Monday, December 30, 2013

Anne Tyler

It's a long time since I read The Accidental Tourist, by Anne Tyler - although I had some further dealings with it later when it was used in The Weekend Novelist by Robert Ray, as the basis for writing your own novel. Ray, I think, failed to get to grips with the actual structure of Tyler's novel, which wasn't, to my mind, nearly as straightforward as he made out.

You'd be hard pressed to pin down the way Tyler's books are structured, I think. In reading them you feel as though they just evolve, and that there's very little planning. But I suspect this isn't actually the case. However Tyler plans and writes her books, you always feel as though you're in the presence of someone who knows exactly what they're doing. The books may feel as though they have the randomness of life about them, but in fact they're much more carefully worked out than that.

I've read three of her books in the last couple of months - two this month, in fact. The Beginner's Goodbye, Noah's Compass (which doesn't appear to have a compass in it, though I may have missed it), and just finished yesterday, Back When We Were Grownups. All three have a main character who's having to find him or herself at a certain point in time, sometimes after a crisis, but not necessarily. There may or may not be a 'happy' ending, but there is generally a satisfactory one, though that may not be one that entirely satisfies the reader....even if it satisfies the character in the book. Things in Tyler's books don't always work out in ways that other writers might work them out.

Apart from this thematic use of a character who's lost their way and needs to find how to move forward, Tyler's books excel in detailing daily lives, making the mundane somehow luminous, bringing the ordinary into focus and showing that there's very little that's actually ordinary in this world. She also surrounds her main characters (heroes or heroines would hardly be appropriate for these people, though they do have a kind of heroism about them) with a wonderful array of family members, and occasionally with friends as well. Family is big in the Tyler world; they may not be likeable people always, but they're fully there. Back When We Were Grownups begins with a chaotic family picnic in which Tyler manages, somehow, to distinguish three stepdaughters and a daughter, their various husbands or partners, and their various children, and an aged uncle, and not lose the reader in the slightest. It helps that many of them are known by peculiar nicknames. Later on we have aunts, uncles, former lovers and husbands and more. There is a wonderful range of characters here.

It's intriguing, that as a woman writer, Tyler so often allows her female characters to be bitchy and sour, particularly those who are daughters (or stepdaughters) of the main character. These women seem to have a kind of dissatisfaction around their lives, in spite of the fact that they're well off, they have good children, and husbands who care about them.  Tyler never tells us what their problem is; she just allows these women (and they appear in all three of the books I've just read) to reveal themselves as self-centred even while they're supposedly caring about the main character.  It seems to be the women in the child-rearing generation who are most like this; the main characters sometimes have a sister or two who aren't quite so up themselves. One of those even marries the builder who rebuilds part of the main character's house in Noah's Compass.

And that's another thing: builders, electricians, plumbers and other tradesmen have real lives in these stories. Though the main characters are often a professional cut above these people, they connect with them, and often seem to be the people to whom the tradesmen will open up their lives. I think that's unusual in many modern novels, where tradesmen, if they appear, tend to be very much relegated to the periphery. 

Then there are the children: while the vast array of children in Back When We Were Grownups tend to morph a little when seen en masse, many of them have enough scenes on their own or with a sibling or cousin to give them their own presence in the story.  And there is often an isolated child who is difficult to coax out of his shell: Noah, in Noah's Compass, is one such, or Peter in Back When We Were Grownups, who turns out to be very intelligent, and not at all the problem that his stepmother makes him out to be - she's one of the selfish generation, of course.

I've got two more books by Tyler from the library at the moment; the librarian brought them up from the stack along with the one I'd asked for, and I thought I might as well have them all. I'll be interested to see how they compare to the four I've read.


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