, TOK: Writing the New Toronto, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, and GENRE.