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Critical Essay by Barbara A. Bennett
SOURCE: "Attempting to Connect: Verbal Humor in the Novels of Anne Tyler," in South Atlantic Review, Vol. 60, No. 1, January, 1995, pp. 57-75.
In the following essay, Bennett outlines the various types of verbal humor Tyler employs in her novels.
In the essay "Still Just Writing," Anne Tyler comments on her unusual characters: "People have always seemed funny and strange to me"; in a letter to me dated November 24, 1991, she clarified what she means in describing people that way: "I think of 'funny and strange' as wonderful traits, which always make me feel hopeful when I spot them." Some reviewers have faulted Tyler, however, for exaggerating her characters to bizarre or eccentric proportions. Marita Golden, for example, reviewing Breathing Lessons, writes that Maggie Moran "has a Lucy Ricardo quality that undermines our empathy." However, other critics, Robert Towers, Joseph Mathewson, Wallace Stegner, and Alice Hall Petry specifically, have compared her characterization to that of Charles Dickens. Stegner writes that Tyler's characters, "a Dickensian gallery of oddballs, innocents, obsessives, erratics, incompetents and plain Joes and Janes, all see the world a little skewed, but their author sees them with such precision and presents them with such amusement and lack of malice that they come off the page as exhilaratingly human." Tyler herself has responded to such criticism by saying, "I write about those off-beat characters and that blend of laughter and tears because in my experience, that's what real life consists of."
Ordinary life. Ordinary people. Tyler has a way of portraying them at their best—and worst. She shows people with basic human faults, struggling to endure in a sometimes unfair, sometimes insane world, attempting to work out the problems in relationships and communication. In her twelve novels, published between 1964 and 1991, Tyler has created a cast of memorable characters rife with weaknesses common to the human race. But she is not just a weaver of tales full of quirky characters. Her novels transcend the ordinary plots and characters found in so many popular writers' works, and in her humor we see more than comic situations designed merely to make us laugh. Tyler's humor accomplishes what George Meredith specifies as the goal of true comedy: it awakens "thoughtful laughter," forcing us to take a closer look at ourselves and our relationships with others.
Tyler's own description of her writing as a "blend of laughter and tears" seems especially appropriate, as tragedy and comedy are indisputably linked in her stories. She also comments: "I can't think of any tragic situation in real life that hasn't shown a glimmer of comedy too," and Louis D. Rubin, Jr. remarks in his study, The Comic Imagination in American Literature, that the "American literary imagination has from its earliest days been at least as much comic in nature as tragic." Several critics have recognized the significance of the juxtaposition of tragedy and comedy in Tyler's work, yet another similarity to Dickens: Peter S. Prescott describes The Accidental Tourist as a "delicate balance of comedy and pathos"; Jonathan Yardley comments that the same novel "leaves one aching with pleasure and pain"; and Benjamin DeMott compliments Tyler's "mastery of grave as well as comic tones." Certainly, human relationships hold the potential for both comedy and tragedy, and Tyler often places her readers on that thin line between the two. As Regina Barreca points out in her book on women's strategic use of humor, "Often women's humor deals with those subjects traditionally reserved for tragedy: life and death, love and hate, connection and abandonment."
Rubin remarks that "it is remarkable how comparatively little attention has been paid to American humor, and to the comic imagination in general, by those who have chronicled and interpreted American literature," and this is certainly true of Tyler's canon. Although Tyler's humor has been praised briefly in reviews and essays on her work, its full significance has been virtually ignored. In the introduction to his book of essays, The Fiction of Anne Tyler, C. Ralph Stephens remarks: "Tyler's comic sensibility and the important roles humor and irony play in her fiction … have only begun to be investigated critically; the sources of her humor and its thematic and structuring functions in her work clearly merit fuller attention." Alice Hall Petry concurs in the introduction to her book of essays, commenting that "an astute appreciation of Tyler's subtle, ironic humor … too often is lacking in commentaries on her work."
To understand fully many of Tyler's ideas, it is necessary to examine how and why she uses humor. Humor is especially key in analyzing one of Tyler's major themes: missed connections. The idea of "connecting" is crucial to Tyler's canon and one that is potentially either tragic or comic. In commenting on the similarity of Tyler to another Southern writer, Carson McCullers, Petry explains, "Tyler seems receptive to McCullers' dictum that we must learn to 'connect' with one another, that love is one of the few defenses we have against a world that seems antagonistic towards a strong sense of both selfhood and freedom."
It is communicating that makes us human, that sets us apart from other living creatures. It is communication that brings people together, and ironically and tragically, it is what often drives people apart. Very often Tyler uses humor to illustrate the lack of communication that is the source of much of this tragedy/comedy in her novels and in modern society. Tyler herself comments: "[M]iscommunication is one of the situations that most often lets characters say something funny," forcing us to laugh at our clumsy attempts to connect with each other. Since much of human communication is verbal, words themselves—mis-spoken,misunderstood,and mis-analyzed—from the basis for a great deal of the humor of miscommunication.
Such verbal humor falls into various categories, each of which serves a specific purpose in extending the theme of miscommunication. Although these categories overlap in some instances, it will be easier to analyze them by separating them as clearly as possible. These categories include: (1) Linguistic errors that characters make either consciously or subconsciously; (2) The psychological shift or attempt to divert attention away from the real issue; (3) Inadequate words in communication; and (4) Non-traditional means of communication.
According to Freud, when people joke, they "are in a position to conceal not only what they have to say but also the fact that they have something—forbidden—to say." Perhaps the humor, however unintentional it may seem, sends a message—of defiance, anger, frustration, jealousy. For example, Maggie Moran in Breathing Lessons comments on her ex-daughter-in-law Fiona's thinness: "Just a twig, she was going to say; or just a stick. But she got mixed up and combined the two words: 'You're just a twick!'" Known as a spoonerism, an unintentional and spontaneous transposition or combination of sounds, this type of slip of the tongue often reveals something significant about the speaker. In this case, Maggie's true feelings for Fiona—perhaps resentment, jealousy, or anger—are suggested through this nebulous term "twick" that sounds, at once, like a compliment and an insult.
In Saint Maybe, linguistic confusion is taken to the extreme in the character of Ian Bedloe's neighbor, a foreigner who, with his limited knowledge of English, attempts to express sympathy about the death of Ian's brother. He says, "'Woe betide you' and 'O lud lud! Please to accept my lamentations.'" Again, there is more here than a simple linguistic mistake. The foreigner's inability to communicate his feelings of sadness because he lacks the appropriate words parallels the inadequacy of all people in their attempts to console someone in anguish over the death of a loved one. This is an excellent example of Tyler's ability to combine tragedy and comedy in the same scene to make a point. Readers laugh at the character's absurd chatter but also realize the serious statement behind the humor: in tragic situations, most people find themselves helplessly muttering words as awkward and meaningless as those spoken by the foreigner.
As with this character, Tyler usually makes her characters seem unaware of their linguistic errors, which her readers see clearly. In The Clock Winder, Mrs. Emerson describes her husband's fondness for Christmas and his favorite reindeer: "Always so fond of Randolph." Mrs. Emerson's error suggests ignorance on her part, a lack of understanding not only of her husband, but also of the customs and norms of society. Her inability to communicate with her family is only an indication of her inability to survive in and relate to the outside world without help from someone, someone to "wind the clocks" in the house and maintain order. And, in an ironic twist, Tyler gives her the last name of the philosopher most closely associated with self-reliance.
Tyler creates a similar misunderstanding in A Slipping-Down Life. A fan misreads the name "CASEY" that Evie Decker has carved into her forehead and tells a friend that the singer "YEZAC" will be performing that night. Although Evie initially intends to draw the attention of the community to Drumstrings Casey and Casey's attention to herself, her plans backfire. Much like the fan who misreads the name on Evie's forehead, intentions and results get twisted around while events turn out to be more tragic than Evie imagines. When Casey comes to see her in the hospital, he complains that she used "CASEY" instead of his first name, and Evie responds:
"What, Drumstrings? I don't have that big of a forehead."
"Drum," he said. "Nobody said the whole thing for Lord's sake."
"They call you Drum?" asked Evie.
"Well, I certainly wish I'd of known."
"Yeah, I suppose it's too late now," he said.
Acting before communicating, Tyler suggests, may be worse than not acting at all, as can be seen later in the novel after the incident is reported in the newspaper. Evie receives a note in the mail with the following message: "Congratulations on your recent achievement. And when it's the tops in achievement you want, just think of Sonny Martin, Pulqua County's Biggest Real Estate Agent." Obviously, Sonny also needed more information before sending the note. His rash actions exemplify a sharp criticism Tyler makes about contemporary society: people are so intent on making a profit, they fail to take the time to find out the facts before acting, and instead of achieving their true purpose, these efforts to communicate appear absurd and inappropriate.
Another type of linguistic error is the malapropism, the inadvertent replacement of one word with another similarly pronounced, as when Janie Rose, a small girl, runs through her nightly prayers, saying, "'Deliverus from measles.'" As Henri Bergson points out: "Inadvertently to say or do what we have no intention of saying or doing … is, as we are aware, one of the main sources of the comic." Although this explanation is applicable to many situations, it is especially significant in regard to malapropisms because in such cases speakers are never aware of their errors, a further development of the theme that people often do not successfully communicate simply out of ignorance. In Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Ezra Tull is told that a patient down the hall from Mrs. Scarlatti has a "'heart rumor'"; and in Saint Maybe, the Church of the Second Chance is called the "Church of the Second Rate." These malapropisms explain much about how we communicate. Perhaps the sterile atmosphere of a hospital has so dehumanized dying that identities and feelings become merely rumors, while the dying are treated impersonally. The comment in Saint Maybe is uttered by a disgruntled father who disapproves of his daughter's church membership. Both remarks, made in ignorance, force the reader to see past the humor to deeper meanings—with perhaps tragic implications. These characters are unable to express their true feelings, which are revealed instead through subconscious jokes.
Taking confusion of words one step further, Tyler even pokes fun at the limited comprehension of the partially deaf or mentally incompetent, character types not normally the target of jokes. In Searching for Caleb, for example, Justine's grandfather communicates with difficulty because he is nearly deaf. In the following dialogue between the two, Justine, who begins the conversation, appears to ignore her grandfather's misunderstanding:
"Tell her we're just about to leave."
"And don't forget your hearing aid."
"They don't get better that fast, the cold has sunk into the sockets," her grandfather said. "Ask me again tomorrow. Thank you very much."
In a later encounter, Justine again ignores her grandfather's difficulty. Her husband Duncan begins the conversation:
"So you're going to take their side."
"I didn't know there were sides."
"How's that?" asked her grandfather.
"Duncan thinks I'm defecting."
"Nonsense," said her grandfather. "You're as smart as anybody."
Similarly, Elizabeth, in The Clock Winder, takes care of an elderly man, Mr. Cunningham, who moves in and out of mental competency. In one scene, she introduces him to her friend, Matthew:
"Here I am. Come in Matthew. This is Mr. Cunningham."
"How do, Mr. Cunningham," the old man said.
"No, this is Matthew Emerson. You're Mr. Cunningham."
"Well, I knew that." He raised his chin sharply.
Beneath the surface humor, Tyler makes a serious point about the tragedy of aging. Growing older, Mr. Cunningham has lost the ability to communicate because he has lost the power of words. In effect, this loss of power is a loss of identity, evidenced by his inability to recognize his own name. His final words and gesture are defensive, a last attempt to maintain dignity. Similarly, Justine's grandfather continues to respond to conversations as if he understands them entirely, while those around him, recognizing his need for dignity, refrain from correcting his errors.
One final type of linguistic misunderstanding occurs when a character misinterprets the intent behind words, what Freud describes as a "contrast of ideas" or "a contrast between the words and what they mean." Among Tyler's novels, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant offers the best examples of such confusion. When Ezra shoots a bullseye by splitting an arrow that had previously hit the mark, his sister Jenny cries, "'Ezra, look what you did! What you went and did to that arrow!' Ezra took the straw from his mouth. 'I'm sorry,' he told Beck. (He was so used to breaking things)." This archery incident functions as a microcosm of the novel, illustrating this dysfunctional family's difficulty in connecting through words. Cody, often jealous and resentful, remains silent, refusing to congratulate or acknowledge his brother's achievement; Jenny misunderstands the act, frantically calling attention to possible blame; while Ezra, so often victimized by his own lack of confidence, immediately becomes humble and ashamed. All of the characters replay these defective roles over and over because of their poor communication skills.
Freud tells us that words "are a plastic material with which one can do all kinds of things." Whether motives are subconscious or conscious is not as important as the effect words produce. Linguistic errors may confuse characters and readers alike, eliciting their laughter and pity, but significantly this confusion is a "bewilderment succeeded by illumination."
Another kind of verbal humor develops when characters make incongruous remarks or respond inappropriately to others' remarks in order to shift attention away from sensitive issues, usually intending to avoid awkward, rude, or unpleasant conversations. Aunt Hattie, the elderly matriarch in If Morning Ever Comes, says of a pushy niece who has just exited, "'She's putting on weight, don't you think?'" when she is not actually concerned with her niece's weight. By making this comment, she belittles her niece, minimizing the woman's presence and influence, and thereby increasing her own importance and power. Tyler uses a similar tactic in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant when Cody Tull's estranged father, Beck, returns for his wife's funeral. After Beck tells Cody, "'I often thought about you after I went away,'" Cody responds, "'Oh?… Have you been away?'" Cody's sarcasm minimizes not only the significance of his father's desertion, but also his reappearance.
Searching for Caleb offers several examples of this kind of unexpected retort, the first developing from Duncan's frustration at the lack of meaningful conversation around the family dinner table. Duncan's mother meets this criticism with a trivial reply, avoiding the confrontation:
"Can't you say something that means something?" Duncan asked.
"About what?" said his mother.
"I don't care. Anything…. Don't you want to get to the bottom of things? Talk about whether there's a God or not?"
"But we already know," said his mother.
Later in the novel, Duncan clearly imitates his mother's avoidance technique in an argument with Justine about visiting their newly-married daughter, Meg. Justine tries to make Duncan admit that he loves and misses Meg:
"You used to take her to the circus when she was too little to hold down a spring-up seat. For three straight hours you leaned on it for her so she wouldn't pop right up again."
"There was an intermission."
In this way, Duncan draws attention away from a sensitive issue, that he misses and loves his daughter, by focusing on an incidental detail that disavows his attention and affection, making his sacrifice inconsequential and his confession of love unnecessary. Freud terms this kind of humor a "displacement joke," defined as redirecting the topic of conversation, and he comments that "diverting … the reply" causes a "shifting of the psychical emphasis" away from something unpleasant.
The Clock Winder offers several examples of displacement jokes, such as the scene in which Mrs. Emerson attempts to speak to Elizabeth about her disheveled appearance. Elizabeth evades the criticism by humorously focusing on an unimportant detail:
"'Above all else, be feminine,' I used to tell my daughters, and here you are in those eternal blue jeans, but every time I look out the window some new boy is helping you rake leaves."
"Oh, well, the leaves are nearly gone by now," Elizabeth said.
A similar instance occurs in a conversation between Bee Bedloe and her husband in Saint Maybe. He laments his daughter's growing older and scolding him the way he once scolded her. He declares, "'[T]here was some stage when we were equals. I mean while she was on the rise and we were on the downslide. A stage when we were level with each other.'" Bee answers, "'Well, I must have been on the phone at the time,'" thereby absolving herself of responsibility for any miscommunication between parents and child by diverting attention away from the real issue.
While much of this humor is unconscious, sometimes characters consciously say something amusing to mitigate an uncomfortable situation or make a serious point in a subtle, non-threatening way. In Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, for example, Cody writes letters to Ruth on samples sent to him by a stationery company that are imprinted with the names of imaginary people. Rather than having Cody tell Ruth he loves her and does not want her to marry his brother, Tyler has him send notes signed with invented names, warning her against becoming involved with "those pale blond thoughtful kind of men" who are "a real disappointment" and encouraging her to see "someone tall, [with] black hair and gray eyes" who is "really a good man at heart and has been misjudged for years by people." Cody is somewhat protected by the charade, and while we laugh at the subtlety of such strategy to steal his brother's fiancee, Tyler makes a more serious point as well: we communicate better with complete strangers than we do with those who supposedly are closest to us. Ironically and unfortunately, anonymity is less threatening; strangers are less apt to respond negatively and abusively than those who love us. Robert McPhillips describes this subtlety in Tyler's work as "gently comic." Approaching many serious subjects, Tyler is able to make her point clear without resorting to bitterness or accusation about the tragedy of family members who feel justified in verbally abusing each other.
Another example of this "gently comic" style that awakens "thoughtful laughter" is found in the conversation between Charlotte and Jake about staying cooped up in their getaway car in Earthly Possessions:
"If you like," he said, "you can sleep in the back tonight. I ain't sleeping anyhow. I plan to just sit here and go crazy."
"I don't see how you stand this," he said.
"You forget," I told him, "I've been married."
Making light of an unhappy situation, such as a marriage that feels more like a prison, enables Tyler to express serious concerns about relationships without calling for pity for the characters. Tragedy shifts to comedy simply through Tyler's tone.
The children Tyler creates are not so subtle, as Saint Maybe exemplifies. In an attempt to marry her Uncle Ian to the "right" woman and scare away the "wrong" one, Daphne tells the entire dinner party:
"I just can't help thinking about this dream I had a couple of nights ago…. God was speaking to me from a thundercloud…. 'Daphne Bedloe, beware of strangers!… Daphne Bedloe, a stranger is going to start hanging around your uncle … somebody fat, not from Baltimore, chasing after your uncle Ian.'"
The message is painfully clear to the reader and all the characters present at the dinner: Daphne's technique is somewhat unpolished, therefore realistically childlike. More often, Tyler's adult characters use humor to smooth over unpleasant scenes, rather than worsening them as Daphne does, often by this shifting of attention away from something painful. Regina Barreca explains how humor is able to achieve this:
[Humor is] a way of making our feelings and responses available to others without terrifying our listeners. When we can frame a difficult matter with humor, we can often reach someone who would otherwise withdraw. Humor is a show of both strength and vulnerability—you are willing to make the first move but you are trusting in the response of your listener.
In one such situation, Jenny Tull, a character in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, uses humor to defuse tense situations with her struggling step-son, Slevin, by shifting the emphasis from what he does to the absurdity suggested by his motives. Rather than confront him about his reasons for stealing a vacuum cleaner that reminds him of his mother's, Jenny says: "'What's next, I wonder,' Jenny said. She mused for a moment. 'Picture it! Grand pianos. Kitchen sinks. Why, we'll have his mother's whole household,' she said, 'her photo albums and her grade-school yearbooks, her college roommate asleep on our bed and her high school boyfriends in our living room.'" Jenny's technique influences Slevin's approach with his teacher, who repeats a conversation to Jenny:
"He's had so many absences, I finally asked if he'd been cutting school. 'Yes, ma'am,' he said—came right out with it. 'What did you cut?' I asked him. 'February,' he said."
Tyler knows it is difficult to feel anger and amusement simultaneously toward the same person, and in such characters as these, we see that humor can achieve the same purpose as a lecture or argument, with minimal damage to a relationship. Barreca further explains: "Making a generously funny comment, pointing to the absurdity of a situation, turning embarrassment or unease into something to be shared instead of repressed is risky, but it is also often exactly what is needed."
Another category of miscommunication includes meaningless or inadequate words uttered because any communication, even inane, is more satisfactory than none at all. This effect is mainly accomplished through Tyler's near perfect creation of dialogue. In all her novels, Tyler uses conversations to convey the inadequacy of words to express feelings.
Joseph C. Voelker explains that her dialogue is "musically rendered, inconclusive, and comic in its apparent insufficiency as a mode of human communication…. More is heard in its silences, gaps, misunderstandings, and failures to listen than in the words themselves."
Voelker terms her particular style "pointillistic," referring to the practice in art of applying small strokes or dots of paint to a surface so that, from a distance, they blend together to create an image. In short, individual words may seem unimportant, but when viewed from a literary distance, they mean much more. Voelker further clarifies: "Several words or phrases, always at the beginnings of sentences that never get spoken, form the actual dots of Tyler's pointillism. Characters say 'Oh,' 'Well,' 'Oh, now' and then stop. The consequence is anxious, even rueful comedy."
Macon's agent, Julian, in The Accidental Tourist, for example, continually makes valiant efforts to get to know Macon's family, while Macon makes every effort to keep him distant. In one of his first encounters with one brother, Charles, Julian politely inquires about Charles's job:
Julian said, "What do you do for a living, Charles?"
"I make bottle caps."
"Bottle caps! Is that a fact!"
"Oh, well, it's no big thing," Charles said. "I mean it's not half as exciting as it sounds, really."
Note the inanity of Charles' final remark. Exaggerated interest and false enthusiasm from Julian have left Charles in an uncomfortable position, and he feels pushed into uttering ridiculous words in response to Julian's obsequious comments.
Julian doggedly pursues his relationship with the Learys, whose name aptly fits their "leeriness" in accepting any outsiders into their tight family unit. While Julian visits Macon and Muriel, Muriel tries to write country and western song lyrics for a contest, and Julian again does his best to connect by helping her find a line to replace "When we shared every pain." As Macon forces him out the door, Julian tenaciously contributes, "When our lives were more sane," "When we used to raise Cain," "When I hadn't met Jane," "When she didn't know Wayne," "When she wasn't inane," "When we guzzled champagne," and "When we stuffed on chow mein." In addition to creating a very funny scene, Tyler dramatizes our frantic and futile efforts to use words to express our need for one another. We see that by accepting one of Julian's ridiculous lines, Muriel would be accepting Julian himself, and that is the true goal: a significant connection to another human being.
Similarly, Drumstrings Casey has a habit of speaking out during his songs; most of his thoughts, his manager admits, are "'not even connected.'" Symbolically, Drum represents the disjointed way we often talk, not conversing, just speaking.
"She left you, you say?"
He hit one note several times over.
"Where were you? Did you see her go?
"The meter man's coming.
"Buy the tickets. Wait in the lobby.
"Have you noticed all the prices going up?"
His words are clearly not as important as his need, shared by all people, to connect.
Speaking without communicating—or talking without listening—is one of the major problems in relationships in Tyler's novels. Many times characters converse on different planes with each one carrying on his or her own monologue. With Ansel Green, in The Tin Can Tree, this occurs regularly, mainly because everyone is tired of listening to him complain. He tells his brother: "'I've noticed more and more … that no one listens when I talk. I don't know why. Usually I think about a thing before I say it, making sure it's worthwhile. I plan it in my mind, like.'" Ironically, his brother is not paying much attention to Ansel's words; he is reading the newspaper.
Such disjointed conversation is used most successfully in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and The Accidental Tourist. The former novel offers the Tull family, whose members lack the necessary skills to communicate with others. For example, Pearl initially decides not to tell her children their father has deserted them, hoping they will not notice, but she finally tries to tell them in a disjointed conversation that is at once humorous and tragic:
"Children," she had said…. "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 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 cent 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.
"The cafeteria," they said.
This conversation also illustrates that Beck's desertion has been the central focus of Pearl's existence but her children have moved on to deal with other issues.
The three children in this novel have their own problems in communicating. Ezra laments his inability to "get in touch with people," confronting his mother with his fear:
"I'm worried if I come too close, they'll say I'm over-stepping. 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."
Pearl responds, "'Nonsense; I don't know what you're talking about,'" ironically illustrating Ezra's point. In fact, he cannot even get his mother to admit he has a communication problem. She refuses to do more than hear his words, never listening to their implicit plea for understanding.
Cody also has trouble making himself understood. In one scene, he brings Ruth copper-colored roses to go with her hair, but clearly she does not understand his intentions and therefore pays minimal attention to the gesture:
"Greenhouse roses. I especially ordered copper, to go with your hair."
"You leave my hair out of this," she said.
"Honey, he meant it as a compliment," Ezra told her.
"Certainly," said Cody. "See, it's my way of saying welcome. Welcome to our family, Ruth."
"Oh. Well, thanks."
"Cody, that was awfully nice of you," Ezra said.
"Gin," said Ruth.
The sharp last line, another example of Tyler's pointillism, emphasizes not only how listeners pay little attention, but also how people make inappropriate remarks to cover their inability to communicate effectively.
Similar communication problems haunt the Leary family in The Accidental Tourist. Ironically, the Leary brothers and their sister are most indignant about the decline of the English language: "[H]ow sloppy everyday speech had become … [how] words are getting devalued." The Learys seem sure that if people would only clean up their usage, there would be no communication problems—as if words were the only thing to consider.
It is Macon who is most obsessed with policing proper usage, often at the expense of alienating those around him. He consistently ignores the message, focusing on the words: when Sarah tells him she has been dating a physician, he remarks, "Why not just call him a doctor"; when she comments that Rose has been "[c]ruising hardware stores like other people cruise boutiques," he corrects her with "As other people cruise boutiques"; when she remarks that she is sending him a letter through her attorney, he says, "I guess you mean a lawyer"; he corrects Muriel when she says, "My speciality is dogs that bite" by saying "Webster prefers specialty"; and he corrects Julian, who says "momentarily" instead of "any moment." It is not surprising that "communicate" is Macon's "least favorite word," considering how little he understands about the complexity of the process. In each of the conversations quoted above, Macon is afforded the opportunity to exchange feelings and insights with another character, yet he refuses such possibilities by focusing on words. Even when the words are grammatically correct, Macon cannot communicate effectively. After telling a neighbor he is staying at his family's home until his broken leg is healed, Macon has difficulty in maintaining an ordinary conversation:
"We didn't see no ambulance though or nothing."
"Well, I called my sister."
"Sister's a doctor?"
"Just to come take me to the emergency room."
"When Brenda broke her hip on the missing step," Garner said, "she called an ambulance."
"Well, I called my sister."
"Brenda called the ambulance."
They seemed to be stuck.
They are stuck, and neither character is skilled enough to break the cycle of their circuitous conversation. Instead of communicating effectively, they take part in an absurd dialogue that makes Tyler's point clear: most of us lack effective communication skills, using words which inadequately express how we feel.
Tyler's characters often turn to non-traditional forms of communication, refusing to use words at all. For example, Ira Moran whistles songs with titles that suggest how he is feeling at the moment, while Ansel's mother in The Tin Can Tree acts out her opposition to the father's desire to eat the pet goats, as Ansel describes: "When my mother brought a roasted kid in, or any part of it, holding it high on a wooden platter with potatoes around it, she always dropped it just in the doorway between the kitchen and the dining room. It never failed."
The Leary family also engages in such refusals. Rather than deal with an unpleasant telephone confrontation, they simply refuse to answer the phone, thereby avoiding communication completely. Their own conversations are often forced and uncomfortable until they adopt the same simple method Muriel uses to train Edward the dog—clucking: "By suppertime, a cluck was part of the family language. Charles clucked over Rose's pork chops. Porter clucked when Macon dealt him a good hand of cards." The tragedy of their situation is alleviated only by its humorous absurdity. Having cut themselves off from the world by living together in their family house, not answering the phone, and only emerging from their cocoon when absolutely necessary, the Learys short circuit their only means of communication—words—by replacing them with mere sounds. Thus, even their communication with one another becomes minimal.
Of all Tyler's characters who find difficulty in dealing with others, however, the most psychologically aberrant communicator is Jeremy Pauling in Celestial Navigation. Agoraphobic Jeremy has cut himself off from the world, refusing to answer the phone, open mail, talk to strangers, or leave his house. Even when he needs to tell the family about something important, such as the impending delivery of a new refrigerator, Jeremy remains silent. His infrequent attempts to connect with the outside world humorously misfire because he lacks the proper experience. One time he brings Mary flowers, but says, "'These are for, I brought these for the room…. I found them by the trashcans.'" Jeremy successfully communicates with society only through his art—a uniquely cryptic representation of ordinary life pieced together in collages, expressing feelings and thoughts his words cannot relay.
Tyler's novels teem with characters less extreme than Jeremy who prefer not to communicate in order to avoid difficult situations, such as the Pecks in Searching for Caleb, who fear telling Caroline about the death of her husband, wishing, "Oh, if only we could just never tell her and this would all blow over!" Elizabeth, in The Clock Winder, cannot bear to tell her employer she is unable to kill the Thanksgiving turkey and so buys a second turkey at the supermarket, while Peter, in the same novel, avoids telling his family he is married until they naively ask his wife, "[W]hat's your last name, anyway?" In Earthly Possessions, Charlotte Emory's mother, although she believes she has been given the wrong baby at the hospital, does not tell anyone, saying: "But I was still so surprised, you see, and besides didn't want to make trouble. I took what they gave me." Duncan Peck "speaks" to his family with humorous messages cut out of magazines, such as "Have you ever had a bad time in Levi's?" and "You are far, far from home … in unfamiliar territory," while Mrs. Emerson records messages to her children on her dictaphone so they cannot interrupt her and cannot talk back. Reducing conversation to the minimum lessens the threat of miscommunication, a trade-off many of Tyler's characters eagerly make.
Petry says that Tyler's first two novels are "implied commentaries on the lack of thought or feeling underlying what generally passes for communication." This description, in fact, fits her entire canon. Lack of communication in relationships is a common yet grim problem, but Tyler provokes our laughter at this human failing. Tyler, however, claims that such humor is unplanned in her work rather than a consciously developed theme:
I never plan humor in my writing (and would be suspicious of any I did plan). What usually happens is, I get a patch of dialogue rolling to the point where the characters seem to take over, and then one of them will say something that catches me completely by surprise and makes me smile.
If George Meredith is right that "the test of true comedy is that it shall awaken thoughtful laughter," surely Anne Tyler is a truly comic novelist who opens our eyes to the tragic yet comic truth of our persistent but unsuccessful attempts to communicate with each other. Regina Barreca writes that "[l]aughing together is as close as you can get to a hug without touching," so perhaps even if words fail, laughter can provide the needed connection.
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