January 2004

Anne Tyler

Mismatched mates
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It's not as if Anne Tyler's life is a closed book. Curious readers can find 25-year-old interviews with her on the Internet. They can learn that she was born in Minneapolis in 1941, that writer Reynolds Price helped launch her career as a novelist while she was studying Russian at Duke University, that she married Iranian-born psychiatrist Taghi Mohammad Modarressi and raised a family, that her 11th novel, Breathing Lessons, won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, that after all these years she still lives in Baltimore, Maryland. Readers can discover all these details and still be left wondering what this actually reveals about Tyler's deeply satisfying, deceptively simple novels or the woman who writes them.

The problem with knowing Anne Tyler is that she seems determined to resist our desire to make her a star, a personality. She doesn't publicly opine and pronounce. In fact, she rarely even appears in public. Anne Tyler actually seems to want her novels—her avowedly non-autobiographical novels—to speak for themselves.

"I'm too shy for personal appearances, and I've found out that anytime I talk about my writing, I can't do any writing for many weeks afterward," Tyler tells BookPage via e-mail. Tyler asks that I emphasize that we have corresponded rather than spoken; she doesn't want to seem inconsistent when she turns down others who ask for personal interviews. "Thank goodness the people at Alfred A. Knopf have always been understanding about that. I think it must be very hard to be one of the new young writers who are urged to put themselves forward when it may be the last thing on earth they'd be good at."

What Tyler herself has always been particularly good at is depicting the fullness of life lived on a human scale. Her characters are not—and do not aspire to become—members of the glitterati or the literati. They rarely stray far from their Baltimore roots. Their dramas are the commonplace dramas of family and community life. Tyler's great art has been to illuminate her characters' lives with wry wit and insight, not to exalt them to some larger, brighter stage.

Tyler's remarkable abilities are on full display in her 16th book, The Amateur Marriage. Quite simply, this new novel ranks among Tyler's best to date. It tells the story of Michael Anton and Pauline Barclay, who meet by accident in a Baltimore neighborhood at the outbreak of World War II, marry hastily, raise a family and live with the consequences of an unhappy marriage. The novel follows their lives into old age, ending shortly after another national cataclysm, the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

"The Amateur Marriage grew out of the reflection that of all the opportunities to show differences in character, surely an unhappy marriage must be the richest," Tyler writes. "I didn't want a good-person-bad-person marriage, but a marriage in which solely the two styles of character provide the friction."

That we continue to like and care about both the flighty, emotional Pauline and the stolid, cautious Michael while their marriage falters and stalls is further proof of Tyler's uncommon talent for understanding and representing the interior lives of her characters.

Asked to comment more generally on her understanding of successful marriages, however, Tyler writes that she'd "feel presumptuous making any general pronouncements on the subject." Still, Tyler affirms that the mismatch in her fictional marriage is not due simply to Michael's and Pauline's opposite temperaments. "I think most marriages are made up of any number of opposites," she writes, "spenders marrying savers and cool-natured people marrying warm and so forth. (Maybe we are all trying to atone for deficiencies in our own characters.) Why Michael and Pauline had so much trouble with their own differences seems to me a very individual matter related specifically to those two people and to no one else in the world. That's what makes human beings so mysterious, and such endlessly entrancing material for novelists."

Tyler's account of Pauline's and Michael's unhappy marriage is not without additional family dramas. Oldest daughter, Lindy, for example, who is independent and assertive from birth, leaves – simply disappears – creating, according to her brother, George, "the central mystery of their lives." Part of that mystery is how much responsibility Pauline and Michael bear for Lindy's flight. And part of Tyler's deeply satisfying artistry lies in the fact that she refuses to resolve the question with too-easy psychological analysis. "It seems to me that good novels celebrate the mystery in ordinary life, and summing it all up in psychological terms strips the mystery away," she writes.

In The Amateur Marriage, Tyler achieves her ends with astonishing economy. The novel carries readers through 60 years of the family's history in just 10 chapters. Dramatic events that would be central to other novelists' narratives – births, deaths, disappearances – happen offstage here, in the space between chapters. The novel gains much of its emotional power precisely from what is left unsaid and undescribed. Tyler, apparently at the height of her creative powers, knows exactly what to leave to her readers' imaginations.

"I had worried it would make me unhappy to write about such an unhappy subject," Tyler recalls, "but I hadn't counted on the sheer pleasure of the time trip it took me on, all the way back to the 1940s. What it felt like, really, was stepping inside an old photograph. Have you ever studied one of those black-and-white photos from the '40s – say a crowd scene where all the men wear hats and the women look so innocent – and wished to be there yourself? If you stare long enough at the details, you almost think you are there. That was my experience in writing the first chapter. At first it felt forced, a matter of cold research (what items would be sold in a drugstore back then? What cars would be driving past?), but gradually, as the characters became animated, I could imagine I was there with them – that the picture wasn't black-and-white anymore, but living color."

And isn't that all we really need to know? That Anne Tyler wants to present her characters in living color in all their rich emotional hues? And in The Amateur Marriage, that is exactly what she does.

Alden Mudge is a juror for the California book awards.


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