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Critical Essay by Mary F. Robertson
SOURCE: "Medusa Points and Contact Points," in Contemporary American Women Writers: Narrative Strategies, The University Press of Kentucky, 1985, pp. 119-42.
In the following essay, Robertson analyzes how Tyler changes traditional ideas about family and its interaction with outsiders in her novels.
John Updike, a fan of Anne Tyler's work, remarked in a review that "Tyler, whose humane and populous novels have attracted (if my antennae are tuned right) less approval in the literary ether than the sparer offerings of Ann Beattie and Joan Didion, is sometimes charged with the basic literary sin of implausibility." Indeed, Tyler's novels do not seem a promising hunting ground for critics, who seek advances in the experimental surface of fiction. Her most palpable narrative virtues are by and large traditional ones: memorable characters, seductive plots, imaginative and hawk-eyed descriptions. Tyler is adept with the simile, acute as a psychologist, and quite good at the meditative pause in dramatization, although the reflections usually come as ruminations of a character rather than as autonomous philosophical sorties like George Eliot's.
On first opening Tyler's novels—and perhaps until having read several—a reader is apprehensive that he or she has only encountered still more domestic dramas, seemingly oblivious of the public dimension of the life of men and women in society. A social critic might feel that Tyler's very limitation of subject matter confirms an ideology of the private family to the detriment of political awareness, and a feminist reader might think that only female actions having more public importance than Tyler's seem to have can help the cause of women. In this essay, however, I shall argue that Tyler's unusual use of narrative patterns accomplishes much that should interest the feminist and the social critic alike. To see how, perhaps Updike's word implausibility should be examined. This trait in Tyler's work might be a sticking point for some serious readers because of prejudices about what is realistic in the plots of novels about families. Words such as zany and magical that appear regularly on her book jackets amount to labels that are likely to encourage such prejudices, to invite readers to resist the uncomfortable psychological and political seriousness of Tyler's vision, and to settle for a "good read" instead. Such prejudices, however, are ultimately thwarted by Tyler's fiction; in fact, thwarted prejudices are exactly the point. Tyler's implausible narrative form is a door through which the reader passes to a deeper sense of realism.
Families are, of course, a traditional subject of fiction. Novels about families can be divided into two groups: those that explore the interior psychology of a family—Mansfield Park, Sons and Lovers, and To the Lighthouse are diverse examples—and those that use family sagas to represent larger historical changes—works ranging from Absalom, Absalom to Giant and The Thorn Birds. In either case, the genre depends traditionally on features that produce certain narrative expectations in the reader. Foremost, perhaps, is a clear conception of the boundary between the insiders of a family and its outsiders. The typical family novel reserves its emotional center for the insiders. No matter how many forays or entanglements the members of the family have with outsiders, such a novel gains its power from a clear definition of the traits of both the individual members and the family as a whole. One narrative consequence of this conventional boundary that a reader, accustomed to it, might not notice is that dialogues or interchanges among members of a family are usually more portentous for the themes and outcomes of the book than those between members of the family and outsiders. Even if family problems are not solved thematically in such moments, these moments are the points in the narrative at which the significance of the story accrues. There is a centripetal impetus in such interchanges in the traditional family novel that the narrative design does nothing to question.
This conventional attachment of weight to family interchanges produces a preference for formal purity in the narrative shape of the novel as a whole. The strategy of maintaining the boundary between insiders and outsiders is reflected in the reader's awareness of what is plot—action concerning the family history—and what is subplot—contingentaction concerning outsiders who function thematically and narratively to push a character to some momentous choice as he or she develops the family's destiny but who then either recede or are absorbed into the family, for example, through marriage. Such peripheral matters as affairs or business dealings function, if anything, to make clear by contrast the central skein of reciprocal effects of members of the family on one another. Often, too, the chapters of such novels are organized according to the points of view of insiders to reflect the central significance of the family.
Independent of the particular thematic content of individual family novels, such generically conventional narrative patterns constitute a second-order system of signs. They imply a certain ideological relationship among family, identity, and history. The family is shown or implied to be the principal determinant of adult identity and the primary social unit. In conventional family novels a kind of binary thinking rules the narrative. The characters can either submit to or reject the family's ways and values; the family as a whole can either triumph or be destroyed. In either instance the concept of the private, inward-turning family remains coherent and ideologically definitive. Something about families, happy or not, makes them one of the very names of narrative order. If they "break down" in divorce, miscommunication, betrayal, or catastrophe, the reader is as uneasy as if people spoke to him or her in disrupted, nonsensical syntax. If families survive in even some good measure, the reader feels that something has been set right with the universe. In addition, even when the family is historically representative of general cultural movements, such an emphasis on the power of the family projects a certain idea of history. History is implicitly reduced to a narrative about families of unquestioned centrality. Families are perhaps the human race's oldest mode of plotting history, and long after more primitive family chronicles have been outgrown as the dominant mode of recording history, the family survives metaphorically in political histories of monarchies and nation-states.
Anne Tyler's narrative strategies disrupt the conventional expectations of the family novels, and thus the disruptions themselves also constitute a second-order system of signs that helps to dislodge the ideology of the enclosed family and the notion that the family is the main forum for making history. These disruptions are undoubtedly responsible for the feeling of implausibility in Tyler's fiction; Tyler does not respect the usual patterns of the genre. The first "itch" caused by her narratives comes at what I shall call Medusa points. These are points at which a certain pattern obtains in the dialogues and interchanges among members of the family. The second itch arises from Tyler's unwillingness to manage the narrative so as to form a clear line of demarcation between insiders and outsiders. The outsiders assume roles that are more than contingent yet not quite surrogates for family roles. The points at which this ambiguity occurs I shall call contact points. The third itch, the result of the first two, is that the pure narrative shape of the family novel is upset. Because the boundary between insiders and outsiders is continually transgressed, the progress of Tyler's novels is felt more as an expansion of narrative disorder than as a movement toward resolution and clarification. This larger narrative movement of disorder usually includes both negative and positive moments. A member of the family typically both sheds—somehow becomes unencumbered from his other family relations—and incorporates—forms significant new relationships with outsiders. If the reader is alert to the meaning of the disruptions of usual expectations of the genre, it becomes clear that Tyler's most pervasive structural preoccupation is with the family as a sign of order or disorder in personality and society.
This structural obsession with the family as a contender for the signs of identity manifests itself especially in Tyler's three most recent novels. In Earthly Possessions a middle-aged housewife named Charlotte, who has been thinking of leaving her preacher-husband, Saul, and her two children, goes to the bank to withdraw money for that purpose and is taken hostage by a bank robber, Jake Simms. Until the end of the book she is held captive in this stranger's peripatetic stolen car, which he has chained shut on the passenger's side, and is allowed out only under close surveillance. This sudden traumatic intimacy, symbolized by the closed space of the car, is a parody of the very familial claustrophobia Charlotte had planned to throw off. Yet it proves to be an important opportunity for revelations about otherness and helps her to arrive at some mature distinctions she had not been in the habit of making. Since Tyler interweaves flashbacks to Charlotte's childhood and married life throughout the book, the implications of her eventual choice to risk at gunpoint leaving the robber and returning to her family can be appreciated fully.
In Morgan's Passing the overall tone is more lighthearted, but the structural pattern is similar. The two chief characters are Gower Morgan, an eccentric—who cannot resist impersonating others—with seven children and an unflappable wife, and Emily Meredith, a young married woman. The story opens with Morgan's delivering Leon and Emily Meredith's baby in a car after telling them untruthfully that he is a doctor. At first Morgan haunts the Merediths in a creepy way by trailing them; finally he is let into their lives as a valued friend. After a few years he reciprocates by allowing them into the life of his family. Later yet, he and Emily fall in love, have an affair, leave their marriages for each other, and produce a new child. This account does not begin to do justice to the disorder to be found in either of Morgan's households, nor to the ambiguous way his presence confounds the distinction between insider and outsider, no matter where he resides; but for the moment it is enough to show that, once again, a stranger disrupts a family's ordered life and alters its self-definition irrevocably.
In Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant the action takes us from the time when Pearl Tull, the self-sufficient mother, is dying, back through the history of her marriage and her children's adulthood, full circle to her funeral, when her long-lost husband, Beck, shows up for the day. This book might be read only as a dramatization of what one therapist calls the family crucible; Tyler is very good at showing how neurotic traits ricochet off one another in a family and are passed on to the next generation. If that were all, however, the novel would be nothing special. Its particular virtue lies in the way it places the family's children, Jenny, Ezra, and Cody, in various exogenous relationships that prove as formative and valuable to them as do their family ties.
On numerous occasions in these novels there is a pattern of misconnection—what I call a Medusa point in the narrative—such as this one between Ezra Tull and his mother:
"I'm worried if I come too close, they'll say I'm overstepping. They'll say I'm pushy, or … emotional, you know. But if I back off, they might think I don't care. I really, honestly believe I missed some rule that everyone else takes for granted; I must have been absent from school that day. There's this narrow little dividing line I somehow never located." "Nonsense: I don't know what you're talking about," said his mother, and then she held up an egg. "Will you look at this? Out of one dozen eggs, four are cracked."
Here is a similar interaction between Morgan and his wife, Bonny, who tries to assume the role of bride's mother for her engaged daughter:
"Morgan, in this day and age, do you believe the bride's mother would still give the bride a little talk?" "Hmm?" "What I want to know is, am I expected to give Amy a talk about sex or am i not?" "Bonny, do you have to call it sex?" "What else would I call it?" "Well …" "I mean, sex is what it is, isn't it?" "Yes, but, I don't know …" "I mean, what would you say? Is it sex, or isn't it?" "Bonny, will you just stop hammering at me?"
In Earthly Possessions the pattern is not dramatized but revealed through Charlotte's memories. A stubborn separate-ness at the center of the relationship of Charlotte with each member of her family—mother, father, husband—is emphasized. Though Charlotte's father adores her in one way, he makes her feel she can never please him. She cares all her life for her grotesquely obese mother, but never breaks through to her candidly about her fears and feelings. She is separated most from her husband, whom she plans to leave almost from the beginning and did not even really make an active decision to marry. Here is the way they become engaged:
In May he bought me an engagement ring. He took It out of his pocket one night when the three of us were eating supper—a little diamond. I hadn't known anything about it. I just stared at him when he slipped it on my finger. "I thought it was time," he told me. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Ames," he said. "I can't wait any longer, I want to marry her." Mama said, "But I—" "It won't be right away," he said. "I'm not taking her off tomorrow. I don't even know what my work will be yet. We'll stay here as long as you need us, believe me. I promise you." "But—" Mama said. That was all, though. I should have refused. I wasn't helpless, after all. I should have said, "I'm sorry, I can't fit you in … But I didn't."
None of these characters tries maliciously to damage his or her family interlocutors; in general, they try to help each other in the mundane ways of life. But in their minds and hearts they feel cut off, paradoxically because each feels suffocated by the other. After exposure to several Tyler novels a reader learns to bypass themes of the individual novels and understands that such nonsequiturs as occur in the conversation between Morgan and Bonny and such failures of communication as Charlotte's are best not read as individuals' character problems but as a narrative pattern drawn by Tyler to make a point about family relations in general. These points in the narrative assume a significance that stands apart from their particular content. Through them Tyler shows that situations calling for responses considered proper in certain spousal and filial roles petrify people in both senses of the word: the constant intimate gaze threatens to turn people to stone and also scares them into stratagems to evade the threat, just as Perseus could not look at the Medusa directly but mediated the slaying with the mirror. Thus the phrase "Medusa points" seems useful for such moments in Tyler's narratives when a character refuses or is unable to respond to a family member in the way that member desperately needs or desires. These Medusa points are registered, if not in the reader's petrification, at least in exasperation, because what is "supposed to happen" in a family novel—that is, connection between intimates or at least a definitive antagonism—does not happen. Thus the narrative pattern is mirrored in the reading process as resistance.
The Perseus-Medusa image is appropriate for Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant in an even more special way. Tyler seems deliberately to invoke Eudora Welty's The Golden Apples, in which this myth is quite important. The connection becomes explicit when Beck Tull, who leaves his wife and children early in the book, just as King McLain does in The Golden Apples, returns to Pearl's funeral—King returns to Katie Rainey's funeral; Tyler writes: "King-like, he sat alone." The Golden Apples is itself a mysterious and complex book, far more dreamlike and mythical than Homesick, but the two books dwell on the same two problems: people's existence in time and the profound ambivalence of human beings about identification with others. People suffer from their separateness and are especially drawn to merging with strangers who are exotic to them; yet, no sooner have they done so than they feel the petrification begin to set in and they fantasize evasion, abandonment, wandering. At the end of The Golden Apples, Virgie Rainey remembers the picture that hung on her piano teacher's wall of Perseus holding the Medusa's head. She thinks:
Cutting off the Medusa's head was the heroic act, perhaps that made visible a horror in life, that was at once the horror in love—the separateness…. Virgie saw things in their time, like hearing them—and perhaps because she must believe in the Medusa equally with Perseus—she saw the stroke of the sword in three moments, not one. In the three was the damnation … beyond the beauty and the sword's stroke and the terror lay their existence in time—far out and endless, a constellation which the heart could read over many a night…. In Virgie's reach of memory a melody softly lifted, lifted of itself. Every time Perseus struck off the Medusa's head there was the beat of time, and the melody. Endless the Medusa, and Perseus endless.
Tyler shares with Welty the modified view of the heroic Perseus and Medusa reflected in this passage. The principal difference from the classical view lies in Virgie's recognition that the struggle is never finished. Likewise the Medusa is never really killed in Tyler's novels. Indeed, in Tyler's fiction the Medusa points signify primarily by their irony because they are the points in the narrative at which the occurrence of climactic movements, connections, and definitive severances is expected but never witnessed. Thus in and of themselves these Medusa points signify Tyler's refusal to regard the family as the most significant agent of character development and social representation. A crucial stylistic difference between Tyler and Welty aids this narrative message. Welty's poeticizing style, uplifted and abstract, creates a transcendent aura somewhat at odds with the content of Virgie's insight about time. The style itself has away of lifting and resolving what is unresolved in the subject. In contrast, Tyler's more ordinary prose stylistically places the Medusa syndrome in real historical time. Her prose enacts stylistically the full force of the "fall into time" of those potential Perseuses—characters or readers—who would finish off forever the Medusa of a too complete family communication or would be totally vanquished by it.
In each of the Tyler novels mentioned certain characters are identified most strongly with the Medusa influence. In Homesick, Pearl Tull, after being left with three young children and forced to become the breadwinner, defensively develops a rigid, claustrophobic family style. She has no friends, does not visit with the customers at the store where she works, does not encourage her children to bring friends home. For years, in her stubborn pride, she refuses to admit to her children that their father has left them—the abandonment was simply never mentioned as such during all the time they were growing up. Besides this steely silence, Pearl encourages an unhealthy self-sufficiency and iron discipline. When the young Ezra, who is the most sensitive of the three children and the one who takes on the role of family nurturer, asks Pearl whether she would let him stay home from school one day if on that day alone money grew on trees, she answers with a severe "No," and in response to further pleading erupts, "Ezra, will you let it be? Must you keep at me this way? Why are you so obstinate?" A thousand such exchanges in the life of the family produce personalities inclined to give up on real candor and expression of feelings in the family arena. We see this when Cody, the oldest son, is about to leave for college. Pearl has finally brought herself to mention the most pervasive fact in each of their lives—their father's absence:
"Children, there's something I want to discuss with you." Cody was talking about a job. He had to find one in order to help with the tuition fees. "I could work in the cafeteria," he was saying, "or maybe off-campus. I don't know which." Then he heard his mother and looked over at her. "It's about your father," Pearl said. Jenny said, "I'd choose the cafeteria." "You know, my darlings," Pearl told them, "how I always say your father's away on business." "But off-campus they might pay more," said Cody, "and every penny counts." "At the cafeteria you'd be with your classmates, though," Ezra said. "Yes, I thought of that." "All those coeds," Jenny said. "Cheerleaders. Girls in their little white bobby sox." "Sweater girls," Cody said. "There's something I want to explain about your father," Pearl told them. "Choose the cafeteria," Ezra said. "Children?" "The cafeteria," they said. And all three gazed at her coolly, out of gray, unblinking, level eyes exactly like her own.
In time Tyler's reader learns that the trick at such moments in the narrative is not to read them conventionally as the portrayal of psychological cripples and tragic family failures. The Medusa points are semantically complex because, while they depict the characters as stony to others in the family, they show at the same time (in the children's oblique comments just quoted, for example) the healthy partial escape from total petrification. Such points show characters who have learned to turn their eyes away from the monster of family self-absorption and to seek their maturity and identity by means of other resources.
The second generic disruption in narrative form that develops an independent significance in Tyler's novels is the altered treatment of outsiders. Pushed, like the characters, to swerve from the inconclusiveness of the Medusa moments and denied the satisfaction of the partial closures usually provided in the family interchanges, the reader must look closer at the supposedly marginal characters of the novel to find a new pattern of significance. The reader then realizes that Tyler shapes an unusual nexus of characters that forces him or her to take seriously Morgan's remark that "our lives depend on total strangers. So much lacks logic, or a proper sequence." If said in a certain tone, of course, this statement could suggest an alienation like that of Joan Didion's characters and might reflect anomic acceptance of provisional but meaningless encounters with strangers—even intimates who feel like strangers. But alienation is not the contract offered by Tyler through such a thought. The concept of alienation depends on a firm conceptual boundary between the strange and the familiar, inside and outside; Tyler's narrative disposition of characters transgresses this boundary without eradicating it. The outsiders take over some of the usual functions of family, but their ultimate difference from family is their most significant trait. Such characters are signs of permanent human strangeness, but Tyler's work presents this strangeness as the very resource by which to prevent alienation.
Throughout her life an alienated woman, Pearl Tull, on her deathbed, reflects on the foolishness of holding herself inviolate from disruption: "It was such a relief to drift, finally. Why had she spent so long learning how?… She kept mislaying her place in time, but it made no difference." This drift is not a feckless passivity such as that which leads Jenny, Emily, and Charlotte into their first marriages, but an ability to open oneself to the disorder and uncertainty that strangers bring into one's life; it is the ability to be enriched by these strangers, even to be derailed by them, without trying to erase their radical difference from oneself. Narratively, this theme of disorder is registered in a tension produced by Tyler's blurring of the boundary between insiders and outsiders. In their surface organization, whether linear or flashback in manner, her novels give the impression that she is interested in tracing chronological developments of certain families; but the real movements—spiritual, emotional, even material—occur in the marginal relations of members of the family with outsiders. Eventually, the image of the family in each novel becomes an empty presence. The reader feels like a person in a canoe who, while being carried forward by the straight-running current, is also swept sideways by a strong crosswind. In the phenomenological movement of reading, the reader, like the characters, is forced to drift into supposedly contingent, incomplete relations that nevertheless prove to be the most important sources of meaning—the "real story," as a Sherwood Anderson character would say. The reader must be willing to "mislay his or her place" in the ostensible generic order of the novel. The family shape remains in some form to the end of each of these three Tyler novels, but the significant spiritual, emotional, and material movements are produced by the crosswinds of strangeness.
Thus Tyler differs from many radical contemporary writers who give us fragmentary texts in order to challenge us to find the unity beneath them. Hers is an opposite vector. She gives us the semblance of order in the overall family design of the novels, but hollows out such order from within by means of the relations of the family with strangers, thereby suggesting the inability of the family to transcend time and disorder, and the provisionality of everyone's life. Rather than the mounting feeling of inevitability to which we are accustomed in family narratives, Tyler's plots impart the feeling almost of random branching. She seems to need a minimum of three generations in her books, not to represent larger historical movements or stronger family definition, but to allow for the free play of interruption of a family's order by the unexpected people who embody the Perseus movement against the Medusa. Her plots reveal along the horizontal axis a continual questioning of the proper vertical boundary between family and not-family. The margin thus always threatens the center, even as it paradoxically also provides an escape valve that enables the family to persist, in a manner of speaking. Intriguingly, then, while Tyler would seem to be the last candidate for the ranks of the postmodernists, who are usually perceived as stylistically radical, her assault on the notion of what is a proper family makes her close in spirit to other postmodernists who regularly engage in what might be called category assassination, questioning just about every conventional distinction between one concept and another that we use to order our lives and thought.
Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant exhibits the features and principles just discussed. Family chronology seems to be respected in the linear movement of the characters' lives contained within the circle of Pearl's expiring life. Most of each chapter is told from the viewpoint of one member of the family—the first and the penultimate from Pearl's point of view and the others from the points of view of her children and her grandchild. In the final chapter the three generations are assembled at a meal to which the abandoning father has returned. Superficially, therefore, the form might seem to imply that families triumph, that we need the order they provide, that all the suffering and disappointment merely contributes to the family's growth. But the real story in Homesick does not confirm the family's heroism or even its lasting identity; it shows, rather, how the children have changed the signification of the family identity almost beyond recognition. The maturity of the members of the family is allied with successful disorder, a genuinely scattering movement in time. When Beck Tull left her, Pearl patterned her life on a model she had noted in her youthful diary: "Bristlecone pines, in times of stress, hoard all their life in a single streak and allow the rest to die." Pearl's child, Cody, also tries to adopt this posture, but his son, Luke, belies his success. Jenny and Ezra, in contrast, develop the capacity to drift—that is, to discard both Pearl's notions of daily order in their lives and the conceptual order of family definition. The significance of their lives develops through their turning away from agony over the Medusa points in family life toward the energizing and formative contact points with sundry persons outside the family. They allow the disorder—from the point of view of what is proper—to open new routes without necessarily abandoning the old routes entirely. They exhibit the truth of Morgan's rhetorical assertion: "Aren't we all sitting on stacks of past events? And not every level is neatly finished off, right? Sometimes a lower level bleeds into an upper level. Isn't that so?"
In Homesick, Ezra is the character who most fully embodies the narrative paradox of maintaining the outline of family relations while forming a mature identity through contact points outside the family. He lives his whole life at home, caring for Pearl, yet the center of his life is outside that home in the restaurant, in which at first he works for Mrs. Scarlatti and which he then inherits from her. The long intimacy between Ezra and Mrs. Scarlatti does not fit any of the usual categories. He never addresses her except as Mrs. Scarlatti, yet he is her "significant other" in her final illness in the hospital. The nature of their interaction in the hospital shows that Tyler considers it important that peripheral but significant figures remain confirmed in their recalcitrant otherness. Ezra brings her some soup he has made, knowing that
after he left someone would discard his soup. But this was his special gizzard soup that she had always loved…. He only brought the soup out of helplessness; he would have preferred to kneel by her bed and rest his head on her sheets, to take her hands in his and tell her, "Mrs. Scarlatti, come back." But she was such a no-nonsense woman; she would have looked shocked. All he could do was offer this soup…. He only sat, looking down at his pale, oversized hands, which lay loosely on his knees.
Mrs. Scarlatti, then, has her own rigidities, but they do not paralyze Ezra with guilt as his mother's did. In fact, even before she dies, he begins to alter her restaurant radically, changing the menu from fancy French to down-home cooking, tearing out walls, leaving the kitchen exposed to the dining room and so on. When she unexpectedly makes a sufficient temporary recovery to return home and finds what he has done, she cries: "'Oh, my God,'… She looked up into his eyes. Her face seemed stripped. 'You might at least have waited till I died,' she said. 'Oh!' said Ezra. 'No, you don't understand; you don't know. It wasn't what you think. It was just … I can't explain, I went wild somehow!'" Tyler shows here that a person's contact points with outsiders are still subject to betrayals and difficulties; differences are not erased in some blissful harmony with outsiders that cannot be attained with insiders. But the fact that relationships with outsiders occur makes the crucial difference in the characters' ability to grow and be themselves. Even though Mrs. Scarlatti is appalled at Ezra's changes, she does not revoke her decision to leave him the restaurant, and though he is grief-stricken, her death clearly releases new energies in him. He soon changes the name from "Scarlatti's" to "The Homesick Restaurant," and he thrives by arranging matters more in his own way.
Jenny, another character who, like Ezra, escapes the rigid patterns of her early life, makes her own disorderly way through three marriages. She becomes a pediatrician, exerting in her work the same strong will as her mother, but each of her marriages represents a move away from rigidity to disorder. Her final marriage is to Joe, a man whose wife has left him with six children. He says he married Jenny because he "could see she wasn't a skimpy woman…. Not rigid. Not constricted. Not that super-serious kind." But of course she had been more so in her younger days when she was closer to Pearl's influence. It may be implausible to us that she could run a household of nine and still not stint on a demanding career, but that seems beside the point that Tyler wishes to make. Jenny is shown to have moved through the nervous-breakdown stage into an impressive equanimity gained from learning to drift through demands upon her. She is perhaps at risk for turning everything into a joke; nevertheless, she is a compelling example of a character's ability to outgrow a destructive background. And not only does she show greater tolerance for the literal physical disorder of her new household, but in her way she accomplishes in her final marriage what Ezra accomplishes in his relationship with Mrs. Scarlatti; with her third marriage she breaks the purity of the family line decisively by blurring the boundary between who is real family and who is not. By the end, most of her immediate family is not even her own, but consists of stepchildren she has accepted the responsibility of nurturing.
Ezra and Jenny's brother, Cody, in Homesick, does not manage to form a flexible and freely determined personality as his siblings do. He is the classic example of the child who unwittingly replicates the very childhood condition he tries to flee. He considers Ezra his oldest enemy because Ezra was always liked more than he, and he keeps a distance from his mother and siblings most of his adult life. Yet Cody's hate is just the outer skin that hides his eternal longing to be like Ezra. For much of the book the reader feels that Cody is a villain. The reader would like to roast him over hot coals when, a Cain to Ezra's Abel, in a calculated way he woos Ezra's fiancée, Ruth, away from his lovable brother. Ruth and Ezra had seemed destined only for each other, since they are both eccentric in the same way. The defection of Ruth to Cody is an interesting example of those implausible turns in Tyler's narrative design for which a higher logic must be sought than character psychology alone would provide. It is difficult to credit that Cody, the rich city slicker, would fall in love with this barefoot country girl and even more difficult to believe that she would go with him. True, the episode does teach us something profound about the dialecticsof longing, but Tyler wishes above all to use the implausibility to make a narrative argument that people will often choose strangeness over similarity for their own self-preservation. Her narrative ethos, borne out in the other novels too, seems to say that such a choice is somehow right, as if Ezra and Ruth are too much alike for their own good. Tyler does not seem to allow relationships between like and like to flourish. While Cody and Ruth's marriage is not especially happy, it is loyal, and we do not, as we expect, hear Ruth complaining later that she should have married Ezra. She seems to have known she needed something different in life from living with her soul twin. And, through Ruth, Cody is able in part to incorporate that lost part of himself—the brother whom he so wished to be like. Thus, Cody too is a character affected beneficially by disorder and strangeness.
Cody's son, Luke, is the only third-generation member of the family to have a viewpoint chapter of his own. What emerges is the likeness, much to Cody's overt disgust, between Luke and Ezra. Cody rails at it and probably damages the boy somewhat by absurdly and jealously accusing Ruth of having had Ezra's son rather than his own. Cody feels that the resemblance is the vengeance of fate, but we see it as a kind of fortunate prevention of a too-pure family identity, for Cody has tried to seal off his own family just as Pearl had. Cody's rigidity is reflected in his profession, that of efficiency expert, doing time-and-motion studies for industry. He tells us: "Time is my favorite thing of all…. Time is my obsession: not to waste it, not to lose it. It's like … I don't know, an object to me; something you can almost take hold of. If I could just collect enough of it in one clump, I always think. If I could pass it back and forth and sideways, you know? If only Einstein were right and time were a place or river you could choose to step into at any place along the shore." This insight is the opposite of Virgie's perception about time in The Golden Apples or Pearl's drift. Cody dreams of killing the Medusa in one final stroke, but he is forced through Luke and Ezra to submit to time, like everyone else, as the repetition of ceaseless conflict. Cody might fight disorder, but it is always there to exert a pressure on him to be more flexible than he might otherwise be.
Running through Homesick like a bolt through a door hinge is a series of six family dinners he has tried to make "just like home" that Ezra plans at the restaurant. The inability of the family ever to complete a meal eventually becomes comical in spite of our sympathy for Ezra's disappointments. Yet this unfinished-dinner pattern is the book's strongest narrative emblem for Tyler's complex vision of order, disorder, and the family. Ezra is the "feeder," unlike his mother, who, Cody reflects, was a "non-feeder if there ever was one … neediness: she disapproved of neediness in people. Whenever there was a family argument, she most often chose to start it over dinner." Tyler never uses gender stereotypes; men can be nurturing as well as women, and women can exhibit patriarchal attitudes. Indeed, Pearl is at first the reason Ezra's dinners are never finished before someone walks out. In being stalled by someone's bitterness the dinners are emblems of the Medusa syndrome, but in going on anyhow, eventually by including more outsiders, they are also emblems of Perseus' slaying of the Medusa through the fruitful disorder of contact points. The first four breakdowns during meals occur because Pearl thinks that one character or another is insufficiently concerned about the family's integrity: Ezra's business partnership will dissolve the family; Jenny is too familiar with Ezra's eccentric friend, Josiah; Jenny does not heed her mother's opinion; Cody has "set up shop too far from home." The fifth breakdown occurs because Cody reacts jealously when his wife talks to Ezra; his jealousy often cuts his family off entirely from innocent interchanges with others. Through the failure of meals, which are usually the classic expression of family order, Tyler shows symbolically the family's inability to thrive when its ideals are hermetic.
Ezra occupies an ambiguous position in this narrative pattern, and eventually his actions prevent the total petrification of the family. No one wishes more than he that the family care about one another, and, he cries, "I wish just once we could eat a meal from start to finish." Yet he is not annihilated when things fall apart; he does not give up but placidly and resiliently keeps the institution going, even in apparent defeat. Significantly, however, in keeping the tradition going, Ezra does not follow an orthodox plan for family meals. They occur in a public place, the restaurant, where the members of the family are always in marginal relation to others, such as Mrs. Scarlatti, the kitchen crew, the friend, Josiah (whom Pearl had made unwelcome in her house), and the other customers. That is, Ezra upholds the tradition of the family meal in one way, yet he revises it, loosens its joints, forces it to articulate with outsiders who remain outsiders. Though it is true that the family never stops arguing and never finishes the meals, even its minimal survival as a unit thus "depends on total strangers" in order to keep it from being turned into stone altogether.
With the last dinner, not only has Ezra's more public sphere replaced Pearl's tightly guarded kitchen as the family meeting place, but the composition of the family has become less pure. The direct descendents among the grandchildren, Cody's Luke and Jenny's Becky, are vastly outnumbered by Joe's gaggle of children, who are technically outsiders. Beck starts to swell with grandfatherly pride when he looks around the table, but Cody says, "It's not really that way at all…. Don't let them mislead you. It's not the way it appears. Why, not more than two or three of these kids are even related to you. The rest are Joe's by a previous wife." Furthermore, Beck's unexpected presence conveys no sense of the missing piece that triumphantly closes the circle in an image of final reconciliation and unity. On the contrary, it is clear that he returns as a stranger and will always be a stranger, like a bird alighted on a branch, about to depart at any moment. When Joe's baby chokes on a mushroom, distracting everyone. Beck slips out before the meal is over. Ezra, beside himself at another unfinished dinner, organizes the whole party to run out in different directions to find Beck. Cody is the one to do so and brings him back after finally hearing his father's side of the story of the abandonment. There is a hint that Cody will be somewhat liberated from his constricting beliefs after receiving this information, but, if so, only because Beck makes real for Cody his father's separate existence, forces Cody to see him not as Cody's projection but as a person with his own needs and rights. Beck agrees to go back to the meal for "one last course," but says, "I warn you, I plan to leave before the dessert wine's poured." The reason he must leave is that he feels obliged to return to a woman he is dating and will marry now that Pearl is dead. The progenitor does not finally offer an image of reunion, wholeness; he too, in fact, moves in the direction of another connection peripheral to the original family. The meal is more nearly finished than any of the previous ones, but it is not finished with everyone who would symbolically confirm the intactness of the Tull family present. Thus "Homesick" in the name of the restaurant is a pun: people go there who yearn for the nurturing of home, but the restaurant stands equally as an alternative to the home which, if too much ingrown, or if conceived of as the place of a golden age, is sick. The Tull family is finally like this restaurant itself: the shell of the original still stands, but the interior has been demolished and refashioned through the beneficial agency of significant outsiders. The tones and meanings are now quite as different as Ezra's food is from French cuisine. Thus the overall narrative shape that might have signified that the family is a real sign of order and growth is so heavily qualified by the actual patterns of meaning and growth as to be voided as a narrative and thematic signifying system.
Space does not permit detailed documentation of the way Morgan's Passing and Earthly Possessions exhibit a similar narrative semiosis questioning the traditional family as a sign of order, but it is important to recognize that such narrative semiosis exists in each novel, in which plot and character patterns show meanings independent of their special content. The charming Morgan himself, a Hermes-like figure lurking at boundaries, provides a vehicle to show that energy comes from the disorderly transactions both within and between families. Just as Morgan is the character who shakes up the Merediths' lives for the better, so, in Earthly Possessions, Jake, the bank robber, pulls Charlotte roughly out of her trancelike life and forces her to recognize that the Medusa is not so much in her husband's domestic style as it is in her own inner, unspoken dream of perfect order for herself. She finally perceives that there is no need to unload those she had thought responsible for her unhappiness.
Tyler also has a suitably wry sense that the most disorderly characters themselves have a fascination with or craving for order. Morgan says comically as he shakes out Emily's purse,
"Look at that! You're so orderly." Emily retrieved her belongings and put them back in her purse. Morgan watched, with his head cocked. "I too am orderly," he told her. "You are?" "Well, at least I have an interest in order. I mean order has always intrigued me. When I was a child, I thought order might come when my voice changed. Then I thought, no, maybe when I'm educated. At one point I thought I would be orderly if I could just once sleep with a woman."… Emily said, "Well?" "Well what?" "Did sleeping with a woman make you orderly?" "How can you ask?" he said. He sighed.
Similarly, Jake the robber detests the irregularity of his life on the lam, and his conscience causes him to head the stolen car for the home of a girl he had made pregnant. This dangerous adventure thus soon bogs down in domestic problems such as the girl's nausea and the care of the cat she has brought with her.
In Homesick, the narrative pattern of family dinners is symbolic of disorderly movement within an apparently fixed figure; in Morgan, Tyler makes the same point, that nothing in our lives can or should stay rigid, through the symbolism of both Emily's puppets and the leotards she always wears. Leon Meredith explains in a condescending manner that, whereas he can improvise in his management of the puppet shows which are their livelihood, "Emily makes them according to a fixed pattern. They're not improvised." Emily thinks to herself, however, "This was true, in a way, and yet it wasn't. Emily did have a homemade brown-paper pattern for the puppets' outlines, but the outlines were the least of it. What was important was the faces, the dips and hills of their own expressions, which tended to develop unexpected twists of their own no matter how closely she guided the fabric through the sewing machine."
Later, when Morgan has become her new husband and is characteristically chafing at the very disorder he brings with him, he complains,
We don't have any chance to be alone…. Mother, Brindle, the baby … it's like a transplant. I transplanted all the mess from home. It's like some crazy practical joke."… "I don't mind it," Emily said. "I kind of enjoy it." "That's easy for you to say," he told her. "It's not your problem, really. You stay unencumbered no matter what, like those people who can eat and eat and not gain weight. You're still in your same wrap skirt. Same leotard." Little did he know how many replacement leotards she had had to buy over the years. Evidently, he imagined they lasted forever.
In Earthly Possessions, Charlotte's found trinket saying "keep on truckin'" is the symbol equivalent to the dinners of Homesick and Emily's puppets and leotards in Morgan. When she finds it, Charlotte takes it as a sign that now is the time to leave Saul. After her abduction, however, she returns to Saul with a different sense of the phrase; now the phrase suggests endurance, and the novel finishes this way: "Maybe we ought to take a trip, he says. Didn't I use to want to? But I tell him no. I don't see the need, I say. We have been traveling for years, traveled all our lives, we are traveling still. We couldn't stay in one place if we tried. Go to sleep, I say. And he does." Yet Tyler is no Hegelian of domesticity, portraying disorder merely as an antithetical way station to greater order, recapturing drift for the greater benefit of the concept of the private family. Charlotte does go back to Saul, but Jenny and Emily both rightly obtain divorces. Tyler designs narratives in which there is constant oscillation between shedding and incorporation without any suggestion of some final resting place, either totally within the family or totally outside it.
While freedom from suffocation of family life is a favorite theme of feminist writers, Tyler's prescription about means differs notably from those writers, such as Tillie Olsen, to whom drift is a red-flag word signaling loss of coherent identity and personal purpose. Olsen's Eva in "Tell Me a Riddle" is a famous example of a character who evinces this sense of loss. While raising her family, Eva had to abide by the idea that "empty things float," but the story represents such drift as a tragic forfeiture of her own identity, which she can only recover bitterly as she is dying. Ruth, in Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping might seem closer to Tyler, since she asserts the value of drift and sheds domestic encumbrances by choosing the equivalent of Huck Finn's "lighting out for the territory" and leaving with her eccentric Aunt Sylvie for a vagrant life on the railroad boxcars. Yet that pattern obviously perpetuates the old either-or dilemma for those stifled by family closeness. Sylvie and Ruth become pariahs. For Tyler, the negative freedom of merely shedding is undesirable. In her novels, drift signifies not only such emptiness of infinite potential, but also a movement toward a positive condition of greater fullness accomplished through commitments in exogeneous exchanges. For Tyler, drift must include the second phase of incorporation, taking into one's life, however temporarily, others who do not merge with oneself but remain different; otherwise one merely reproduces within oneself the Medusa influence of family life.
In Tyler's narratives that represent this oscillation between shedding and incorporation, metonymies of household effects are abundant. They might remind the reader of Kafka's Metamorphosis, but the difference from Kafka is instructive. In Kafka's story both the emptying and refilling of Gregor's room are symptoms of alienation. In Homesick Ezra's demolition of Scarlatti's restaurant is a sign of his rejection of Mrs. Scarlatti's dominance, a temporary alienation perhaps, but the demolition also allows for the constructive substitution of his own adult identity, which is being formed through his life outside his family. He does go nearly bankrupt at first, but when the restaurant fills up again, it does not parallel Gregor's trash-filled room, which is a sign that Gregor no longer matters. On the contrary, the crowded restaurant testifies to Ezra's significance. The same is true of the overstuffed households of Emily and Morgan and Charlotte and Saul. Both women realize there is no exit from the disorder of claims upon them by people who are technically outsiders to their own families, but it does not feel like hell to them because they have learned to respect true difference as nourishing. Tyler's stories might be seen as affirmative complements to Kafka's fable about the damaging effects on personality of a rigid family identity.
The bountiful environments portrayed in Tyler's conclusions suggest that Updike is right to contrast Tyler with Beattie and Didion, whose "spareness" is a result of their vision of alienation. A critic who believes that alienation is still the only authentic response to the world will not like Tyler. Her work makes room for the alienated moment, but it finally makes one wonder whether the alienated attitude does not rest on a secret, stingy resentment that the world and its many people are different from oneself.
Even Tyler's physical settings underscore her rejection of alienation and her theme that disorder is a remedy for excessive family order. In each novel a building structure symbolizes the paradox that one can best be oneself if one is connected in some significant way with those in the public who are different from oneself. Charlotte's house has a room with an outside door which serves as a photography studio that is open to the public. Ezra's "homesick" restaurant similarly connotes both the public and the private life. The Merediths' apartment, into which Morgan eventually moves with Emily, is located above a public crafts shop with a common hallway. Further suggesting connectedness of the private to the public scene, Tyler's novels are emphatically urban rather than suburban. Charlotte's neighborhood changes from strictly residential to partly commercial when Amoco buys the property next door for a filling station. Ezra's is a city restaurant in Baltimore, and Morgan's people reside in Baltimore too. Morgan says, "We're city people…. We have our city patterns, things to keep us busy." The city is of course the place where one is maximally involved with the difference of other people in one's daily affairs.
Tyler's insistence on the public and urbane quality even of family life calls to mind the argument of an urban theorist, Richard Sennett, whose ideas seem remarkably apposite to Tyler's vision. In The Uses of Disorder, Sennett argues that our contemporary society, with its preference for sequestered suburban life or for the highly rationalized city of city planners, instantiates an adolescent mode of personality development in our public life. According to Sennett, adolescence is marked by a rigid drive for a "purified identity," which enables the powerless youth to mediate his self-image and his image of the outside world. Beneficial as it is at that stage, this drive is "extremely dangerous if it remains fixed in a person's life, if it meets no challenge and becomes a permanent modality…. It can lead to a language that similarly does away with the 'factness' of new people or new experiences … and assumes that one has had the meanings of experience without the threat of actively experiencing." Suburbs and rationalized cities, by restricting the number of contact points for citizens, lock our public life into such a defensive, closed-off mode that we never learn the essential lesson of adulthood, which the real city teaches us—how to live with the "unachieved situations" that the radical differences of others impose on us. Sennett says that this "intense family life is the agent, the middleman for the infusion of adolescent fear into the social life of modern cities…. It is exactly the character of intense families to diminish the diversity of contact points that have marked out a community life in the teeming cities at the turn of the century."
Whatever we might feel about certain corollary arguments in Sennett's book, which, if followed, could produce municipal anarchy, his diagnosis seems cogent, and Tyler's novels echo it. They enact thematically the growth from adolescent notions of identity to the adult willingness to live with unachieved situations of involvement with people's otherness. In her quiet way, Tyler stakes out a position against the whole existentialist nausea over "otherness" and makes it seem puerile. Emily reflects toward the end of Morgan's Passing, "You could draw vitality from mere objects, evidently—from these seething souvenirs of dozens of lives raced through at full throttle. Morgan's mother and sister (both in their ways annoying, demanding, querulous women) troubled her not a bit, because they weren't hers. They were too foreign to be hers. Foreign: that was the word…. She drew in a deep breath, as if trying to taste the difference in the air. She was fascinated by her son, who did not seem really, truly her own, though she loved him immeasurably." Tyler's typical narrative patterns mirror this theme by refusing the kind of unswerving focus on members of a family as the repository of meaning that we expect in a family novel and by spinning the plots off at tangents that are not just detours from which we return. Likewise, her endings are not merely inconclusive and ambiguous as so many modernist fictional endings are, but instead convey more aggressive images of continuing flux, of the unachieved situation, understood and welcomed as such, like that we saw in Homesick's final dinner, or in Morgan and Emily's improvisational spirit at the end of Morgan, or in Charlotte's thoughts as she returns to Saul in Earthly Possessions.
Tyler's emphasis on continuing flux, moreover, bears upon a serious problem with which feminist writers struggle: the difficulty of depicting feminist men and women using their knowledge in plausible ways in actual society. A carefulreader can see that Tyler has to a great extent come to terms with that problem. A main ingredient, if not the essence, of the patriarchal attitude is a hypostatization of category differences—family/outsiders, for example—that makes it possible to transcend the disorderly flux of real relations among members of different classes. It might plausibly be argued that the whole notion of "proper" family is patriarchal; it was surely not the mothers who cared whether their children were bastards or whether blood relatives were treated better than outsiders. The nature of patriarchal thought, as of all ideologies, is Medusa-like in its reifications. The feminine personality has traditionally been allowed a dispensation from this way of thinking, but only at the price of being segregated from the world of significant action, which seems to require firm categories, and of being marked as amorphous—thus the fear of drift as regressive by many feminists. It seems difficult to dramatize people who are both taken seriously by society and consistently question prevailing conceptual boundaries, precisely for the reason that actual society does not take them seriously; indeed, they are marginalized as implausible, unrealistic, or irresponsible. Delightful or not, for example, Gower Morgan is probably perceived by many readers as little more than a humorous, self-indulgentstunt man and Ezra, Jenny, and Emily as memorable for their weirdness. If taken seriously as possible types of real people, they threaten the system that depends on ideological purities of various sorts. A reader who indulges in Tyler's novels for their "zaniness," however, does himself or herself a disservice. Tyler is rare in her ability to portray practical and constructive ways in which impatience with the "drive for purification" can translate into concrete, constructive action. Here these boundary-doubters are actually seen acting in a recognizable world. None of what might seem at first implausible in Tyler is really so unrealistic. It is not even so farfetched these days that one might be taken hostage, and a person who was might have gained from Earthly Possessions some realistic instruction, not only in the psychology of the outlaw, but in the real horizons of his or her ordinary life, which had conveniently gone unnoticed. Likewise, the implausible semifriendship that develops between Morgan's first wife and Emily, once Bonny's anger at Morgan's leaving has cooled, is not really so uncommon these days among divorced families. Time magazine and the U.S. Census tell us that the typical nuclear family is much in the minority now, but ideologically the model still has a grip on us. Thus Tyler's idea that a respect for the difference of "significant others" in such disorderly family structures can liberate us is valuable in a practical way.
Indeed, Tyler's narrative vision of family disorder seems to have been derived directly from her sense of her own life's problems and patterns. The fact that she is married to an Iranian is bound to have had some influence on Tyler's theme of difference. Her essay "Still Just Writing" shows that as a writer and mother her personal anxiety is with the problem of interruption of her work and, by extension, the threat of "disorderly" deviations from her path as a writer. She seems to have learned the coping mechanism of drift from her father rather than from her mother. She explains that whenever his schedule was interrupted, even to the extent of having to cancel a long-awaited foreign sojourn at the last minute, he just whistled Mozart and occupied himself with whatever was available to him at the time. She claims to have found that the threatening detours actually enrich her work. This equanimity, however, is not without recognition of the dangers. Clear-eyed she says, "What this takes, of course, is a sense of limitless time, but I'm getting that. My life is beginning to seem unusually long. And there's a danger to it: I could wind up as passive as a piece of wood on a wave. But I try to walk a middle line." This sense of limitless time should not be read, I think, as the classic feminine suspension above a real-world sense of deadlines and irrevocable actions. It is more like Virgie Rainey's "beat of time." A musical beat is a concrete commitment, a movement from the virtual to the actual, just as the productive interruption in Tyler's novels is. Virgie's phrase is also a way of recognizing that our shortsighted desire for finalities is often blind to time's amplitude and to the way unexpected turns taken by the beat can make life more interesting and fulfilling.
Although she lacks his stylistic genius, Faulkner is in a way the American author to whom Tyler seems closest. He too depicted the way a "drive toward purification" could ruin personalities and the whole culture of the South. Just as he saw at the center of the ideal of white supremacy the taboo against miscegenation as the chief means of sapping the vital energy of the South, so Tyler shows that the desire for family purity leads to entropy. The social critic might respect Tyler's family novels about private existence as significant for public life. If, as Sennett says, the family is the "middleman" institution between our psychological fears and our public life, then a novelist who alters the narrative line of the family novel to open it up to the radical disorder of outside influences that are not merely contingent does her part to suggest a new possibility for our actual history. She also does her part in altering the very idea of history, which, in the guise of recording events in time, more often artificially kills time, the beat of time, through concepts, such as the family, that deny history's real randomness and disorder.
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