A Gait at the Stares

September 26, 2012 § 2 Comments

Before we move on to fresh subjects, I want to share one last item that is germane to our discussion of puns:

Sorry.

I feel like I didn’t make enough actual puns during our discussion of puns, so I had to throw Jemaine in somewhere.

What I really want to discuss in Lorrie Moore’s novel, A Gait at the Stares, about a young woman who faces persecution for her unique style of walking and must learn to stand tall against her condemners’ dirty looks, so that in the end she can master her… gait at the stares.

Sorry again.

The title is actually spelled A Gate at the Stairs, and the novel is really about a young woman who takes a job as a nanny for a mysterious couple.  The book came out three years ago to good reviews and bounced around my to-read list ever since—until I found a hardcover copy for two dollars at a Chapter Books while I was in Canada!  I’m writing this recommendation today to let you know  it is definitely worth at least a toonie—if it’s been on your to-read list for a while, bump it up to the top—but also because it is an interesting study in punning that puts many of the points I’ve been trying to make about puns this past month into practice.

Tassie, the narrator, is an inveterate punster; barely a page goes by without her making at least one pun, and sometimes, her punning takes over as the narrative logic linking one scene to the next.  She answers a question about her parents:

“They sold off the farm to some Amish people and now they’re quasi retired.”  I loved to say quasi.  I was saying it now a lot, instead of sort of, or kind of, and it had become a tic.  “I am quasi ready to go,” I would announce.  Or, I’m feeling a bit quasi today.”  Murph called me Quasimodo.  Or Kami-quasi.  Or wild and quasi girl.

While this punning works to entertain and draw readers into Tassie’s sensibility, her sensibility is ultimately one of disconectedness.  As I said in Punning in Circles, puns draw attention to the short-comings of language, the fact that a word isn’t what it means, only a sound that can mean many different things.  Or, as Jonathan Lethem stated in his review of the novel from the New York Times, “The wrinkly recursiveness of her language seems lodged at the layer of consciousness itself, where Moore demands readers’ attention to the innate thingliness of words.”  He goes on to say that the novel highlights words’  “potential use as deliberate uncommunication.”  For example, after the above passage, Tassie amends (not out loud, of course, but to herself), “What my father really was was not quasi retired but quasi drunk.”

The novel is full of secrets like this, small and large, that the characters hide from each other and themselves, and the puns they hint at them with seem like, at times, like cunning ways to withhold the truth without lying, and, at others, like desperate attempts to be caught.  A Gate at the Stairs is hilarious and heartbreaking, an engrossing and communicative novel about the ways in which we can use words to keep ourselves alone and insulated.

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