by Margaret Atwood
Nan A. TaleseBuy at Powell’s »
March 17, 2010
Resolved: The ToB should limit itself to fun books only. I say this as a judge who just powered through a pair of draining booksneither of which I finished feeling ecstatic aboutand who now must deliver a verdict, sliding one book along to the next bracket. Why couldn’t I be the guy who drew the token YA book or graphic novel? Or should I be flattered that the Rooster gods deemed me worthy of the challenge?
I found myself faced with this question: As a reader, do you prefer a book whose author set out to portray the quotidian and accomplished this in pyrotechnic fashion, or do you prefer a book that aims for the epic, powerful, and spectacular and falls short, instead offering a sometimes thrilling, sometimes shambling novel?
The former in this case is Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs. The cover of this book is comically weird. The book many times refers to gates at the stairways leading into houses and to gates atop staircases inside houses. The cover shows, marooned in a vacant and hazy dust field, an old-fashioned staircase of the sort one might have used to enter a plane in the 1950s. I don’t like literal covers any more than the next book snob, and this cover is both literal and incorrect in its interpretation of the book title. Or so it seems to me anyway.
The text contains some incongruities as well. Tassie Keltjin is an at times astonishingly introverted college student, who, essentially friendless, seems to be wandering through her college experience in a dense fog. She takes a job as a nanny for a couple so supercilious and privileged that they hire her prior to actually acquiring a child. If all of this sounds sort of small-potatoes to you, you’re not alone. After this white coupleSarah, a chef, and Edward, a professoradopt a daughter of mixed race, they begin to see themselves as, if not oppressed per se, then under threat of imminent oppression.
They start a support group for multiracial families, and here Moore produces pages of cringe-worthy dialogue snippets. One thinks that Moore is being wryly critical of lip-service liberalism, but she also offers a white kid with a mohawk leaning out a car window in broad daylight in the middle of what we’ve been told is a hyper-liberal college town to yell the n-word at a baby. I know racism is all around us, but this is all eerily reminiscent of the movie Crash.
Tassie, meanwhile, is beguilingly opaque, and though she clearly is not a misanthrope, she seems to have no meaningful relationships with anyone outside her family. She’s friendless in a way that doesn’t make sense, and this felt to me like a failing of the book.
What kept the book from being insufferable is that Lorrie Moore can really write (as her many fans know). In fact, it was a relief that a good chunk of the book seemed to be about the weather. An excerpt: It seemed now that the town had started to throw off the monochromatic winter to reveal its bright lunatic pajamas beneath. I could read that all day. Still, it could not save this book.
At any rate, to pit Moore’s exploration of racial attitudes and adoption in a college town against the fierce turn-of-the-19th-century Jamaican slaves in Marlon James’s The Book of Night Women is unfair. Epithets from mohawked adolescents are beyond trivial alongside the beatings, rape, and murder that James offers up unflinchingly.
Night Women, narrated in a slave patois (not unlike last year’s Rooster winner), follows green-eyed Lilith and her fellow slaves, especially a clutch of Ancient Greek-surnamed women: Gorgon, Hippolyta, Callisto, Homer, etc. The book derives its energy from its moment in history. Slaves newly stolen from Africa rub elbows with those stolen and sold from their mothers on plantations across the island. Africa, a distant memory, nevertheless looms close at hand in the speech of the slaves and in the mysticism and magic that run through their lives.
Lilith, at the novel’s center is, relatively speaking, charmed, and avoids, thanks to the maneuverings of the head house slave Homer, certain death at the hands of the plantation’s enforcers for killing one of their number. The book, ultimately and fascinatingly, plumbs Lilith’s internal battle pitting her desire to exact revenge on her oppressors against her need to feel something other than hate and fear.
As this dilemma suggests, these aren’t the saintly, burdened slaves typical in literature. They are filled with pettiness and betrayal, ugliness and vulgarity (the vulgarity alone is as inventive as it is pervasive throughout Night Women). Likewise, Jamaica’s white slave-owning class isn’t just distant and brutal. James paints them as venal, rapacious, predatory monsters.
Taken together, the Africa-inflected language, the powerful, mystical female protagonists, and the unflinching portrayal of life as a slave unlucky enough to end up on a Jamaican sugar plantation make for a riveting and exhausting read.
Alas, Night Women is also so full and unwieldy a novel that it at times threatens to come apart. Lilith’s story alone cannot support the book’s more than 400 pages. Nearly identical scenes recur chapters apart. Other scenes are too muddled to decipher. Key details and concepts are awkwardly wedged into the plot.
Despite these failings, Night Women will no doubt capture the interest of many readers with its energy and ambition, and Marlon James’s scrappy effort deserves to make it through to the next round over Lorrie Moore’s polished, sometimes sublime, but ultimately disappointing book.
C. Max Magee created and edits The Millions. He has appeared on NPR’s Weekend Edition and Minnesota Public Radio’s Midmorning and has written for Poets & Writers, The Rumpus, and various other online and dead-tree publications. He and his wife live in Philadelphia. Known connections to this year’s contenders: John Wray, Victor LaValle, and Wells Tower have contributed pieces to my web site. I’ve emailed with Tower on a couple of occasions.