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I have a friend who makes very small, exquisite paintings of single objects. Determined to break out of the constraints of size, she painted ... a watermelon. This novel by Lorrie Moore, who is best known for her short stories, reminds me of my friend's watermelon. There is the same beautiful work -- just a lot more of it. There are, in fact, points (many) where Moore seems to be on a sort of writer's high. Here's an example. "Flies as big as raping Ducks! we used to say. Mosquitoes with tiger-striped bodies and the feathery beards of an iris, their wings and legs the tendrils of an orchid, the blades of a gnome's sleigh." There's a piling-on of similes and metaphors that, however apt, sometimes begins to seem like so much writerly riffing. How much patience you have with this may have to do with how much patience you have with Lorrie Moore, who's a wonderful writer deserving of the benefit of the doubt.
This is the first novel she's written since "Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?" in 1995. The story is told by Tassie Keltjin, a 20-year-old student at a thinly disguised University of Wisconsin-Madison, where Moore teaches. Tassie, a farm girl whose mother is Jewish and father is an early adopter of green farming techniques, finds a job caring for the adopted mixed-race child of an older and curious couple. Meanwhile, Tassie is conducting her own first serious love affair, and her younger brother, bright but lost, is signing up for military duty in Iraq.
Much of the story has to do with Tassie's attachment to the child -- and with her particular sensitivity to racism as it is experienced overtly and indirectly (a mother at the park invites Tassie's charge to play, because her daughter has no friends "of color"). In fact, the one great weakness of the book occurs in the occasional prolonged instances in which Tassie overhears the remarks of the group of parents of multiracial children whom the adoptive mother gathers.
"Postracial is a white idea," one character says, again. And another answers, "A lot of ideas are white ideas."
"It's like postfeminism or postmodern. The word post is put forward by people who have grown bored with the conversation. It's merely living talk. Whereas you put post is front of it -- what is that? It's saying 'Shut the hell up. We're tired and we're going to sleep now.'"
And who can blame them?
But most of the story involves Tassie's growing attachment to her little charge, her first real affair, and her younger brother's enlistment -- all in the wake of 9/11. Though much of it seems to be viewed from a distance of decades, not years -- the character is preternaturally observant at 20 and wondrously mature at her present distance of seven or eight years -- what she sees is worth noting, wonderfully described and worthy of savoring, however excessive in the rendering.
Why say, "Shut the hell up," when what's being said is so bright and lovely and to the point?
Ellen Akins is a novelist in Cornucopia, Wis.