This section contains 3,513 words
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Critical Essay by Bradley R. Bowers
SOURCE: "Anne Tyler's Insiders," in Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. 42, No. 1, Winter, 1988, pp. 47-56.
In the following essay. Bowers discusses the inside knowledge that Tyler shares with the readers of her novels.
In her most successful novel, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Anne Tyler's central character, Pearl, reacts to her husband Beck's abrupt announcement that he "didn't want to stay married":
"I don't understand you," she said. There ought to be a whole separate language, she thought, for words that are truer than other words—for perfect, absolute truth.
Tyler does not create the language of pure truth, but she succeeds in pushing through the limitations of traditional narrative by collusion with the reader, in essence, by sharing a joke. She allows the reader to share inside knowledge, not only family secrets but self-delusions, true motives, quirks of perception. When Pearl reckons with Beck's leaving and debates how to tell the children, the reader is let in on the plotting:
She planned how she would do it: she would gather them around her on the sofa, in the lamplight, some evening after supper. "Children. Dear ones," she would say. "There's something you should know."
Even before she echoes the chapter title in her final words, the reader knows much more of the truth in Pearl's thoughts than she herself. She has not been able—for four years—to tell the children that their father has abandoned them. She tries to carry out her plan but the children are discussing Cody's plans to work during college:
"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…."
"There's something I want to explain about your father," Pearl told them.
"Choose the cafeteria," Ezra said.
"The cafeteria," they said.
And all three gazed at her coolly, out of gray, unblinking, level eyes exactly like her own.
Only the reader shares the knowledge of Pearl's plight and her failure to connect with her children. By creating this conspiracy, Tyler shares a laugh at the expense of her characters. We become "insiders" who understand the implication of a particular phrase, who watch the characters verbally run toward each other with loving and open arms, sometimes connecting but all too often running past. In The Accidental Tourist, Tyler describes the deteriorating marriage of Macon and Sarah Leary with that comic image: "They were like people who run to meet, holding out their arms, but their aim is wrong; they pass each other and keep running." Thus her characters, usually family members, usually Southern, are intimately portrayed but examined at a distance, a comic distance so that we might laugh along with the author. But she creates a unique kind of perspective, one which includes not only certain family members but the narrator and the reader as well, all of whom form the group of insiders; the obvious outsiders are those family members whose "aim is wrong," who pass closely by but fail to understand the true meanings, the inside jokes.
One technique of Tyler's is to use language to create nonce forms which hold meaning for insiders, and only for insiders; we share a knowledge derived entirely from the context of the family and share with them a point of contact. In addition, Tyler repeatedly reveals missed connections, verbal interchanges which seem to some readers to be unrealistic, but which the insider—character or reader—understands to be a connection that should have been made, but is not because of the uncareful aim of the people involved. Tyler therefore creates an extended family; she seems to approach her "children"—characters and readers—in much the same manner as her own offspring: "Who else in the world do you have to love, no matter what? Who else can you absolutely not give up on?" She lets the reader share a sort of parental knowledge, her characters all considered her offspring who attempt to communicate, who run lovingly toward each other's arms, failing to connect while we watch through Tyler's "mist of irony."
Tyler's characters are forced to deal with each other within their family structure, much like the characters who populate Eudora Welty's families, an influence Tyler readily acknowledges. In Tyler's earlier Searching for Caleb, the Peck family's unifying force evolves out of the search for the lost member. In a typical Welty story, such as when Sister leaves home to live at the P.O., the family tie is severed. But Tyler's characters try to preserve the family unit at all cost. This forced situation allows Tyler to focus on her characters' intentions, often hidden in their speech; it allows her characters to reveal themselves to the reader, while not necessarily doing the same with each other. When a character articulates his true feelings, we see how he fits his perception of the world around him into the structure he must live in, his family. The words he forms reflect those patterns. A phrase may intimate a knowledge of a situation, defined for those "on the inside," spoken as if a code: "This Really Happened," a chapter title in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, is also the signal shared by the narrator, the reader, and in this case, Luke, Cody's son, when Cody begins describing an episode in his life as Pearl's child:
"Let me give you an example," he said. "Listen now. This really happened." That was the way he always introduced his childhood. "This really happened," he would say, as if it were unthinkable, beyond belief, but then what followed never seemed so terrible to Luke.
Tyler's creation of a nonce phrase creates in turn an inside joke. Often it works simply as an indication of a shared misperception, having only one possible meaning to a certain group of people in a certain and unique situation. The technique is not uncommon to modern writers, but few handle it as conspiratorially as Tyler. John Irving provides an archetype of the method in The World According to Garp. T.S. Garp's children are warned repeatedly, during summers at the beach, to watch for the dangerous undertow, which, over the blur of the pounding waves, becomes "the dangerous Underload." The misperception evolves into a family joke. But in Tyler's work, these nonce phrases become inside jokes, signalling the reader as well as the character to look beyond the surface of a situation, to interpret it as a person with shared knowledge of all that the phrase brings to bear on the situation and the character involved. Tyler acknowledges the value of making these connections, of having shared, secret knowledge, even in her first novel, If Morning Ever Comes. Shelley Jane Domer and Ben Joe Hawkes go beyond mere language; Shelley's "sudden outspokenness, like her secret fantasy about Ben Joe … serves to isolate her from those around her, to shock her family, and to give her at once both a secret power and knowledge." The "power" is that of communication, of making connections with other insiders.
In her early works, the intent is not always comic, but more to suggest meaning or innuendo. Tyler shares a technique that Welty often uses to signal her readers. Because it is "A Worn Path," both the persistence and the perceptions of Phoenix are interpreted in light of that knowledge, despite her outward appearance of confusion.
The third chapter title in Homesick Restaurant, "Destroyed by Love," rings with the melancholy and melodrama of a country song title, and the joke it creates for the reader is the same shared by listeners of those ballads of lost love. When Jenny asks if she should marry Harley Gaines, Mrs. Parker, the palm reader, remains an outsider, "scrutinizing Jenny's hand" and telling her "If you don't, see … you'll run into a lot of heartbreak. Lot of trouble in your romantic life…. What I mean to say … if you don't go and get married, you'll be destroyed by love." Jenny reacts only with "Oh," undercutting the gravity of the jaded pronouncement, suggesting at that point the same observation made later that—had she been an insider like the rest of us—Mrs. Parker would have "guessed from the very first instant, from the briefest, most cursory glance, that Jenny was not capable of being destroyed by love." We understand what the palm reader could not. Judging her from appearances, she saw Jenny as the typical victim of circumstance, not knowing she was Pearl Tull's daughter, not knowing she was governed by the same resiliency and single-mindedness.
Flannery O'Connor cites the aphorism "A Good Man is Hard to Find" and plays upon the phrase in the grandmother's confrontation with the Misfit:
"I just know you're a good man," she said desperately. "You're not a bit common!"
"Nome, I ain't a good man," The Misfit said after a second as if he had considered her statement carefully, "but I ain't the worst in the world neither."
The Misfit interprets her statement literally, as a joke among his boys, Hiram and Bobby Lee, and himself, perhaps with Bailey Boy (were he still alive), certainly with the reader, but certainly not the grandmother. Luke, Jenny, The Misfit—and the reader—share an inside perspective, a knowledge which runs deeper than outside appearances or what might naively be expected. O'Connor's Grandmother always has been, always will be an outsider, unless, of course, "if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life."
But occasionally, for the reader, the outward appearance appears implausible when tempered by the inside perspective. Tyler's second technique, rather than making the inside connection, leaves the expectation of fulfillment unresolved. John Updike notes that Tyler "is sometimes charged with the basic literary sin of implausibility," but he defends "the delayed illuminations that prick out her tableaux." Others may have supposed that she wanted to fulfill the reader's expectations along with the character's, neither of which she does consistently. Mary F. Robertson dubs these disruptions "Medusa points":
… such failures of communication … 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 The Accidental Tourist, Tyler remarks directly on the idea, describing the progress toward divorce by Macon and Sarah as "those months when anything either of them said was wrong, toward that sense of narrowly missed connections." And in Homesick Restaurant, when Ezra is afraid to make a small gesture to comfort a child, he laments that "he had missed an opportunity, something that would never come again." Welty's influence perhaps extends beyond Tyler to her critics, as Robertson's explanation reflects the dominant image of Welty's "Petrified Man," a story which deals more brutally with missed connections among family members. But the characters of Tyler's families are distinctly unlike Welty's Mrs. Fletcher, who says her husband "can't do a thing with me" because "he knows good and well I'll have one of my sick headaches, and then I'm just not fit to live with." Tyler's readers get the feeling, as Welty's Leota would say, that the characters are not "funny-haha" as much as they are "funny-peculiar."
The wry observer, armed with the secret knowledge, may notice that, as Robertson points out, "a certain pattern obtains in the dialogues and interchanges" of the family. Updike calls it the "daily communication that masks silence." Those on the inside, actually those who should be on the inside, repeatedly fail to connect; thus, the reader becomes privy to deeper insight and more of the near-misses than even the rest of the family. These episodes are tragedy to the characters' lives but create a series of comic exchanges accessible—for the most part—only by the reader, with an implied smile and knowing look from Tyler.
The comic effect is subdued in Tyler's earlier novels, perhaps indicating that her confidence in later works grew to create more brutal, more slapstick characterizations. In the relatively early Earthly Possessions, she introduces the idea of an insider who shares knowledge directly with the reader (this novel is Tyler's first to be told from a single, first-person point of view). Charlotte Emory is attuned to "God's little jokes" and holds foremost among them her home life with two unfeeling parents: "Horrible things … happened at our house that would have been very embarrassing if witnessed by an outsider." Charlotte speaks of the two overriding concerns of her childhood in terms which are stoic and ironic, but most of all funny:
One was that I was not their [her parents'] true daughter, and would be sent away. The other was that I was their true daughter and would never, ever manage to escape to the outside world.
In her subsequent novel, Morgan's Passing, Tyler brings the missed connection more concretely into play for comic purposes. Gower Morgan, though a compulsive impersonator, nonetheless fails to deal with his wife, Bonny, when the truth of their lives intrudes. Bonny asks his advice regarding their daughter Amy's impending marriage:
"Morgan, in this day and age, do you believe the bride's mother would still give the bride a little talk?"
"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?"
"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?"
The next novel, Homesick Restaurant, develops this comedy furthest, among and between every family member. Ezra pushes hardest to connect. He and his mother, Pearl, debate whether Jenny has separated from her husband, Harley, though she still wears a wedding ring, perhaps to fool the family. Ezra argues the side of honesty:
"She wouldn't wear a ring if she and Harley were separated, would she?"
"She would if she wanted to fool us."
"Well, I don't know, if she wants to fool us maybe we ought to act fooled. I don't know."
"All my life," his mother said, "people have been trying to shut me out. Even my children. Especially my children. If I so much as ask that girl how she's been, she shies away like I'd inquired into the deepest, darkest part of her. Now, why should she be so standoffish?"
Ezra said, "Maybe she cares more about what you think than what outsiders think."
Though the reader unfamiliar with Tyler's style may anticipate a resolution, a connection of two family members, or a reconciliation of all three, Tyler again introduces the comic incongruity of Pearl's response to Ezra's dilemma:
"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. Two are smushed."
Tyler's work has developed, as Doris Betts points out, toward "experimenting with intense individual portraits, almost to the point of caricature." This focus on characterization means that her writing cannot "become Faulkner's historical South" because among other things "there are subjects she passes over with minimal treatment—sex and philosophy." But this is not so much a shortcoming as a constraint adhered to by Tyler herself. The further distinction might be drawn between the humor of Welty, Faulkner, and earliermale Southern writers, and that of modern Southern writers such as Tyler, so much now a feminine trade. As early as 1935, John Wade pointed out in his attempt to define "Southern" humor that "we cannot laugh ever again with a free heart at physical deformity or at madness as people—and very good people, too—did everywhere until very recently." As suggested earlier, Tyler treats everyone—character and reader alike—as family, as those who have been "born into situations," into the human situation, not by choice but as victims, each an "accidental tourist" on the planet. Her humor, while perhaps at the expense of her characters, is not at the expense of their essential humanness, their "good intentions." Brutal humor gives way to (supposedly) less brutal attacks by innuendo; the mode of interaction is familial humor, which provides a connection among even disparate family members, vicious though it may be, as Wade suggests in his account of rules for a family dinner, Southern-style, beginning with the "fundamental admonition—keep, oh, whatever you do keep the occasion moving—a conversation that man-carrying Uncle Jack and Proust-teaching Cousin Julius will both think pointed, that knit-bed-spread-knitter Aunt Susan can endure without fainting, that Rabelaisian Uncle Rob can endure without nodding." The answer is humor, not brutal in the sense of Tyler's predecessors in Southern humor, but less overtly brutal attacks by innuendo:
Slash in where you can, echoing that word of Aunt Susie's, giving it an emphasis that she did not mean to give it, making her disclose more than she meant to, covering her with confusion, while the table roars.
Tyler, of course, adopts this idea of the family dinner as a dominant motif in Homesick Restaurant, creating a recurrent point of tension for the characters, loving and hating, consoling and destroying each other over dinner. At the final dinner, when the abandoning father, Beck, returns for Pearl's funeral, her "last supper" becomes instead a battle royal of a Southern family gathering, beginning when Beck gushingly observes that "it looks like this is one of those great big, jolly, noisy, rambling … why, families!" Beck is making what Tyler calls in her own life "deliberate conversation," the product of people brought together ostensibly by mutual care and interest and thus forced to articulate, or fail to articulate, their perceptions of the situation. And Beck fails to connect. His opportunity was missed long ago, and his late attempt to connect with family members only labels him the outsider that he has always been.
Humor, in a novel or across a dinner table, ultimately brings together and bonds those on the "inside" into a fraternity of humanness, beyond family lines, and creates a family of "insiders" who share a perspective, an ability to laugh and acknowledge that they are all a bit "funny and strange." The reader of Tyler's novels is an insider, more so than Beck or even Cody, able to share the uneasiness of the dinner-table tension, able to imagine, even wish to speak to the rest of the family, to initiate a story about Pearl which might "disclose more than she meant to," to help make the sadly missed connections.
Tyler treats the same subject matter as Southern writers have often before: when Faulkner's idiot Snopes in The Hamlet falls in love with a cow, the cow is romantically idealized through the author's language very much as the "country cook" Ruth—"a weasel-faced little redhead"—is idealized in the eyes and mind of Cody Tull. But where Faulkner brutally examines a male's manifestation of desire, Tyler addresses the same desire by focusing on Cody above the belt rather than below. Seated at the dinner table, her characters must in all respects become more genteel in their interactions: indiscretions, lapses of conformity, missed connections of the past must all be treated with at least a forced smile to make them palatable. Tyler portrays the same minor and major aberrations that earlier writers, largely male, were allowed to portray by conventions of the time. And by making the tragic action now fit into words, especially words over dinner, she forces onto the situation an incongruity. Her characters have been "born into situations"; now their thoughts, feelings, and desires must be "born into words." When they connect, we share the joke; when they do not, we share the joke only with the other insiders. Tyler allows the reader to pull up to the table, as knowledgeable as any family member about the true goings-on, to take part in the ritual, to laugh at her family, her fellow human beings and their "funny and strange" behavior, and to do it, importantly, as an insider. She allows the reader to connect where her characters do not, and to connect with her as she shares her—our—family secrets. She has said that she writes because she wants "more than one life." Perhaps the complexity she confronted as she emerged from an experimental Quaker commune at age eleven "into the outside world" lets her favor so much the insider. Perhaps Tyler found great comfort and humor in becoming an insider, and found that sharing her perception of the world answers the question of what makes life worth living, or in Tyler's case, what might make life so much worth living that she wishes for many more.
This section contains 3,513 words
(approx. 12 pages at 300 words per page)