Sharing Anne Tyler

by Chris Bertram on September 28, 2011

The latest Financial Times weekend had “a piece”: by Simon Kuper about how studying English literature had spoilt the experience of reading for him. Whereas once, as a child or an adolescent, he could immerse himself in a novel, the academic study of them had taught him to read as a critic. That second-order relationship to the text, just made the whole thing much less fun than it had been. I see what he means. Relatedly, one of the problems about writing for a blog like Crooked Timber with so many readers who know more than I do on just about any topic is the the difficulty in sharing books, films, or music that you’ve enjoyed because I’m scanning the horizon (or the potential comments thread) for the dorsal fin of the Great White Critic for whom the immediate pleasure taken is a symptom of hopeless naivety and a failure to adopt the necessary critical distance. But to hell with that. Sometimes some discovery is so fantastic that I just want to share, and that’s how I feel about reading Anne Tyler. Since reading “a post about her”: on Norman Geras’s blog (Norman is great for that stuff, just ignore the politics) I’ve made my way through The Accidental Tourist, A Patchwork Planet, The Amateur Marriage, Noah’s Compass, Celestial Navigation, Earthly Possessions, Ladder of Years, The Tin Can Tree, Digging to America, Back When We Were Grownups, and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, and I feel blessed that I still have (by my count) seven to go.

For those who don’t know, Tyler’s novels, nearly all set in Baltimore, are mostly quiet dramas of family life and relationships. The wider world of politics and economics doesn’t intrude much, so we’re a long way from the grand themes of Jonathan Franzen and the like. Many of the books are somewhat similar, in that a person has their habits and their conception of who they are turned upside down by an encounter with someone utterly unlike themselves. Sometimes they are changed; sometimes they revert. Her male characters are often stiff, calculating and habit bound; women more open and spontaneous, but she manages to achieve a sympathetic engagement with all of them. And all of her families conform to the Tolstoyan cliché. Her writing is also extraordinary. Highly economic and unfussy and yet she has an ear to capture a scene or a moment in a phrase that sticks in the memory – “By now he was looking seriously undermedicated” from A Patchwork Planet, for example.

The novels are about you, and me and our relationships and difficulties with spouses, parents, children, in-laws and colleagues. Since I became enthusiastic about Tyler, I’ve given some of her books as presents and then been asked if I was “making a point” about the recipient’s relationship. Well no I wasn’t, but I take this as good evidence that Tyler sees and captures the universal in all of our peculiar cases. I mentioned Tyler to a bookblogger friend, Kate, recently, and she asked me which are the best. I’m hard pushed to say. The Tin Can Tree was a bit of a struggle and some of the others disclosed themselves slowly but turned out to be among the best. Perhaps Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant would be a good place to start.