What Nanny Knew

Lorrie Moore’s new novel is all about lies.

I was in high school, and my mom, inveterate finder of great new books, brought home Lorrie Moore’s newly published first story collection, Self-Help (1985). She left it sitting on the side table by the big checkered chair in the den. I picked up the book, idly curious. The first story, of course, was “How To Be an Other Woman.” I had never read a story in the imperative voice and was immediately drawn in. And then, a few pages in, there it was, embedded in an exchange between two lovers:

The next time he phones, he says: “I was having a dream about you and suddenly I woke up with a jerk and felt very uneasy.” Say: “Yeah, I hate to wake up with jerks.”

I stared at the book, as at a creature at the zoo. A joke. I was not sure I had ever seen one like this before, folded into what was obviously literary fiction, unafraid of looking dumb, unafraid of being dumb, just sitting there, totally unembarrassed and undisguised, unapologetically doing its job. Which was to soften the blow. And make it hurt more at the same time.

All of a sudden, new things seemed possible in a short story. Publishers are forever touting fresh voices; this one really was something that belonged to itself, a voice as tight and resonant as a drum. But a funny drum.

The collection was spiked with “How To” stories, as they have come to be known, all jokey and dark and crammed with wordplay. Moore’s achievement was recognized by readers and critics; she was almost immediately anthologized and taught. Two more excellent collections followed; her 1998 Birds of America was a bestseller and contained a story generally considered a masterpiece, “People Like That Are the Only People Here.”

She also wrote two novels, Anagrams (1986) and Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? (1994), books that felt curiously tethered to the short stories. They dealt with the kind of wry, disappointed women who featured in many of the stories; they were experimental (Anagrams) or fast-moving (Frog Hospital). They were playful, melancholy, smallish affairs.

In A Gate at the Stairs, bulkier than her other books, Moore has now written something that looks a lot more like a traditional novel. It has a sympathetic protagonist. It has a plot! This is quite a change for Moore, whose short story “How To Become a Writer” contained this immortal line: “Plots are for dead people, pore-face.”

Tassie Keltjin, the narrator, is a lonely Midwestern farm girl who has come to college in a big (or biggish) city that sounds much like Madison, Wis. The time is just after Sept. 11, 2001. But Tassie is hardly the person suggested by this thumbnail description. Her father is a weirdo organic farmer; her mom is a buttoned-up transplanted East Coaster; her brother, who hates high school, is doing yoga to cheer himself up and considering going into the military.

There is nothing typical about this family, but that does not keep Tassie herself—who plays the bass and rides a scooter—from feeling, in the manner of many heroes of the bildungsroman, fatally cut off from the town where she grew up. Most importantly, Tassie is someone who observes everything. She is not one of Moore’s charming jokers, at least not out loud. Her observant nature isolates her from other people; she sees more than she says.

At the opening of the book, Tassie’s main human contact is with her new boss, a more familiar Moore figure. Sarah is a fraught, nervy, compulsively jokey chef married to Edward, a mysterious figure who seems always to be away on business. The two want to adopt a baby; Tassie will be its nanny. Together Tassie and Sarah begin to meet with potential moms: girls who may or may not give away their babies. Eventually Sarah and Edward adopt a biracial daughter named Mary-Emma.

Moore is only warming up, but already the specter of children’s vulnerability—so haunting in “People Like That Are the Only People Here”—looms. And she doesn’t hesitate to be heavy-handed, though in typically joking Moore style: It is her first day taking care of Mary-Emma, and Tassie has to battle her way through a series of little gates to reach the baby, who is crying in her crib. Sarah warns Tassie about the gate: “And you’ll need to be watchful with that baby gate upstairs. I don’t want her tumbling down. … Babygate! Now there’s a scandal.”

For a while, not much happens. Tassie takes care of the baby, does her homework, and falls in love with Reynaldo, a Brazilian student she meets in her Intro to Sufism class. Sarah works at her restaurant and starts a support group for parents of biracial children. Then and only then does the plot begin in earnest. Incident crowds the last one-third of the book, like furniture crammed into the far end of a room. This plot, the plot that surges forward in the final part of the book, involves children getting hurt, but not in any expected way. No one falls through the gate.

All kinds of other horrific stuff does happen; and it all comes as a surprise. (I’ll try not to give away too much plot.) The people around Tassie are hiding their real identities. Sarah is not who she says she is; neither is Reynaldo. Even Tassie’s family surprises her with rash, out-of-character decisions.

Events sneak up on Tassie because, despite her observant nature, the truth eludes her. She is constantly trying to figure out what is really going on with the people around her. Moore has a clever, and of course funny, device for showing the girl’s search for clarity. When Tassie listens to other people talk, she translates their words into literal truth. A character says something is “hogwash,” and Tassie reflects, “I had once seen a hog washed. In whey.” Another character uses the word bullshit, and Tassie thinks, “I had seen bullshit. I had seen chickens run after it and eat it warm.” She is the ultimate Midwesterner: At first these responses make Tassie seem kind of slow; after a while, they serve to make the other speakers appear dissociated from the basic realities of life. Tassie, with her literalism, is looking for some solid truth.

Tassie, age 20, is in many ways still a child trying to figure out what the adults are up to. As Sarah’s employee, she is also a servant. Moore reinforces the servant theme (if subtly) by having her zip around on a Suzuki scooter. Here’s the connection: The opera Madame Butterfly is threaded through the novel—it makes appearances in both the epigraph and the text of the book—and Butterfly’s faithful servant was named Suzuki. As both a young person and a servant, Tassie is doubly dislocated from the action at the center of the book, doubly powerless, doubly susceptible to being lied to.

This is a novel about lies of all kinds: deliberate disinformation, dainty obfuscation, and flat out bullshit, not the kind eaten by chickens. It is no accident that it is set at the outset of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Moore could be saying this: We were all Tassies then, being lied to, trying to piece the truth together. When a letter comes from the Army, announcing the death of one of the characters, it is incomprehensible, an evasion told in acronyms: “There was a BBIED but no QRD, which were all in TK or J-bad along with all the MREs; they were equipped with AKs but even a routine land-mine sweep can go awry.” Language is no longer a servant of the truth.

In Who Will Run the Frog Hospital, the narrator thinks: “And it makes me wonder how many things have begun this way, as jokes. Love, adolescence, marriage, life, death; perhaps God is looking down saying ‘Geeze, y’all, lighten up. This is funny. You’re missing the intonation.’ ” Moore began with jokes, with intonation, with funny. The narrator was often the joker; as readers, we identified with the person performing the wordplay. Not so in this novel. Sarah—the mother, the liar, the adult, the compromised person—is the one who cracks the jokes. Tassie is the one who begins to suspect that the joke is on her.

Moore has performed a brilliant feat. She has retained the shining, fluid, and, yes, funny surface of her earlier work. But she has also given us a narrator who attempts to peer through the shimmering veil of language to the truth behind.