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Critical Essay by Susan Gilbert
SOURCE: "Anne Tyler," in Southern Women Writers: The New Generation, The University of Alabama Press, 1990, pp. 251-78.
In the followingessay, Gilbert presents an overview of Tyler's work and major themes.
Anne Tyler, with ten novels, the last the winner of the National Book Critics' Circle Award, has a secure critical reputation and a large and faithful audience. Her fictional world is well defined. It is a personal world. The concerns of her characters are the persistent and primary psychological anxieties of life. Children hunger for their mothers' approval. They feel grief and guilt at the death or disappearance of a parent. Siblings' rivalries and dependencies, loves and angers, last for lifetimes. Sons and daughters spend decades running away from, or back to, their homes.
On these private lives, the great world impinges little. Except to her artist characters, envied in their absorptions, neither work nor politics, social status nor religious devotion matters much. Familial relationships consume the reader's attention as well, for her families are for the most part unhistorical and unchanging, groups wherein types persist unaffected by changes in social patterns in the towns where they live.
Time passes; things change; the characters live on streets in changing neighborhoods without noticing the changes. Pearl Tull of Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant wonders where the years have gone and what has become of the aunts to whom she used to write, but the reader has little sense of the changing South in her long life. In Earthly Possessions, Charlotte Emory, married seventeen years and living still in her parents' house, looks out "at the crumbling buildings across the street: the Thrift Shop, newsstand, liquor store, Pei Wing the tailor … not a single home in the lot, come to think of it. Everyone else had moved on, and left us stranded here between the Amoco and the Texaco."
It is a telling passage. The want of a historical dimension is what makes many of Tyler's characters seem anachronisms: Pearl Tull, wearing her hats to work as a checkout clerk; Emily of Morgan's Passing, in her long skirts and leotards, out of place on the city streets of Baltimore. The families are close, insular, isolated. The Pecks of Searching for Caleb are "very close knit, a fine family" who have always "stuck together" in a snobbish clannishness from which a few in every generation flee. Pearl Tull, with her three children, lives all alone barely making ends meet after her husband deserts them. They do not relate well to others. Once, waiting for Beck, Pearl "walked around with a broken arm for a day and a half…. She was a stranger in town and had no one to turn to." These families lack not only neighborliness; they lack any sense of belonging to a larger social order.
In twenty years, Tyler's focus has not broadened. Her books run deeper but not wider. Her concerns are at opposite poles from the historical novelists in this collection. One does not look here for Mary Lee Settle's tracing of political ideas across countries and generations, for Harper Lee's examination of racial conflict, for Lee Smith's evocation of a place where a whole culture vanishes in a generation. Nor, looking outside the South, does one see likeness to Joan Didion's habit of working very close to the headlines of the news or to Joyce Carol Oate's attempts to bring her characters' lives into focus against the panorama of historical crises. In the all-Southern settings of Tyler's novels, children trundle off to schools never touched by Brown v. the Board of Education; her young men never receive or burn their draft cards; their parents never keep vigil on courthouse steps in protest against a war; no women parade with placards for, or against, the ERA.
Agoraphobics such as Jeremy Pauling of Celestial Navigation, who cannot venture off his block; Pearl Tull of Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, who for decades does not go beyond the grocery where she is checkout clerk by day and the house where she hammers and putters in the evenings; Charlotte Emory's mother in Earthly Possessions, confined first to one big lawn chair and then to bed; and Morgan's mother in her wing chair by the hearth are just the most extreme cases of the class to which they all belong, characters living in oblivion of sexual or political revolutions, characters whose problems are described in psychology texts, not news clippings.
Thus Tyler's work and characters occupy a timeless world of fiction, and the plots move back as often as they go forward. The pattern of the novels is, repeatedly, circular. Characters who feel themselves imprisoned within the routines and encumbering possessions of their own and others' lives seek to break away. They flee or dream of flight. Then most of them return, or they find that the bonds and the stuff that they sought to leave behind have followed them, to make another place, envisioned as spare and stripped, become moldy, cluttered, heavy with earthly freight, buried under layers of the past.
Tyler's first novel, If Morning Ever Comes, begins with the hero's coming home and ends with his leaving. His sister leaves her husband and then goes home again. Tyler's stories are as likely to be about fleeing as returning, and whichever the case, the meaning seems to be the same.
The point of view is that of Ben Joe Hawkes, only son in a family of several sisters, a mother, and their "Gram." Theirs is a large Southern family in a big comfortable house with an ill-tended lawn. The father, now dead, was a doctor and an alcoholic and kept a mistress on the other side of town. Ben Joe visits her and her child. Most of the rest of the time, he wanders about home, vaguely in the way.
Most of the themes of Tyler's mature work are to be found in this remarkably crafted first novel, published when she was twenty-three. There is the central character's ongoing sense of deep attachment to his family. He leaves law school to go home because he thinks they need him. But at home he feels neither needed nor close, but vaguely estranged. He elopes at the last without telling them and rides off on the train, wondering if he will always feel this separation, even from his wife and the child they may someday have: "One part of them was faraway and closed to him, as unreachable as his own sisters, and blankfaced as the white house he was born in. Even his wife and son were that way. Even Ben Joe Hawkes." In this sense of remoteness from his present life, he sets a type for many Tyler characters to come, a tribe "unable to realize a thing's happening or a moment's passing."
As in all later Tyler novels, there is the repeated emphasis on movement without change, on change without movement. The sister who left her husband did so for fear that "history was repeating itself." Her parents' marriage had been unhappy and hers was becoming so. But she tells Ben Joe, "It's not the same place I'm coming back to, really. Not even if I wanted it to be." At that stage, he does not see her point, but later, foreseeing her decision to return to her husband, he says, "I don't know that I would call it going backwards instead of forwards. Sometimes it's not the same place when a person goes back to it, or not … the same person." This realization of the hero's is all there is to forward movement of the plot, and he is left with the unresolved doubt of his ability to grasp the present.
The novel is fine in its depiction of families, their internal strifes and their physical features, and in its descriptions of house and furnishings and photographs and the ways these preserve the past. To all these themes, she will return.
The Tin Can Tree is a small masterpiece. Two characters run away and then return. A little girl, Janie Rose Pike has died. Her brother Simon runs away from home because those around him are grieving for her so much that he feels himself unnoticed. In the days before he goes, he says, time after time, when asked if he's had lunch or combed his hair, that his mother "won't care." When he is found and she comes to bring him home, he beams with a joy he cannot contain because she has come "specially" to get him: "You mean you're here on account of my going off?" he exclaims.
Interwoven with the family's loss and Simon's sense of loss of his own significance is the romance of his cousin Joan, who has been living with them, and James, one of two brothers living in the adjoining triple house. Joan runs away for much the same reason as Simon, not displaced in a mother's eye by a dead sister, but in her lover's eye by his living brother, Ansel, an alcoholic hypochondriac who has claimed and will claim much of James's attention all his life. A third set of family breaks is the brothers' with their family. This break remains unhealed, though their father tells James they still have his old bed.
Two significant technical achievements and one major thematic advance stand out in The Tin Can Tree. Tyler uses the house to anchor a larger set of unrelated characters and to make of them Simon's and Joan's real family. She makes much of photography to point the significance of life's fleeting moments. Thematically, she introduces, in polished form, the needs of the two characters, Joan and Simon, to be seen and loved for themselves alone. Simon is satisfied. His mother has been jolted from her daze of grief to be grateful to have him home. For him, the plot has moved forward.
For Joan, the advance is only in her perception. In the excitement of Simon's running away, her own leaving goes unnoticed. Her return is to the same relationship. In looking for Simon, James neglects his brother's supper. He will cook him a steak tomorrow; Joan will never hold all his attention. And she knows this as, in the last scene, she is photographing Simon's homecoming party. Though all the characters are moving, looking into the camera, she foresees the image in which they will be still, forever: "they could leave and return, they could marry or live out their separate lives alone, and nothing in this finder would change. They were going to stay this way, she and all the rest of them, not because of anyone else but because it was what they had chosen, what they would keep a strong tight hold of. James bent over Ansel; Mrs. Pike touched the top of Simon's head…." Though Joan will not have her love all to herself, this is one of the happiest endings in Tyler's fiction, for she sees life as choice, not fatality, and she too has chosen to be where she is, and she knows it.
A Slipping-Down Life presents the most bizarre of her characters' ploys to gain attention. A homely, fat high school girl, Evie Decker, carves, with fingernail scissors, a rock singer's name in her forehead. They do marry and very briefly find a quiet haven. He puts up household gadgets. Her old friend envies her that she is an outsider no longer but one of those married people "so cozy with someone they belong to."
Their barely broken loneliness soon returns. He loses his job. She quits going to school. In their worry, she neglects to tell him she is pregnant. Suddenly, in the midst of a wild escapade to gain him publicity, Evie's father dies; she finds her husband in bed with his "kidnapper." Within a year from the start, Evie is home again in her father's empty house, to await the birth of her baby.
Evie's is the smallest of the families Tyler draws. Without a mother, she has had only a distant relationship to her father. At the end, she is in the house with photographs, one in her father's room: "An ancestor, maybe; no one could tell her anymore," and another in the living room, a picture of her mother, "remembered now by no living person."
In its characters and in its humor, A Slipping-Down Life differs markedly from the earlier two works, filled with the most ordinary people. Tyler insisted that such as the alcoholic father of the first and brother in the second were part of normal families. But Evie, with her grotesque scar, her friend Violet, enormously fat and dressed always in purple or chartreuse, and Drumstrings Casey, the would-be rock star, dark and mesmerizing as he sings, apparently to no one present—these are oddities indeed, more strange as a complete cast than those of any books to follow, but introducing Tyler's large company of weird characters. They are types, especially the serious, brooding singer, much like Flannery O'Connor's creations.
The humor of Tyler's first two novels derives from close observation of the incongruities in daily family life, a homey humor, much of it in the careful rendering of the folk speech of small-town Southerners. A Slipping-Down Life has scenes with as violent mixture of humor and horror as John Irving's The World According to Garp: the commotion when Evie brands herself; Evie's carving the letters backward, in a mirror image; the disruption of a revivalist's preaching coupled with the deep wound of Casey's insult to Evie; the juxtaposition of a hospital, an empty house, and Evie's finding Casey on top of "Fay-Jean Lindsay, in her orange lace slip." That Tyler describes the macabre externals at these moments of unexpressed hurt and grief gives the humor a dark, dark tone.
The first three works employ love stories for plots—Ben Joe's courtship and elopement, Joan and James's romance, Evie's marriage—without ever describing sex. In a short story about a rape, Tyler tells only that the feel of the rapist's hand on the girl's mouth differs little from the feel of her boyfriend's; at the scratchy sound of a zipper unzipping, she interrupts the scene. She does not go beyond this in the description of sexual feeling or experience.
In the next two novels, The Clock Winder and Celestial Navigation, Tyler draws a pair of heroines competent to all the exigencies of daily life, managing households of inept, dreamy men, old people, or children. Both Elizabeth Abbott and Mary Tell have run away from their first families only to have families accrue to their solitary strengths. They are capable and inexpressive, loved and loving, but shying from examination of deep emotion.
The Clock Winder is the story of the Emersons, a widow and her seven grown children, and Elizabeth Abbott, who comes to live with Mrs. Emerson as her house handy-woman. Elizabeth is courted by two of the sons, Matthew and Timothy, leaves when Timothy commits suicide, returns to nurse Mrs. Emerson after a stroke, is shot by Timothy's twin, Andrew, stays, marries Matthew, and lives, as happily ever after as folk do in Tyler's world, with Matthew, their children, Andrew, and Mrs. Emerson, and with the other brother and the sister returning from time to time.
Not one of Tyler's best books, The Clock Winder is yet important, presaging in technique and theme what she will add in the next ten years to what she carries over from her first ten years as a novelist.
She handles more time than she has before, 1960 to 1972, and employs multiple points of view, including letters at one point. She continues to draw insular families. The turbulence of America in the sixties touches none of the young Emersons. Though the youngest son is in Vietnam, no one else in the work notices that a war is going on; his mother writes to ask if he is visiting any tourist sights, and only he seems to feel reproach that she lives in a "sealed weightless bubble floating through time."
Fathers in Tyler's work play insignificant roles as heads of households; Dr. Hawkes of the first leaves permanent scars and gaps in his family by his absence, not his presence; Mr. Pike of The Tin Can Tree is colorless; Evie's father is colorless, kind, and uncommunicative; Mr. Emerson, who has died just before the novel opens, is dimly remembered.
A distinct mark of Southern life, if not of Southern literature, prominent in Tyler's works is the degree to which families are female affairs. Men go off to work; some of them make money; and some have a bit of public reputation. These things matter not at all "at home," the locus of all the life that concerns Anne Tyler. It is surprising, faintly amusing to one of Mr. Emerson's sons to remember that as a real estate tycoon the father had a name some thought worth dropping. Elizabeth Abbott is surprised that some of her preacher father's congregation lean on him. Indeed, here and in Earthly Possessions, Tyler makes humorous swipes at the stereotype of the Southern patriarch, the Protestant preacher. They are humored by their wives and families. Elizabeth Abbott's mother makes her funeral casseroles by the dozen; her husband wishes she did not act as though she were playing tea party when she does it. Neither wife is a believer; no one at home accords these men the pontifical importance they think they should have.
Nor does money count in Tyler's world, a strikingly immaterial mid-twentieth-century America in which concern for finances or status is a permanent foible only of humorous characters, rarely directing the lives of the central ones. Mrs. Emerson, a rich woman, is stingy in small affairs and disappointed that her children are not successes. Elizabeth, like most of Tyler's heroes and heroines, is oblivious to worldly success. Rarely and briefly does money seriously affect her characters' lives: their poverty affected the teenagers' marriage in A Slipping-Down Life; in Celestial Navigation, the heroine hates to interrupt her artist husband with the bother of finances; several well-off youngsters turn their backs on respectable careers. But it is personal, not economic, forces that shape all their lives. Real need or desire for money is more rare in Tyler's world than it would be in a monastery or commune; few of her characters bother enough with it to renounce it.
In family motifs and themes, The Clock Winder outlines Tyler's ongoing concerns: family dinners interrupted by quarrels, brothers courting one girl, and the influence of one generation on the next. There are two disparate views on the awful responsibility of parents, that of the anxious Mrs. Emerson, whose children flee her, and that of Elizabeth at the end, humorous, all accepting, calmly nursing one baby while her son plays with bugs on the kitchen floor. Of Mrs. Emerson's sons, one is a mental patient, one a suicide; her daughters' loves and marriages do not suit her. She laments: "'They say it's the parents to blame, but what did we do? I'm asking you, I really want to know. What did we do?… Just loved you and raised you, the best we knew how…. Made mistakes, but none of them on purpose. What else did you want? I go over and over it all, in my mind. Was it something I did? Something I didn't do?'" Elizabeth tells her of watching a parade and thinking of an unending line, stretching back beyond history, of human beings caring for their children, all the years of feeding, protecting, and teaching that a human child must have from at least one adult simply to survive: "People you wouldn't trust your purse with five minutes, maybe, but still they put in years and years of time tending their children along and they don't even make a fuss about it. Even if it's a criminal they turn out, or some other kind of failure—still, he managed to get grown, didn't he? Isn't that something?" In a richer characterization in Pearl Tull of Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Tyler will bring the two points of view together.
Unlike the meddlesome Mrs. Emerson, Elizabeth is passive, and her passivity reveals a constant feature of Tyler's work more clearly than any of her other characters do. She can fix anything with a screwdriver, caulking gun, or drill, but she exerts energy and initiative only on things that can be literally manipulated, never on people. At the outset, she says she accepts all invitations. She seeks nothing and makes no choices. But the awful blame for what people do and do not do in others' lives seems to catch her. She is haunted for years with guilt that she should have done, or not done, something to prevent Timothy's suicide. In this state, she moves to refusing all invitations, all connections. She can only go along or flee. Serious as Tyler is, she seizes the chance for humor this affords for a bride at the altar to say "I don't."
It is a sine qua non of the characters for whom Tyler shows affection that they rarely, and only ineptly, pursue or seek to hold those they love. They drift. They watch. Weeping alone, they express little emotion; for loud complainers, Tyler has a caustic wit.
Elizabeth refuses Matthew's suit until she is shot by Andrew. Only then does she realize, and is she sure all the Emersons realize, that nothing she did or did not do either time could prevent the shooting. Thus absolved of guilt for the way human lives turn out, she can stay and join the parade of people raising children. The Clock Winder ends in forgiveness and in healing, with Elizabeth at the center of a home the large family will return to as inevitably as the locusts that are featured in the coda.
Celestial Navigation covers ten years in a run-down boarding-house in Baltimore, during which separate, lonely people come together, become part of a family of noisy children, and sink back at last to loneliness. Mary Tell, a young runaway wife with a small baby, takes up with Jeremy Pauling, an eccentric artist, lives with him, bears five children, and runs away again at the end. Of this Tyler makes a dense jewel of a work, informed by the image of Pauling's creations, collages of miniatures, scraps rendered in perfectly focused detail to suggest a life of infinite variety and wonder.
The house and its inhabitants are cut off in space and time, all of them anachronisms. Pauling, an agoraphobic, does not leave the block for decades. Before him, his mother was "a stagnant kind of person" who "didn't even notice what the neighborhood had turned into" and who "hardly ever left the house." This is a world seen, as Thoreau saw the universe in Walden Pond, by looking in, not out.
The novel is packed with description, of things and people's feelings, in a style different from the spareness of Tyler's earlier works. At rendering detail, she is here in full mastery. They all complain of clutter, of the house and its "clutter of leaded panes and straggly ivy and grayish lace curtains dragging their bottoms behind black screens," and junk inside, "circus paintings and laughing dolls and plastic horses and coffee cans overflowing with broken crayons," "tattered construction paper Valentines glued to the upstairs panes and the dead Christmas tree on its side in front, dripping tinsel." Packing for her escape, Mary Tell wishes to get away, but the stuff of life sticks to her, "children, grocery bags, stuffed animals … Dramamine tablets." When Jeremy the artist drives his children away for interrupting him in his study, he is left lonely and guilty: "How could he have scolded them like that. He knew them so little…. He looked around the hall and saw the traces they had left behind—one roller skate, a homemade doll, a chalky hand-print on the newel post."
All the characters wish at times to escape from clutter to spareness, to purity. Mary and Jeremy, like the heroes and heroines of Tyler's earlier works, feel unable to realize the import of life in the present. Mary laments: all of life "can be reduced to a heap of trivia in the end. When I die I expect I will be noticing a water ring someone left on the coffee table, or a spiral of steam rising from a whistling teapot. I will be sure to miss the moment of my passing." Here, if anywhere in Tyler's work, one sees that life is clutter. Its only spareness is in the "great towering beautiful sculptures" that Jeremy makes at the end of his life, alone in a quiet, darkening house.
The narrative technique of Celestial Navigation, ten chapters titled by season, year (1960–73), and name of the character whose perspective rules in each one, serves well and is one Tyler will repeat. In their monologues, the central characters articulate their understanding more fully than do the people in any of her other works. The shifting perspective shows starkly the gaps between their feelings and what they can tell others. Whatever Mary or Jeremy understands of their need and love for each other avails nothing toward holding their lives together. For Mary, indeed, it is the urgency to have spoken things that neither of them is capable of saying that makes her pull their life apart. All the pain and perception will go into his art, but it cannot mend their lives.
The humor in these voices, especially in the brilliant opening monologue of Amanda, is Tyler at the peak of her form. It is as captivating as Lee Smith's Oral History. The disjunctions of life are portrayed deftly, in small things, not in the violent, macabre pairings of A Slipping-Down Life.
Three of Tyler's works stand out from the rest—this one for its intensity and immediacy. From the opening voice of Amanda to the closing one of Miss Vinton, the characters are at much closer range than they have been before, palpably near. In its density, the novel is not like any of Tyler's other works. The style is a piling on, crowded listing in places and in much fuller characterization with not a single strain, but many threads to each life. The siblings' rivalry is just one example. Amanda is resentful that Jeremy absorbed all their mother's attention; he remembers only being never quite able to please her. A small thread in the dense fabric of this novel, this will be the main theme in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. For its shimmering surface over more detail than one's senses can absorb, Celestial Navigation is a great advance and a different direction from earlier works.
The family in Searching for Caleb covers several generations of the descendants of a Baltimore merchant, Justin Peck. In this novel of broken relationships and unbreakable love, Daniel Peck goes looking, with the help of his granddaughter, Justine, for the half-brother he hasn't seen in more than half a century. Caleb is found and leaves again. Justine is married to her first cousin Duncan Peck, in their generation the chief runaway. At the last, they are seen making one more remove, to live in a trailer and travel with a circus.
Like all Tyler's families, the Pecks live to themselves: "you couldn't say that the Pecks had friends, exactly. They kept to themselves. They were suspicious of outsiders." For years, the first Peck is shut up inside, immobilized by a stroke. When his wife arranges mirrors so he can see the street scene below, because she thinks "he might like to keep in touch with things," he sees only his son, descending the steps, and orders the mirrors taken away. Succeeding generations, those who stay in their houses where furniture sits in the same spot for decades and those who live like vagabonds, are out of the currents of history, a family whom history washes over without touching them, unaware of wars or social changes, stranded in time, anachronisms like their predecessors.
The time that does matter in the book is internal family time. The characters divide between those who hold onto stuff and those who do not. Things, Justine notices when she comes home for her parents' funeral, are never simply things: "There was no such thing as a simple, meaningless teacup, even. It was always given by someone dear, commemorating some happy occasion, chipped during some moment of shock, the roses worn transparent by Sulie's scrubbing, a blond stain inside from tea that Sam Mayhew had once drunk, a crack where Caroline, trembling with headache, had set it down too hard upon the saucer." Such are the outward and visible signs of the connections by which individual lives remain part of a longer family life. To throw away such is to cast off memory, as does Duncan, the youngest runaway, who is said to live, "forever in the present!" Preparing for their last departure, Justine looks forward to the escape from clutter, to living in a trailer where everything will be built-in, but she is defeated by things pushed on her as she prepares to drive away, a pot of ivy, a rubber plant, things that serve memory, ties to her former self and to people from her past.
Despite the disruptions of place and the silence between brothers for decades, this novel shows not the impossibility of human expression of love, but its possibilities and endurance, in gestures as ritualized as the Pecks' bread-and-butter letters on monogrammed paper or as spontaneous as a toy. Though they unquestionably belong to Tyler's tribe, who find it impossible to articulate love, the Pecks manage to convey their deepest feelings. Duncan cannot plead with Justine to come with him and leave the old aunts. He makes a little stick figure of twisted wire, looking like her, "looking so straight-backed and light-hearted that even a tribesman in darkest Africa could tell that someone cared for her." Without more said, she leaves with him. Though the main characters in Searching for Caleb take off at the last, and Jeremy Pauling of Celestial Navigation stays home, this novel points at the thread of continuity even in departures; the earlier one showed the terrible gaps left by severed human ties.
In this novel of four generations, the longest span she has yet treated, Tyler develops for the first time the idea of heredity as fate, a slight motif in several earlier works. In the first novel, characters bear the indelible marks of physical inheritance, the Dower nose, the Hawkes nose. A daughter feels that in her generation history is repeating itself. In Searching for Caleb, personality types as well as physical features are handed down, the Pecks' stolid conformity and a forgotten foreign grandfather's wildness. Tyler describes the wandering Caleb: "blond like his half-brother, but his tilted brown eyes must have snuck in from the Baum side of the family, and he had his Grandpa Baum's delight in noise and crowds." However often Justine and Duncan Peck run away, as they age, they become more visibly Pecks. Heredity, upbringing, the early childhood years—characters may wish to escape these, to become themselves alone, unique individuals; they never do. Later, in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Tyler will paint in darker tones the effects of generations' repeating their parents' failures.
The Pecks are more well-to-do than most Tyler families but are no more social or stylish. Their house is "bristling with chimneys and lined with dark, oily wood … filled with golden oak furniture and Oriental screens, chandeliers dripping crystal, wine velvet love-seats with buttons and more buttons up and down their backs … curlicued urns, doilies, statuary … great globular lamps centered on tasseled scarves, and Persian rugs laid catty-corner and overlapping." Tyler will draw a house of wealth but not one of fashion. Here and always she paints folkways with more affection, Justine Peck in country clothes peddling goat cheeses, a city-bred girl from this Peck domicile coming to like the smells of kerosene and fatback. This country domesticity may have added to Tyler's appeal for some readers in the last two decades, with their flourishing fads of healthful, simple country-ness.
Artistic sophistication is the only sophistication presented in Tyler's world, and this artistry is only in nonverbal plastic arts, such as collages or statues, or in highly stylized simple forms, such as puppetry. Tyler herself desired a career in painting before writing; she says she sketches her characters before she describes them in words. But the artworks in the novels, except for Pauling's barely mentioned late towering sculpture, are homey stuff. Tyler's own work is highbrow, the critical organs for it are the New Yorker and the New York Times. Educated and cosmopolitan, a writer married to a psychiatrist, she writes almost entirely of uneducated folk. When she draws an artist, he is never in an artistic or—god forbid—an artsy milieu. She describes no fashionable interiors, stylish dress, or bons mots of up-to-date wits. And never does she draw characters broadly able to think and speak in abstract terms of the human condition. The only trenchant and comprehensive intelligence she permits within the pages of her books is her own.
Earthly Possessions is titled for Tyler's message that the cluttered minutiae of life, though they seem to obscure one's vision of some life of grander import, are what life is. The title may imply that if there are "earthly" possessions, then there may be also unearthly ones, accruing in some heavenly mansion, waiting for the individual in some fairer, faraway place; it isn't so. Her fortunate characters learn this in time to return and, in learning this, realize what the hero of Tyler's first novel said, that going forward can look a lot like going backward: "Sometimes it's not the same place when a person goes back to it, or not … the same person."
Charlotte Emory, the heroine of Earthly Possessions, is one of the lucky ones. At the novel's opening, she is taking money from the bank to run away from her husband, family, and home. She feels encumbered, buried, unnoticed, and unappreciated. Her parents' home, which she has never left, is crowded with people, with several children, with her husband's brothers, and with the stuff his mother left. At the bank, she is kidnapped by a robber and taken as his hostage on a long drive to Florida, farther from home than she has ever been before. At the last, she is home again, content to stay.
Like Justine Peck and Mary Tell, Charlotte is trying to escape clutter for the "bare essentials." "My life," she says, "has been a history of casting off encumbrances, paring down to the bare essentials, stripping for the journey." In book after book, Tyler's metaphors of weight and freight convey Wordsworthian echoes of mortality: "Full soon thy Soul shall have her earthly freight, / And custom lie upon thee with a weight, / Heavy as frost, and deep almost as life!" In her first novel, the young hero on his first evening home "was beginning to feel the weight of home settling back on him, making him feel heavy and old and tired." Here Charlotte says, "I have been trying to get rid of all belongings that would weigh me down on a long foot-march." For Tyler, the weight is no intimation of immortality but the inevitable yoke of the only life there is.
Things conveying memory of a human past fill Tyler's characters' houses in "layers" and in "webs." Both figures recur, the first suggesting the connection of the present to the past, and the other that of the individual to his family or surrogate family. In Tyler's first novel, the hero's room seemed to him to be "made up of layers, the more recent layers never completely obliterating the earlier ones." For him and for Charlotte the layers of the past are clear and bright, the present hard to discern. About to run away, Charlotte fingers bits of past and present, "rolled socks, crumpled homework papers" and the "worn, smudged woodwork, listening to absent voices, inhaling the smell of school paste and hymnals." But deluded, she flees because, as she says of herself, she had not "the knack of knowing I was happy right while the happiness was going on."
These two failures of vision have impelled all of Tyler's characters on their flights, the inability to see the beauty of the present, its outlines obscured in layers of the past, and the inability to see themselves at all, the fear that they are invisible as individuals in the webs of others' lives. Photographs, moments frozen in time, individuals centered in the lens's focus, are a prominent motif in all of Tyler's works. Here Charlotte has taken over, without, it seems, a conscious decision to do so, her father's profession of photographer. She makes portraits in which ordinary folk of their small town seem to stand out as people from another age.
Although the exclusively first-person narration of Earthly Possessions should afford Charlotte chance to explain fully the reasons for her return, these remain scantily articulated. She is less revealing of self-understanding than are Mary Tell and Jeremy Pauling in Celestial Navigation. In the flashbacks to her past, interspersed with the forward movement of her days with her captor, she does not spell out the lessons she learns in the journey of her soul. In a brief coda, she is back home with her husband, taking pictures of plain people in exotic costumes, and sure to stay. She is no more communicative with her husband or the reader than she has ever been. He lies awake, vaguely disturbed by slight misunderstandings of daily life, questioning whether they are "happy," whether they ought to take a trip. Charlotte is past questioning or seeking afield: "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."
Without adding much particularly new in characterization or technique, Earthly Possessions consolidates several of Tyler's most important themes: the contrast between a muddled web of daily life and a dream life, spare and solitary; the characters' inabilities to feel themselves alive in the present; their desire to be seen for special, individual significance; and the barely articulated return to place.
Earthly Possessions closes with Charlotte Emory's wordless contentment with ordinary life. Morgan's Passing ends with its hero, Morgan Gower, smiling and humming: "Everything he looked at seemed luminous and beautiful, and rich with possibilities." "Passing" is the Southern country euphemism for dying; people "pass" to a greater life. Morgan's passing is from a divided life, in which his earthly situation of dismaying ordinariness is disjoint from his fantasy life, to another in which, though its outline shows little difference, he sees wonder in the commonplace. At the beginning of the novel he is a hardware store manager, filling an unnecessary role in one of the stores his wife has inherited, insignificant at work and at home, where all affairs social and practical are managed by his competent wife. Morgan misses the days when infants ran to greet him. Now they barely notice him. Somehow they have neglected to tell him one of his daughters is to be married. Seeking another identity, he roams Baltimore in costume and so becomes entangled with Emily and Leon Meredith, the other principals of the novel, a pair of young puppeteers whose exotic life fascinates him. They, like Justine and Duncan Peck, are runaways from respectability.
At the end, Morgan has replaced Leon as Emily's husband. He has fled one household, where he felt lost in a clutter of tennis shoes, Triscuit boxes, and pets' feeding bowls, to a life with Emily, which he envisaged as spare, the bare essentials. But he finds, as other of Tyler's characters have, that clutter is life's inescapable condition. Their baby will require a crib and changing table and potty seat, like all others. Though he is not far from where he began, Morgan is content, for the time being at least, looking out at the wonder of his life, freed from the foolish, frantic pursuit of his own identity.
Morgan Gower, dashing about Baltimore in his strange garbs, butting into other people's lives, is the most extroverted character in Tyler's long collection of introverts, but since his interventions are a series of charades, he has no more real links to a historical community than the rest. And for all that he pops in and out of strangers' lives, he is as self-absorbed as his predecessors. Certainly, he and Leon and Emily make a cast that is more exotic than any since A Slipping-Down Life. Tyler has remarked that she is pained when people ask about the oddity of her characterizations and insists that all people, looked at closely enough, become odd in their peculiarities, in their uniqueness.
Feeling that they are missing the present, feeling themselves lost and unseen in the layers of past, present, and future, and obscured in the webs of their myriad daily doings with others, Tyler's characters go to extraordinary lengths to break out and be seen. To be seen as an individual, alive in the present, to have focused upon oneself the full, attentive gaze of another, is time after time what lures her characters to their escapes and to drastic measures, momentary or stretching over lifetimes. In the first novel, Ben Joe's sister wears red dresses and jangling bracelets to secure the boys' attention; later she does not know how to live with her husband, or with anyone, after the attention of the first date wears off. More desperate for attention, Evie carves the singer's name in her face. Simon and Joan of A Tin Can Tree run from the mother and lover who fail to notice them. Mary Tell of Celestial Navigation, taken for granted and unnoticed by Jeremy, succumbs to the gaze of their good friend Brian. Charlotte Emory, feeling herself invisible, falls into a brief affair with her husband's brother because he alone sees her, notices her, as she bakes the cakes, washes the clothes, feeds the dog. Morgan looks for a new life because he is unregarded at home, and Emily, in a marriage where her husband is star and her contribution and creativity are unseen, is irresistibly drawn to Morgan because he watches her. In Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, a girl is again stolen, from one brother by another, because she cannot resist the attention, the notice lavished on her. These characters—imagining themselves unseen in their families, in meshes of domestic chores; angry, with a parent or spouse or lover, feeling, usually with reason, that they are so taken for granted as to be not merely unregarded but invisible in their roles—respond to the inherently sexual appeal of someone else who, looking at them, sees them. The desire to be seen "for oneself alone" is to Tyler romantic delusion.
Usually for Tyler's characters, the sight lasts just a moment, like an expression caught in a snapshot. The photographs that figure prominently in all her books are a foil to the characters' uneasiness that the present is escaping them, their being "unable to realize a thing's happening or a moment's passing." Pictures freeze the moment.
In Tyler's first novel, the hero finds among the "layers" of his room an old snapshot of himself and his sister on tricycles, their mother standing between them. Of this frozen moment and the relationships pictured in it, he is sure; of the present and their relationship, he is uncertain. In the second novel, the face of Janie Rose appears unexpectedly in a picture taken just a few days before her death, her image hard to pick out among little patches of Queen Anne's lace that dot a field. The work closes with a camera's reducing change to permanence; in the lens, Simon's mother bends over him eternally, James leans to his brother. In the third novel, Evie, the expectant mother is alone with pictures of an unknown ancestor and of her own mother, no one in the world left to remember either of them. Charlotte Emory in Earthly Possessions resists taking up her father's profession of photographer because she dislikes the way "photos froze a person, pinned him to cardboard like a butterfly." A photograph of a little girl, smiling and dimpled, focuses Charlotte's tortured relationship with her mother. Neither had pleased the other; Charlotte never felt she was her mother's daughter. Finding this photo hidden in her dying mother's drawer, she demands to know who it is, this one she feels is her mother's longed-for daughter, only to be told it is the mother herself.
In Morgan's Passing too, pictures trigger several revelations. It takes a picture in the newspaper to make Emily see that her husband is not a young boy any more. Morgan's sister is at last married to the suitor who jilted her decades ago, but she runs out on him because he spends his days mooning over her old graduation photo, jealous, she says, "of my own self … of my photograph." However muddled peoples' daily relationships are, in photographs they look out "steadily," with "trust" and with "concentration." It is in looking at Emily's photograph that Morgan sees her most clearly and imagines her seeing him: "Emily herself, marble-pale in folds of black, met his scrutiny with eyes so clear that he imagined he could see through them and behind them; he could see what she must see, how his world must look to her." This vision of himself as seen by another makes him "a man in love."
In photographs, insignificance, ordinariness, transience are lost. Pictures of people taken long ago, or days or hours before, seem, even to those who take the pictures and see their living models, "lost and long ago." For pictures show individuals, and individuals seem always odd.
Tyler's books are full of oddities, alcoholics, hypochondriacs, neurotics, obesities, suicides. These are most understandable seen in the context of their families. In small towns where a person's family place is known, they stand out less than when they are cut off, alone in cities. Emily of Morgan's Passing, an orphan married to a runaway, appears like a gypsy in leotards and long skirts on the streets of Baltimore. She, or Justine Peck, a circus fortune-teller, would have been, had either stayed home, one of the Merediths, one of the Pecks, far less strange and far less visible. Human eccentricities thus stand out in sharper focus as characters move toward individuality. Some readers have remarked that individuals in Tyler's large families blur, that the characterization is halting. It is an intended effect; what she draws are families seen as they are seen by older residents of closed communities, in relation to their parents, aunts, or siblings.
They go to great lengths to break out of this ego-deflating invisibility, and they are quickly stirred to love by being seen all alone. Romance is not the only way characters seek to be seen. Sickness is a more effective way to hold the attention of others. The absorption of sexual passion is fleeting in Tyler's world. But malaise, malingering, and mental instability last longer than lifetimes; they affect generations. Alcoholics, invalids, the mentally frail maintain the central position in the vision of the ones who consume their lives caring for them. Some try this game, fail, and therefore flee. Morgan's wife refuses to let his eccentricities become the exclusive concern of the household. Beck, the errant husband of Restaurant, has wandered off from his wife and family, and from dozens of women later, it turns out.
It is a war first and last of "normal" families against "odd" individuals. In her first work, the son complains of the "amazing" things that go on in their family; his mother insists, "This family's just like any other family." Morgan says he has a "very ordinary family … determined to be ordinary." In Tyler's fiction, all families are normal, all are recognizable in their tensions and routines. The works teach not merely that all families have eccentric members but that seen individually all people are odd. Only in the ego-threatening place where one is of the Dower boys or one of the Gower girls are people ordinary.
Seen alone and still, as in photographs that catch one's expression for a second, her people are stranger than they are familiar, but such a sight lasts just a moment. It flickers; then family life resumes. In a tone more affirmative than resigned, Tyler returns her characters to old relationships or dissolves them in new ones barely distinguishable from those they had known before. The dazzling sight of an individual is, like the flush of first love, merely an illusion. It is a momentary glimpse of a young person's features before they become a "Dower nose," the "Peck eyes," the persistent marks of family, an organism more lasting than any of its members.
Thus the Tulls of Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant are a family in spite of themselves, one generation indelibly marked by the hurts and mistakes of the last. They are a small family living to themselves in a Baltimore row house, cut off from their ancestors and their neighbors. Pearl, an old-maidish woman, married Beck Tull, a bounder. She moved with him half a dozen times, lost track of her past, bore three children, Ezra, Cody, and Jenny, and, after Beck walked out on them, reared them, in rage, frustration, and poverty. Dying, Pearl muses with regret that "something was wrong with all of her children," and she wishes to be excused of blame for the hurt and anger she has passed on to them. She thinks of Cody: "Honestly … wasn't there some statute of limitations here? When was he going to absolve her? He was middle-aged. He had no business holding her responsible any more." There is in Tyler's world no statute of limitations; the sins and hurts of the fathers and mothers are visited upon the sons and daughters for countless generations.
Like Earthly Possessions and Searching for Caleb, this family's story is told in flashbacks, from a present in which the mother is old and dying, the children grown. Like The Clock Winder and Celestial Navigation, it is told from different points of view, which show the gaps in the Tulls' understanding of their single, shared past.
They have weathered it with few external scars. Pearl as a grandmother has a peace and gentleness she never had as a mother. Ezra, if somewhat dreamy and distant, manages a restaurant where he seeks to dispense to the world the warm nourishmenthis childhood missed. Jenny, competent and cool, is a pediatrician and mother to a brood of children, her own and those she has acquired in her third marriage. She seems fully recovered from a nervous breakdown when she, as a young medical student, was abusing her daughter as her mother had her. And Cody is a financial success, something of a wizard as a time efficiency consultant. But in Jenny's distant cheerfulness is the defensive armor by which the hurt child learned to cope. And in all his inner life, Cody is the angry sibling, jealous of his mother's preference for his brother, guilty over his father's desertion, unable ever to trust, however desperately he clings to them, the wife he stole from his brother and the son he fantasizes is not his own.
Year after year, decade after decade, they come "home" to family dinners interrupted by quarrels that wait, never settled, to trip them up each time. Pearl has carefully instructed Ezra to "invite" everyone in her address book to her funeral. At the last dinner after the funeral, the absent father is with them, just as, in a sense, he has always been part of all they have suffered and become. He looks around and remarks, "'Haven't you all turned out fine—leading good lives, the three of you?'" He has been coaxed back to the table after one quarrel but will not stay long, warning them he will leave before the dessert wine is poured.
Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant has been much praised for the qualities Tyler has long been noted for—her wit, her rendering of detail, her compassion—and it has been praised beyond these for its intensity and darkness. John Updike, who has long championed her work, says it shows a "new level of power." Benjamin DeMott says that its truths are "deeper than many living novelists of serious reputation have penetrated, deeper than Miss Tyler herself has gone before. It is a border crossing."
The border is of anger and pain. The depth and power of the book derive from Pearl's barely contained rage that now consumes her son and is clearly marking her grandson Luke. And the work articulates less of tragic insight than Tyler has allowed before. No characters see through mistakes and pain to another vision of the wonder of common life. Less, not more, is articulated of what the Tulls have learned from pounding down life's ruts.
Brief moments of vision do come. The old blind Pearl is humored by Ezra's reading pages of her old diaries and scrap-books to her. Among these, at the last, they discover an entry from her girlhood, of herself kneeling in a garden, dirty and perspiring, hearing someone play the piano, seeing a fly buzz: "I saw that I was kneeling on such a beautiful green little planet. I don't care what else might come about, I have had this moment. It belongs to me." The book closes with Cody's recollection of a frozen moment from a long-ago family outing that ended disastrously with his shooting his mother with an arrow: "He remembered his mother's upright form along the grasses, her hair lit gold, her small hands smoothing her bouquet while the arrow journeyed on. And high above, he seemed to recall, there had been a little brown airplane, almost motionless, droning through the sunshine like a bumblebee."
Like Virginia Woolf's "Moments of Being," these are occasions when life seems to break through the shell of the characters' consciousness. They are as fine and shining as any Tyler has drawn. It is only the placement of them in the characters' lives that makes this work darker than its predecessors. They are remembrances for Pearl even a "forgotten" memory, triggered by the diary, for Cody a day long ago in his childhood. The life that is un-being has gathered round and darkened Pearl; there is no hope that this vision will effect any change in Cody's way of seeing himself, his brother, or his wife and son.
In the shifting points of view of Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, none of the characters reveal self-understanding. What in earlier works were much-understated pronouncements, outspoken only in the case of Morgan Gower, of what they had learned of the wonder of everyday life lived piecemeal is here only for the reader to see. Over and over in Tyler's world—she says she has been populating a town—rings the question of Our Town, "Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it, every, every minute?" The answer of Restaurant is no, not every minute, not any minutes at all.
Reviewing the book, DeMott says that Tyler has taken the reader beyond the "truism" that adversity teaches: "the important lessons taught by adversity never quite make themselves known to the consciousness of the learners—remain hidden, inexpressible." He finds in the book an Emersonian kind of compensation, a psychic ability to endure, which is like a physical attribute, the strength derived from stress. Bruised psyches, like broken bones and scarred skin, heal tougher. What is best in these characters, DeMott says, Ezra's wordless nurturing and Jenny's determined cheerfulness, results from their deprivation.
With her tenth novel, The Accidental Tourist, Tyler received the National Book Critics' Circle Award, critical America's recognition of the importance of her rendering of family life and characters in a perpetual pull between returning home and running away. Some, in Tyler's books and in her audience, where most Americans move at least once in five years and half of all marriages end in divorce, dream of a glamour that recedes forever in the distance. Not so is Macon Leary, the "accidental tourist," author of books for people who prefer to go nowhere, guides to tell the business traveler where he can find, in Madrid "king-sized Beautyrest Mattresses," in Tokyo "Sweet'n Low," in Stockholm "Kentucky Fried Chicken."
It is a story that begins in grief and ends in joy. The catalyst to the action has occurred. Leary's only son, Ethan, has been murdered in one of the bizarre phenomena that fill the news, in a shoot-out at a fast-food restaurant. The routine of their lives disrupted, its meaning unclear to her, his wife, Sarah, leaves him. Leary's journey is from solitude in their empty house, back to his childhood home, inhabited by his siblings, to an affair with Muriel, a not-at-all-routine young dog trainer, back to his wife, and finally to Paris, whither both women pursue him, the old and the new claiming his life. The seesaw on which the passive Macon teeters between them is so carefully balanced that the novel feels as if written to go either way. Like reviewers of mystery tales, one hates to tell the end and spoil the reader's fun.
Tyler's novels alternate between those interrupted at the high or the low of her circles of return and departure, between those that suggest the inevitability of the past's wounds and those that proclaim the persistent possibility of happy accident in life. Some, like The Clock Winder, end in scenes of homey—"cozy" is a favorite word of hers—family life; there the gathered clan, several generations, a new baby, a new bride, and the seventeen-year locusts symbolize the cyclical rise and fall of the welfare and troubles of the tribe. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant ends with the dinner that is but a momentary interlude in the Tulls' lives of separation. A Slipping-Down Life and Celestial Navigation close in loneliness. Earthly Possessions and The Tin Can Tree end in returns, in new visions of people in old settings; If Morning Ever Comes, Searching for Caleb, Morgan's Passing, and The Accidental Tourist end with departures. Her first novel and her latest end in new marriages.
A corollary to the theme of staying in place and moving on, that of belonging and estrangement, has also a happy twist in this work. The characters, while no less caught up in personal turmoil and no more political than their predecessors, live in less bleak isolation. Though the hero wanders in limbo for most of the book, his sister looks out for her elderly neighbors on the block where she has always lived. Muriel, his girlfriend, has weathered the hurt of a husband's desertion to live on easy terms with neighbors who make themselves at home in her kitchen. When pipes freeze at Leary's home and it floods, neighbors notice, though, like a typical Tyler hero, he has gone off without telling anyone where he is going.
Though the protagonist returns to his family home and to spending evenings playing an old game intelligible only to his siblings, the book holds more of adult struggles and of sexual lure and less of the griefs of children than earlier novels. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant provoked at least one strong attack that Tyler's insistence on the primacy of childhood hurts and rivalries was a case of "arrested development." Here Tyler is closer to such writers as Updike, Oates, Beattie, Didion, who treat frequently the in substantiality of connections, the breakups of loves and marriages. Still her voice is distinct. To most of her characters, as to Leary's grandfather in this novel, relatives acquired by marriage, even spouses, hardly count.
The third tension in Tyler's work, finally the most important, is between the view of life as a still, bright, timeless present and the dull routine of years, which films sight and blurs the outlines of self, of others, and of earth itself to a smudge of dust and clutter. Leary and the two women form a triangle in what and how they see. He is not surprised by life but has all along, before tragedy struck, seen its capacity for violence.
Long before Ethan's murder, he watched helplessly as the child ran into a street before a truck and in "one split second" saw through life's terror and its caprice, "adjusted to a future that held no Ethan—an immeasurably bleaker place but also, by way of compensation, plainer and simpler…."
The wife, Sarah, startled by the tragedy, is awakened to bitterness and is resentful of her husband's impassive surface, a trait he shares with most Tyler heroes of being distant and uncommunicative. Hers is a vision of the evil in a world of human atrocity. As one of Tyler's uninitiated, she seeks expression of their grief and complains of his "muffled quality." Like a Tyler hero, reticent and as wary of words as of commitment, he can answer her cries that life has lost its point only with, "Honey, to tell the truth, it never seemed to me there was all that much point to begin with."
Muriel is tough where Sarah was sheltered but has through her suffering acquired a different vision. At the birth of her child, premature and sickly, her husband bolted; she worked for months as a hospital maid. Vision came to her as she stared out a window at ambulances arriving and attendants scurrying. A Martian visitor surprising Earth at such a moment would, she muses, observe "what a helpful planet, what kind and helpful creatures" and would not guess this was not "natural" human behavior.
Flashes of vision can be of terror or of loveliness. Another window in the novel is the lens through which Leary sees life as separation. As a dutiful author of guides he visits a round glass restaurant of the sort, the tops of something or other, that dot American cities. Looking out, he observes "the planet curving away at the edges, the sky a purple hollow extending to infinity." He is terrified at the "vast lonely distance from everyone who mattered…. He was too far gone to return. He would never, ever get back. He had somehow traveled to a point completely isolated from everyone else in the universe, and nothing was real but his own angular hand clenched around the sherry glass."
In Tyler's writing, the direct point of a plot is to bring people to a still moment of vision. But moments of epiphany seem to come unpredictably, by "accident," and to have little to do with process or progress, to be timeless, disconnected from the daily order.
Most of her characters, caught in the routines of life, travel the same streets for years without seeing them. Caught in the webs of old relationships, they go for decades without acute sense of closeness or distance. Lives fall into patterns that people do not devise, that they perpetuate but do not desire. Over and over, they play the same games, fight the same no-win wars with their kin, living and dead. Patterns triumph over all will to break out, as in the clan of Pecks: "Everything was leveled, there were no extremes of joy or sorrow any more but only habit, routine, ancient family names and rites and customs, slow careful old people moving cautiously around furniture that had sat in the same positions for fifty years."
Routine is comforting to some, terrifying to others for the same reason, that it blinds them to the significance of life or to the sense of self. These come only in momentary flashes, epiphanies stark or tender, always unsettling. At these rare moments, by an altered angle of vision, characters see life's possibilities, not merely its worn outlines. Mary Tell of Celestial Navigation, one of the most articulate of Tyler's heroines, reflecting over her life with Jeremy, says, "We have such an ability to adjust to change! We are like amoebas, encompassing and ingesting and adapting and moving on, until enormous events become barely perceptible jogs in our life histories." Morgan's Passing closed with its hero's vision of a world aglow: "Everything … luminous and beautiful, and rich with possibilities." And Leary, the accidental tourist, rides off to a new life, the dirty windows of a taxi the prism through which he views a bright future: "A sudden flash of sunlight hit the windshield, the spangles flew across the glass. The spangles were old water spots, or maybe the markings of leaves, but for a moment Macon thought they were something else. They were so bright and festive, for a moment he thought they were confetti."
Tyler cannot take her heroes very far into a new life, for soon wonder subsides to dullness. Tourists may see things afresh, but the human eye seems able to see, really see, things only once. Then routine films the vision; habit and clutter fill the days; nothing will have changed very much.
But the moments of detachment from time matter as much in her world as the patterns of years that she records so well. They are the moments when time meets eternity. The tension in her work is finally not only between going and staying but also between living and seeing. In attachment, they live; in detachment, they see.
What do her works then teach, with their passive, unchanging heroes, their circular plots? Certainly not the efficacy of human moral resolve, nothing of the energy of a Protestant work ethic, and nothing either of caution against heedless rapidity, headlong careening toward tragedy. Mostly it is a lesson of mundane quietism. It is through contemplation, not action, not even the articulation of the lessons of insight, that some of Tyler's characters move from feeling that life has them trapped in patterns too old and strong for them to break, to the vision of Morgan Gower, one of her least popular but happiest heroes, that there is "virtue in the trivial, the commonplace."
Tyler is still a young writer, celebrating her forty-seventh birthday in October 1988. Tyler is her maiden name; she was born to Phyllis and Lloyd Tyler in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1941. The features of her childhood that may have mattered most to her writing are that the family lived for some years in communes and that she felt herself something of an outsider when they moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, very much a small Southern town in her day. As a student, she was bright and precocious, graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Duke University at age nineteen. She has been married since 1963 to Taghi Modaressi, a psychiatrist. They have two daughters, Tezh and Mitra. After working briefly in the Duke University library and McGill University library, she has been "just writing," in her words, since 1965 and living with the family in Baltimore, Maryland, since 1967.
She has said that she spent her adolescence "as a semi-outsider—a Northerner, commune-reared, looking wistfully at large Southern families around me." The notes about the author printed in her books, however, say she "considers herself a Southerner." The primacy of family as her subject, the attention to time, the influence of the past on the present and future, the settings, the use of one setting over and over, the attention to manners and to folk speech, the range of characters from the quaintly anachronistic to the eccentric to the grotesque, the writer's sense of being outside are all qualities for which she and other writers are tagged as Southern.
While these features are wholly true of her work, they do not mark her as exclusively a regional writer; some qualifications may be in order. John Updike has written that her belief "that families are absolutely, intrinsically interesting" is "extinct save in the South." If so, it wasn't always so; Tyler has Jane Austen and Henry James for predecessors here. Novelists of all great traditions draw the locale and the speech patterns they know, but it is true that Tyler has concentrated on her Southern experience. She has exploited only briefly in short pieces the subject of international difference that her marriage to an Iranian might have permitted. Tyler speaks often of the influence of Eudora Welty on her becoming a writer. In her education and reading, her teachers having been Phyllis Peacock in high school and Reynolds Price at Duke, she was also under Southern influence.
On the question of eccentrics, Tyler is as defensive as Flannery O'Connor but for a different reason, individuality itself being the source of peculiarity for Tyler. Her self-absorbed grotesques certainly have their counterparts in Southern fiction, but as some critics of her work have noted, all modern literature is full of pathologically self-absorbed characters. And the posture of the artist as self-conscious outsider knows no regional boundaries.
But putting the locus of value in the private life alone sets Tyler apart from the broad historical concerns of the main current of Southern writing. Like her insular families and anachronistic individuals, Tyler lacks the perspective of those writers—Simms, Page, Cable, Glasgow, Faulkner, Wolfe, Porter, Agec, Warren, Tate, Williams, Settle, Capote, Lee, Betts, Walker, Smith—who have examined Southern American life for the shaping force of cultural habits and beliefs on individual lives. If Tyler has her eyes always to the timeless, as does Flannery O'Connor, she has not O'Connor's attention to the historical versions of her creed. Tyler's characters, whether they find their way or lose it, do so with little effect from any religious or social dogma that they share with any identifiable class or segment in their communities.
Without concern for placing her characters in large social or historical context, Tyler treats them in families, not as lone individuals seeking self-expression or self-identity. She is thus doubly distant from much twentieth-century feminist writing, which frequently does one or the other.
Like Anne Bradstreet, Anne Tyler writes of "thyme and parsley" wreaths, not "bays," nor "wars," "captains," "kings," "cities founded, commonwealths begun." Whether this makes her a pacesetting female writer, taking the subjects of women's lives, marriage, child rearing, housekeeping, and tending the aged as life's most important business, or whether it puts her to the right of Phyllis Schlafly, relegating women and her own art to the backwaters, depends on the critic's bias. Some have sneered that her work falls between high art and stuff for women's magazines. Tyler continues to write for women's magazines, as well as for the New Yorker. Her insistence on the primacy of roles of mother, spouse, and tender of the hearth is certainly old-fashioned, if not anti-feminist.
Tyler's work shares the subject matter of the feminist revolution but not its attitudes. In her novels and stories, fathers are often absent, dead or run away. Her heroines live interruptible lives. Her happiest visions of human life as well as her stiffest are of extended families. Rarely she exploits the pathos of children. In one short story, a small boy carries from house to house photographs of foster families he has stayed with. In another, a young single mother of a teenage marriage that failed leaves her retarded son at an asylum.
Tyler regularly makes women the strong centers of the home, but strength is not always benevolent, and she never presents women "achievers," the strong hero models some ardent feminists have called for. Though Tyler's women manage domestic details with ease, when they attempt to exert influence on people, they often become meddlesome, half-humorous harridans, half-terrifying vixens, driving their husbands and children from them. These clean-house busybodies, like Mrs. Emerson and Pearl Tull, are cold and sexless, equaling Eliza Gant in their destructive force. The strong women portrayed with affection are easygoing, passive. They are unaffected by a baby on their hip, milk dribbled or spilt down their clothes; best of all they can nurse the baby, get locusts out of the parlor, branches out of the gutters, and receive unexpected in-laws for dinner with a nary a flap.
Many have used the word "private" about Anne Tyler's life, as she so often describes herself. Her life is centered on her family and her work; anything else, she says, just "fritters" her away. And as she describes it, it is an old-fashioned life of a woman, in which she tends children first and does what she pleases—writing—last. For years, Tyler says, she worked when her children were in school and put aside her writing during vacations or when someone was ill, or when company came, or when the dog had to go to the vet. Still, she has argued against the idea that this interruptible life has been less beneficial to her work, not to mention to her emotional life, than that of her husband, also a writer, who has had to go off to the hospital every day. To such constraint, Tyler has asked for no "liberation." Certainly her production of ten novels and at least one volume's worth of uncollected short stories shows that she has not been "silenced," in Tillie Olsen's word, by her woman's lot, And she has found in her family the richest emotional lode for her work.
The chief features of Tyler's life are echoed in the critical reception of her work. She has given her own family the central position; she was a precocious young person; she has led an apparently stable adult life. Critics have dwelt on related issues, some praising her examination of the inner life, some complaining that her range is too narrow. Her early work was declared astonishingly good for one so young. The most frequently expressed reservation against her work has been that she has not developed the potential she first promised. Like her adult life, Tyler's development as a writer has been without sudden shifts of direction.
Disagreement about Tyler's work comes not in descriptions of it, where the agreement is fairly widespread, but in estimates of the value of what she does. Her admirers praise her wit, her humor, which by contemporary measure is a kindly, not a sardonic, humor, her sense of detail, her characterization, her emotional power, her compassion, her wisdom, and the understanding she has for inner pain and joy in outwardly unremarkable lives.
Sometimes even her admirers complain that her writing is too literary, that she strains for effect. They may balk at her odd juxtapositions, her wry observations, her method of piling on detail. At worst she has been called "arch," "coy," and "glib."
The place Tyler occupies in American letters seems to have much to do with the fact that she is not in step with the waves of fiction in the last two decades. The absence of a moral dimension, the fact that her characters are often mistaken but are not "evil" or "good," makes them seem without excitement or importance to some. To others, attuned to the newer vogues of a hard-boiled age, she is tender, almost soft. In years when many artists employ violent projection and subdued response, Tyler depicts deeply resonant perception and memory. Although she is of this century, she has been ever more distant from a literary current moving away from her. Her adoption of Eudora Welty as a model was old-fashioned thirty years ago. It is now antique, fine and good to those who appreciate it, not likely to be imitated by a younger generation. Tyler's ardent admirers include those not delighted with the newest modes of American writing, for whom she is a model of timeless worth.
Her last works show greater control over her characterization, a surer sense of balance in descriptive detail, and the writer comfortable at a fairly great distance from her characters, relying less on their explaining themselves and more on dramatic scene. Anne Tyler has never been voguish; she is unlikely to become so even if the movie of The Accidental Tourist becomes all the rage with the young set. Her distance may continue to limit her reputation somewhat. With the audience she has, she is probably content.
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