Monday, August 17, 2015

Latkes in literature

Just read and really liked Lorrie Moore's A Gate at the Stairs. Goodreads people were less enthusiastic about it. I'll make the case:

Spoilers below, so click on the post title for the rest...

-It helps that Tassie, though a Midwestern country girl and in-state college student and 20-year-old virgin, isn't painted as some full-on cliché of rustic outsider. Her father's a farmer, but the sort who sells tiny bunches of expensive boutique ingredients at the farmers market. And her mother's Jewish. (And, like all Jews not specified as non-Ashkenazi, makes latkes. It is our trademark.) And her paternal grandfather was a college president. She's never been on a plane, but she's somehow worldly, and has thoughts about the side of the road people drive on in England. All of this could read as unrealistic - wouldn't a real farmers' daughter be otherwise, or have at least grown up deeply involved in some kind of church? shouldn't she be scrappier and more thoroughly first-gen? - but struck me as entirely realistic, given the trajectories lives really do take across generations. While this story didn't particularly resemble my own life (no known farmers in my family, and no Midwesterners unless Chicago counts), it seemed a plausible mishmash of friends and acquaintances from over the years. Whether the descriptions of farming are themselves accurate, I have no idea. I did find myself wondering how all this farming (supplying markets and various restaurants, and so many different crops) could be done more or less singlehandedly by one middle-aged man.

-The oops my Brazilian boyfriend is not Brazilian and is actually a jihadist plotline struck me as, if not literally plausible, something that nevertheless worked. It got at how, in a first relationship, the things that look like red flags to anyone with even a bit of life experience can seem romantic, or just unremarkable, even to geeky young women who come across as smart and with-it in other areas. Having started college right after 9/11, I'm very much of the same generation as Tassie, and if let's say a friend had gotten into this situation (thankfully none did), I wouldn't have found it all that surprising. He's a bit older, fine. He has quirky religious views (that get spelled out in time) and no social circle of his own, and doesn't speak the language of the place he's supposedly from, but hey! He's hot, he's a first boyfriend, a first sex partner, and benefits of the doubt can always be summoned in such cases. Without means of comparison, a whole lot can seem reasonable.

-Did the book seem plausibly like a woman in her late 20s recalling being 20, as versus a middle-aged author speculating on Today's Youth? I mostly think so. The only bit that seemed unrealistic was how interested the narrator was in women's aging, and in middle-aged women looking tired. It wasn't quite that the observations rang false for what someone 20 would think re: someone 45, so much as that her level of interest in the lives and youthfulness or lack thereof of 40-plus women seemed a bit greater than plausible. That said, plausibility isn't everything, and this is one of those books about a young adult that's actually about somewhat older adults.

-The book reminded me a lot of something, and then I realized which other book: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah. The parts where Tassie overhears a parents-of-non-white-children group chatting/arguing about race, and snippets of their conversation are woven into the text had a similar function in the story as Ifemelu's blog posts. Somehow the blog posts worked, but the dialogue... would have done so, without the at times heavy-handed references to Tassie's own just-folks farm-girl knowledge, e.g. someone uses the expression "a load of crap," and she considers that she has seen this, literally, in its use as fertilizer. Because, you know, she's from the country.

-One thing I think the book got very right, though, was that we don't get this portrait of College Life, complete with the frat parties and National Review tsk-tsk-ready hook-up culture portraits and some kind of gaggle of OMG-ing girlfriends. College very often can mean time spent alone, or with one close friend, but because a) that's not think-piece material, and b) no one ever sees college students at those moments, it's unusual to read about it.

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