Friday, 20 August 2010

Plot, Mystery and Stories: Literary Lessons from Lorrie Moore and Audrey Niffenegger

The pile of books by the side of the bed has been tall all summer. In addition to a number of gift books, there have been a series of what might be called directed reading. These are books I think might be useful for my projects but which are light enough (intellectually as well as physicially) to read at bedtime.

But I've also read two recent novels for no reason other than I saw them on the shelves at the library: Lorrie Moore's A Gate at the Stairs and Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger. Both were excellent reads, but very different even though the stories are both centered around young women from the US Midwest and both have death and deceit at their core.

What is different is the role that plot plays. In the former, Moore gives us a mystery with political overtones told against a rather banal landscape of college and dysfunctional family and thwarted young love. The latter is weird tale in which twins whose mother was a twin inherit a London apartment from their mothe's twin. College and dysfunctional family and thwarted young love are important here too, but Niffenegger constructs her story as if it were a jigsaw puzzle with ghostly, cosmic overtones.

Moore takes care to drop her clues along the way, but the book also is full of brilliant observations about race in the United States, adoption, filial love, and war. These are not strictly necessary to advance the plot, but the story's value lies in just these almost-digressions. It is as if Moore, whose last work of fiction was published a decade or so ago, had stored up all her reflections about American life and worked to include them in her novel, which otherwise would be of relatively little interest.

Which is better? Niffenegger is full of delightful shivers that makes death not that terrible, and as such probably has more popular appeal. But in the What's Good sweepstakes, Moore wins because her book, while flawed, has foundations far deeper than its story.

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