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novel excerpts: Lorrie Moore and Jonathan Lethem

gateThis week’s New Yorker features an excerpt (titled “Childcare”) from Lorrie Moore’s long-awaited new novel, A Gate at the Stairs, coming this September from Knopf. I agree with The Millions, however, that novel excerpts can be hazardous to your reading health–and having read the ARC, I must say this particular morsel doesn’t stand alone as a story or represent the fabulous feast it comes from. So if you can restrain yourself, wait until this book is out and read the whole thing.

chronicAnd in case you missed it, the November 4, 2008 issue featured an excerpt (titled “Lostronaut”) from what will be Jonathan Lethem’s new novel, Chronic City, which pubs this October from Doubleday. This one fares much better than Moore’s out of context.

Join the Discussion

  • I appreciate your take on the Moore, Anne. I am definitely looking forward to the novel.

  • Paul Dorell

    I’d take your word for it, but I’ve read “Childcare” and think that the remainder of the novel is also likely to be a disappointment. I’ve hoped for years that Moore would branch out and drop some of her cloyingly cute language in favor of precise portraits of actual people who are actively attempting to deal with their lives, but this has never happened. The “morsel” demonstrates that Moore doesn’t know much about what’s going on in Madison beyond the University of Wisconsin Department of English and the one or two high-end restaurants in town.

  • Paul, I’d urge you to read the whole novel before jumping to that conclusion. Of course I was already a huge Lorrie Moore fan when I picked up the ARC, but I have to say I was thrilled to see how she’s extended her reach in this novel — far beyond what you suggest here (and I’d argue that all of her work, as far back as Self Help, is hugely insightful about the way people respond to the world and each other). What seems in its opening pages like merely a coming-of-age story winds up being about a whole cast of unique characters who are, as you put it, “actively trying to deal with their lives” — and the novel goes beyond satire or mere comment to confront some pretty big issues about racism, adoption, the war in Iraq, and the blunt reality of the compromises people often choose make of their lives — all through the perspective of a character much more naive and idealistic than her author, who is neither of these things. Full of clever, punny turns of phrase at the outset, this book had me in tears by its end. For now I’d hesitate to say more, as I don’t want to ruin the story for anyone who hasn’t read it yet, and you can read the book and reviews of it in just a couple of months.

    As a quick P.S., I’d also like to say that Fiction Writers Review is a site created and maintained for the sake of discussing and promoting the books we love as writers and for writers — and to encourage other reader-writers to explore them. As adherents to the “do no harm” policy, we don’t publish negative reviews (though we do publish mixed/critical ones). So our site isn’t the best place to vent about disliking a living author’s work. And as FWR’s editor, I have low personal tolerance for ad hominem attacks. Period. Stick to the text, and before publicly damning it, at least read the book. Thank you.

  • Paul Dorell

    Anne, I will take your chastening words under consideration and perhaps discipline myself to give the novel an impartial reading. I’m familiar with all of Moore’s work to date, including her essays, and, as you may gather, I have been frustrated that she has not hitherto taken the leap into what I would consider to be great, timeless fiction. Her talent was in full evidence as early as “How to Be an Other Woman,” which was written a quarter of a century ago, and in my opinion she has only made marginal improvements since then.

    In some respects, I don’t belong on this blog at all. I’ve soured on fiction in general, and think that as an art form it peaked in nineteenth-century Europe. The only American writers I’ve come to enjoy are Lorrie Moore and David Sedaris, neither of whom display the depth or intelligence of George Eliot, who herself issued a few notable clunkers.

    The world we live in today is so complex and lacking in collective history that it may take a superhuman writer to tie everything together in a way that once seemed possible.

  • Paul, if you think that fiction “peaked in nineteenth-century Europe,” then it is in *all* respects that you do not belong on this blog, not just some.

  • Paul Dorell

    Preeta, I’m sorry if my presence on this blog offends you, and I promise to sit quietly and not to become a nuisance. Having been born in England, I also carry an immigrant pedigree, though perhaps it has been tarnished by some cultural imperialism that I picked up along the way. Our family is making amends: my daughter is married to a Tibetan refugee whom she met in Nepal.

  • All are welcome at FWR, and spirited arguments are welcome, too; I’d just like to avoid a debate about a book that hasn’t come out yet. Once it does, let’s do tussle. :)

    It’s true, as Preeta suggests, that this particular community thrives on the faith that some excellent writing is being published today and will continue to be published around the globe, hopefully for some time to come. That may sound like a raw, wide-eyed claim, but let me assert that I have no illusions about how many tepid, pointless, unreadable, or just plain bad books are also created every year. (I love Blanche Boyd’s two questions she’d ask about a piece of writing: Is it good? and Does it matter? — the latter question inspiring a whole host of others.) And so this site seeks to rummage through the fray, find some really good books, and talk them up.

    And this *is* (or could be) a good blog for talking about what dissatisfies us about contemporary fiction, what’s missing or what we think is missing. I agree that George Eliot is a genius (and hard to top), and I have a special place in my heart for the 19th-century novel. But I think there are plenty of contemporary novelists, American ones included, producing excellent work today. Some even have wonderful social-historical criticism chops, like or totally unlike Eliot’s. For this particular type of novelist, however, I’d look beyond Moore and Sedaris (who is, to get uber-techincal, an essayist), as these writers — both of them among my favorites — usually write very much as and about (transparently or not) themselves; they’re certainly social critics, too, but from a very personal POV.

    As I consider my own favorite authors from the 20th and 21st centuries – particularly ones who write about “big” issues – I find most of them aren’t American either, but here are some wonderful exceptions: Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge, E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, Andrea Barrett’s The Voyage of the Narwhal, Edward P. Jones’ The Known World, Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. And pretty much everything by Deborah Eisenberg, just inside-out. If you haven’t, I heartily recommend you read Lauren Groff’s recent story collection Delicate Edible Birds; I think the first story owes a lot to Moore (who was her teacher), but the rest are utterly her own and branch out in all kinds of surprising directions. Oy, I have had so many crises of faith about books, particularly novels – thinking suddenly that all of them are terrible, that I can’t bear to read another – but every book I’ve listed above was powerful enough to bring me back around. And (in typical American fashion!), with every conversion, I’m more nutty about them than before.

  • Paul Dorell

    Anne, Thanks for the tips. I occasionally make random stabs at contemporary fiction, and am usually unimpressed. I’ll take you up on Lauren Groff (trade in Lorrie Moore for a younger model?). I’m retired and figure I have thirty or forty years to kill, so what the heck?

    You would think that with the sheer volume of publishing and the growing number of smart, well-educated people in the world there would be a new masterpiece produced every week. My thesis is that the conditions aren’t quite right for that sort of blossoming. But who knows? Even great writers can’t judge which of their works is the most important. Flaubert couldn’t understand all the fanfare about “Madame Bovary.” I think George Eliot considered “Romola” her masterpiece – it’s nearly unreadable. She also produced volumes of unreadable (and unread) poetry. So, you’re right: there’s always hope. It’s hard to know just when or how a masterpiece will be born.

  • I won’t condemn the whole novel just yet, but I didn’t care much for “Childcare”. However, I blame TNY as much as Moore for this. I’d prefer that they not publish excerpts that don’t stand alone. By the way, I assume that Lethem’s “Ava’s Apartment” (TNY May 25, 2009) is also excerpted from his forthcoming novel.

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