Anne Tyler Tyler, Anne (Vol. 7) - Essay

Tyler, Anne (Vol. 7)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Tyler, Anne 1941–

Anne Tyler is an American novelist and short story writer. Her fiction, typically, is set in Southern towns and her characters are warmly and precisely drawn. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

[In] Anne Tyler's rich, inventive, painful (in some ways) novel Celestial Navigation, [her] hero Jeremy Pauling is one of those characters [for whom] one uses the adjective "memorable"…. Jeremy is a weak, sick, frightened maker of collages who sails, someone says of him, by celestial navigation. Around him are grouped women who are supportive or destructive, his children, his mother who dies "and leaves him" (in the way that William Steig once illustrated in The Lonely Ones)…. Nancy Hale has remarked on how successfully Anne Tyler achieves the "simple truth of her characters." This too impressed me. I found her ability to enmesh the reader in what is a simple, uneventful story, by means of the force of these few persons, a notable achievement. (p. 32)

Doris Grumbach, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), May 25, 1974.

It's hard to classify Anne Tyler's novels. They are Southern in their sure sense of family and place but lack the taste for violence and the Gothic that often characterizes self-consciously Southern literature. They are modern in their fictional techniques, yet utterly unconcerned with the contemporary moment as a subject, so that, with only minor dislocations, her stories could just as well have taken place in the twenties or thirties. The current school of feminist-influenced novels seems to have passed her by completely: her women are strong, often stronger than the men in their lives, but solidly grounded in traditional roles. Among our better contemporary novelists, Tyler occupies a somewhat lonely place, polishing brighter and brighter a craft many novelists no longer deem essential to their purpose: the unfolding of character through brilliantly imagined and absolutely accurate detail….

Less perfectly realized than "Celestial Navigation," her extraordinarily moving and beautiful last novel, "Searching for Caleb" is Tyler's sunniest, most expansive book. While etching with a fine, sharp wit the narrow-mindedness and pettishness of the Pecks, she lavishes on them a tenderness that lifts them above satire. Consider Daniel Peck. A cold and unoriginal man, aging gracefully but without wisdom, he is yet allowed moments in which we glimpse his bewilderment at a life that has been in the end disappointing….

Reading "Searching for Caleb," one is constantly being startled by … gestures, words, wrinkles of thought and feeling that are at once revelatory and exactly right. But at the center of Tyler's characters is a private, mysterious core which is left, wisely, inviolate. Ultimately this wisdom is what makes Tyler more than a fine craftsman of realistic novels. Her complex, crotchety inventions surprise us, but one senses they surprise her too. (p. 22)

Katha Pollitt, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 18, 1976.

To read Anne Tyler is to be drawn into a world so removed, so full, and so subtle that one feels clumsy trying to describe it. Why, aren't these freaks and misfits? Happy (rarely lucky) grotesques? Okie-bohemians, drop-out aristocrats turned minstrel or fix-it man? People who seesaw from blind action to stark awareness of the tangled knit-one/purl-two/drop-stitch of their lives' fabric? Impossible to show in a few words that these characters are not simply bewitched runners-up in life, which is how they seem to people around them. But Anne Tyler knows how to draw their richness and wholeness, and that is what makes her novels magical. She shows what her characters grew from and into, luring the reader beyond the obvious pathos of their situations to their gaiety, antic fancy, and penchant for surprise. The reader is bewitched—not unlike a Tyler character….

[Trying] to sum up an Anne Tyler story is like attempting to "explain" sorcery….

"If you put it in a novel no one would believe it," we say of experiences we don't know how to put in novels. Anne Tyler can do it and make it seem the most natural thing in the world. (p. 107)

Michael Janeway, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1976 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), March, 1976.

Out of her fascination with families—with brotherly men and auntly women, with weak sisters and mama's boys, with stay-at-homes and runaways—Anne Tyler has fashioned, in "Searching for Caleb"…, a lovely novel, funny and lyric and true-seeming, exquisite in its details and ambitious in its design. She here construes the family as a vessel of Time. The Pecks, who live (as her families tend to) in Baltimore, are known for longevity…. [At] the age of ninety-three Daniel Peck … is lively enough to be riding trains and buses in search of his half brother Caleb, who disappeared from Baltimore in 1912. It is 1973, and Daniel is living with two of his grandchildren, Justine and Duncan, who, though first cousins, have married…. In Miss Tyler's vision, heredity looms as a kind of destiny, and with the force of a miracle people persist in being themselves….

"Searching for Caleb" is, among other things, a detective novel, with an ominous detective, Eli Everjohn (he looks like Abraham Lincoln, "even to the narrow border of beard along his jawline"), and an ingenious unravelling; readers should be permitted unhampered enjoyment of the plot's well-spaced turns. Suffice it to say that, with the quest for Caleb as her searchlight, Miss Tyler warmly illumines the American past in its domestic aspect. (p. 110)

Miss Tyler's details pull from our minds recognition of our lives. These Pecks, polite and snide and tame and maddening and resonant, are our aunts and uncles; Justine and Duncan's honeymoon, when they are "isolated, motionless, barely breathing, cut loose from everyone else," is everybody's escape from a suffocating plurality of kin into a primitive two-ness; the America they truck their fraying marriage through is our land, observed with a tolerance and precision unexcelled among contemporary writers. Paragraph after paragraph, details kindle together, making heat and light. For, along with the power to see and guess and know, Anne Tyler has the rarer gift of coherence—of tipping observations in a direction, and of keeping track of what she has set down…. Dozens of … strands of continuity glint amid the cross-woven threads of this rich novel of nostalgia and divination, genes and keepsakes, recurrences and reunions.

Miss Tyler does not always avoid the pawky. Her ease of invention sometimes leads her to overdo. The secret of Caleb's departure, she would have us believe, was harbored for sixty years by a family servant whom no one ever thought to ask and who therefore, with the heroic stubbornness of a Faulkner character, declined to tell. Such moonbeams of Southern Gothic, without a sustained sense of regional delirium, shine a bit stagily…. [She] says she "considers herself a Southerner;" and she does apparently accept the belief, extinct save in the South, that families are absolutely, intrinsically interesting. Are they? Her Pecks contain not only their milieu's history but every emotion from a mother's need "to be the feeder" to an old man's perception that "once you're alive, there's no way out but dying." Does Miss Tyler share Daniel Peck's preference when he says, "I would prefer to find that heaven was a small town with a bandstand in the park and a great many trees, and I would know everybody in it and none of them would ever die or move away or age or alter"? No other kind of goodness is suggested in this book, except Justine's hopeful forward motion. Miss Tyler gives us a border South blurring into the Middle Atlantic sprawl, a modern South busy commercializing its own legends…. The America she sees is today's, but, like the artist-hero of her previous novel, "Celestial Navigation," she seems to see much of it through windows. There is an elusive sense of removal, an uncontaminated, clinical benevolence not present in the comparable talent of, say, the young Eudora Welty, whose provincial characters were captured with a certain malicious pounce …; [they] have an outrageous oddity they would disown if they could decipher the fiction. Whereas we can picture Anne Tyler's characters reading her novels comfortably, like Aunt Lucy in "her wing chair in which she could sit encircled, almost, with the wings working like a mule's blinders…. The upholstery was embroidered in satin-stitch, which she loved to stroke absently as she read." Sit up, Aunt Lucy. This writer is not merely good, she is wickedly good. (pp. 111-12)

John Updike, in The New Yorker (© 1976 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), March 29, 1976.