The Family That Slays Together

Deborah Friedell

  • A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore
    Faber, 322 pp, £16.99, October 2009, ISBN 978 0 571 19530 5

‘Let yourself look into the abyss,’ commands Manage Your Mind: The Mental Fitness Guide. ‘Put into words the catastrophe that you fear . . . Sometimes it seems not too bad when it is brought out into the open.’ So what’s the worst thing that could happen? You lose your kid. Hardly! Try this: one of your kids kills the other one. Or one of your kids kills your other kid and a lot of other people’s kids besides. No sympathetic neighbours bringing over casseroles now. Or maybe you’re the one who kills your kid, in madness or by accident. The abyss is deeper than you knew.

Lorrie Moore’s new novel is her first in 15 years and thematically her most ambitious. Her characters are affected by racism, 9/11, the military, jihadism, global warming, the internet, farming and food culture, adoption laws, sex and academia – but all of these subjects are overpowered by the story Moore tells of parents who are responsible for the death of their child. ‘What further horror could match this?’ asks the chorus in Medea. In Moore’s earlier fictions, the death of a child is an imaginative no man’s land: no stories can come out of it or after it. In one of Moore’s short stories, a mother with a sick child can only imagine her son’s death as an end to all existence: ‘We are nothing without you. Without you, we are a heap of rocks. We are gravel and mould. Without you, we are two stumps, with nothing any longer in our hearts.’

The death of a child – or at least the child of a main character – has only ever emerged in Moore’s fiction as a possibility, to be sniffed and inspected, fortuitously avoided. In ‘People Like That Are the Only People Here’, a woman’s toddler has cancer: ‘What words can be uttered? You turn just slightly and there it is: the death of your child.’ But the cancer is less severe than she’d feared. She leaves the hospital holding her baby, as other sick children’s parents look on enviously: ‘“No chemo?” says one of the nurses. “Not even a little chemo?”’ In another story, ‘Terrific Mother’ (improbably and fantastically, one of Moore’s funniest), a woman is holding a friend’s baby when she loses her balance; she causes the picnic bench she’s sitting on to collapse, and the baby falls and dies. ‘Adrienne went home shortly thereafter, after the hospital and the police reports, and did not leave her attic apartment for seven months’ – at which point she recovers, but it’s suggested that she would be in the attic still if it had been her own child. We learn nothing more about the baby’s parents, though we’re told that Adrienne’s boyfriend buys them a new picnic bench. (‘You did?’ ‘Did what?’ ‘You bought the Spearsons a new picnic bench?’) The death of their child is the end of their story; they must be written out of the narrative no less ruthlessly than they would have been had they ended their lives themselves. Another Moore parent imagines the death of her child: ‘I’ll spell out the general idea: R-O-P-E.’

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