Anne Tyler’s Alternative Reality

So many books, so little time. Many years ago when the film of “The Accidental Tourist” came out, I read the book of the same name by Anne Tyler. It was filled with charming eccentrics, odd family dynamics and just below the surface heartbreak and sorrow.

It is no wonder Tyler is hugely popular and a staple of book clubs, but I didn’t rush off to read another of her many novels. So many books…. And then I heard her being interviewed by Diane Rehm. It was apparently the first extended radio interview she has ever granted in forty years of literary celebrity. What could be less American? (You can hear a podcast of the interview: Diane Rehm Show, Feb. 12, 2015.)

Tyler was fascinating in many ways. First, it is always interesting to hear artists discuss their craft. Rather than dwell on inspiration or such, which let’s face it can’t really be described of accounted for, the focus is generally as down to earth as a cabinet maker discussing how to plane a board or construct a joint.

Tyler, in the years when her children were young, would get them out the door to school, head for her writing room, and industriously create another world until shortly before they arrived home. Like clockwork. She does wryly admit that, when she was deep into a book, her family could usually tell by the marked deterioration of her cooking.

She also described her unusual upbringing, home schooled in a North Carolina Quaker commune until the age of eleven without a phone in the house. When she did enter school she was sufficiently ahead of her classmates to graduate at 16 and win a full scholarship to Duke University where her writing talent was immediately recognized. It isn’t hard to suppose that her out-of-the-ordinary childhood may have contributed to the recurrence of families in her fiction that are far from run of the mill.

Tyler’s own life has been marked by unconventional choices, or at least by hardy independence. She chose to major in Russian literature which required her to learn a language she knew not a syllable of. She met her husband, an Iranian physician, when friends invited him along to a concert, a transparent attempt to set her up. Unaware of this subtext, he asked very politely why she treated him so unpleasantly when he tried to chat. Their nuptials followed shortly thereafter. When her mother expressed concern about how little they seemed to have in common, Tyler’s response was that they had seemed to have reacted similarly at the concert they attended. Much eye-rolling from the mother of the bride. A classic Anne Tyler scene.

Inspired by this interview, I decided I’d better go read another Tyler book and picked “Ladder of Years.” As usual it is set in Baltimore. Her neighborhood of Roland Park has figured in so many of her books that canny capitalists now offer Anne Tyler tours of the place. This time the heroine is Delia Grinstead, the youngest of three daughters of a family physician. Years ago her father brought in a young doctor to join his practice and take over when he retired. The doctor married Delia as if she was a part of the deal.

They now have children in their teens. The office is in the family home. Delia lends a hand. Once a year they vacation on the Eastern Shore. This year she strolls down the beach, away from her overbearing sisters, snotty teen-agers and the husband who seems to take her for granted. And she just keeps walking. In effect, she runs away from home. She hitches a ride. She winds up in a scruffy Maryland town, gets a job as a lawyer’s receptionist, lives in a rented room, reads books from the library and eats at the diner. She seems intent on shucking her middle-aged life and its middle-aged discontents.

In a brilliant touch, Tyler reports the news item that announces Delia’s disappearance. The description offered by her family members is so vague and contradictory that the newspaper can’t quite decide what she was wearing when last seen, whether she is short or tall, whether her eyes are blue or green or gray. She’s invisible to those who know her best.

Stepping back a pace, you realize the story is completely implausible. Nothing like this could actually take place for all kinds of reasons. Beneath the closely observed, realistic settings and details from our everyday lives, Tyler is actually writing something more like a fable or fairy tale. Hers are archetypal stories that, beneath their bright, plain, familiar surface, are filled with strange depths, fears, psychic disturbances.

Tyler’s fiction seems to be premised on the notion that the daily lives we live are the real fictions. Life is far stranger than we dare acknowledge, so we maintain a façade. Tyler’s stock in trade is forcing us to look at the moment when the façade slips. This is undoubtedly why, a couple months after finishing her book and moving on to other more forgettable reads, it kept bobbing to the surface of my consciousness. Haunting, one might say. This is the skill of a real artist disguised by the homespun surface that surely lulls many readers into a false sense of security.


Anne Tyler’s Alternative Reality — 1 Comment

  1. Keith, thanks for reminding me how much pleasure Anne Tyler has given me as a reader. I think I’ll go back and pick up where I left off in her book list. My enchantment began in the mid-70s when I came across “Celestial Navigation” and was, in the idiom of the day, blown away. If you haven’t read it, by all means do. I enjoyed several other Tyler titles thereafter — never found a bad one — but Celestial stands out. In my personal pantheon of recent fiction, it is right up there with “A Confederacy of Dunces.”