Literary fiction - everybody thinks they know what it means but no one has a decent definition. Rather, we describe it by what it's not.
It's not popular. It's never on the best seller list. James Patterson, Danielle Steel and Dan Brown don't write it. High school students groan when they're assigned it. It doesn't have a plot. It never ends happily. It ain't mystery, sci-fi or romance. There are too many words and absolutely no pictures.
Sound horrible? Many are, even though they win Pulitzers and National Book awards like moths to light. So what good are they except to make yourself sound smart at cocktail parties? Why bother?
I'll tell you why to bother: Lorrie Moore's novel A Gate at the Stairs. I can't stop thinking about it and I want everyone I love to read it. Why do I feel so strongly? I have no idea.
And thus we come to my own personal definition of literary fiction: a novel with characters so vivid that you feel you either know these people or are these people, which uses language instead of plot to do the heavy-lifting of conveying meaning and which, in answer to the question, "what's that book about?", the reply is always "life".
Lorrie Moore has written about life in the shape of college student Tassie Keltjin. Tassie was raised on a small farm and is now enrolled in a big liberal state college (think Madison or Ann Arbor). What Tassie lacks in experience, she makes up for in intelligence, humor and keen powers of observation - great qualities for a character-narrator. Tassie faithfully describes college life from the inanity of some of her classes, to the loneliness when her roommate "Murph" ditches her for a boyfriend, to the excitement when Tassie herself first falls in love.
But there's that lack of experience thing again. Tassie confuses sex with love. Her boyfriend Reynaldo does not. When he leaves college suddenly, Tassie is devastated. She has neither Murph nor her family back home to comfort her.
But the real education results from Tassie's job. She becomes a nanny for a newly-adopted baby, and the adoptive parens Sarah and Edward Thornwood-Brink become Tassies "life teachers" in a manner of speaking.
Sarah explains that she is unable to have children, and now in her forties, she and Edward have decided to adopt as a last chance. She takes Tassie to meet various birth mothers, all Tassie's age, all in trouble. One of the girls chooses Sarah and Edward as suitable parents for her two year old baby Mary, whom Sarah immediately renames the tonier "Emma".
Even when Emma comes home and the family settles into its new routine, Tassie can not forget the birth mothers she met. Will they be alright? Will they always miss their babies? She googles Emma's birth mother and sees the same name in an obituary.
But the authentically sad characters in this book are the adults. Like most young people, Tassie implicitly looks to the grown-ups for answers but the grown-ups don't seem to know any more than the college kids. Sarah deludes herself into believing that she can run her successful restaurant and be a successful mother. She can't. Edward deludes himself into thinking he wants to be a father. He flirts with Tassie instead. Tassie's own father drinks and her mother is a minor mess.
Which begs the question, what exactly do we expect kids to learn when they go away to college? Tassie studies Sufism and wine-tasting. Is that enough? Or do we want to offer them a safe 4-year introduction to adulthood? Just enough time to insure safe transit to "the real world." If that's the case, college surely didn't help any of the adults in this novel. Tassie draws her own conclusion: there's no such thing as wisdom but there is definitly lack of wisdom.
The beauty of this book is not the story: it's Lorrie Moore's telling of the story. It's rich in figurative language (the autumn moon is a "tangerine shard - an orange peel stuck up there like the lunch garbage of God") and void of cliche. Moore never tells us what to think. She just shows us Tassie observing the world, interacting with the world and let's the reader draw his own conclusion.
A Gate at the Stairs is a thoughtful and loving examination of the rigors of college. Not the rigors of classes. Rather, the rigors of first discovering that life does not come with operating instructions.