Anne Tyler Tyler, Anne (Vol. 18) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Tyler, Anne 1941–

Tyler is an American novelist and short story writer. Her fiction is generally concerned with familial relations and focuses on the themes of isolation, thwarted ideals, and the problem of communication. (See also CLC, Vols. 7, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Thomas M. Disch

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In the paradoxical character of Emily, at once passive and inflexible, ruthless in her rejections and unswerving in her loyalty, Tyler has created [in Morgan's Passing] the kissing cousin to Charlotte Emory, the heroine of her last novel, Earthly Possessions. Both women achieve spiritual freedom in circumstances of poverty and psychological subjection; both are dutiful victims, not of the sexist gargoyles grimacing from the pages of so many recent novels, but of entirely ordinary men of limited competence and probity. Because "average" people don't usually make for large drama or high comedy, they are much less common in fiction than in real life. Perhaps it is Anne Tyler's most uncommon accomplishment that she can make such characters interesting and amusing without violating their limitations.

Happily, despite the novel's portending title, Morgan survives his reordering, not wholly intact but in all his essentials, and one finishes the book with a quiet hurrah for human nature. Not since Garp have I come across a character in a recent novel who is at once so plausibly flawed and so improbably lovable….

The flavor of the book is alternately lyrical and rambunctiously comic—as though Chekhov were to rewrite one of Kaufmann and Hart's comedies of confusion; as though Flannery O'Connor were to forget all about religion and write a whole novel as droll as her tales; as though Dickens were alive and well and living in Baltimore.

But even those wild hyperboles tell only half the story—Morgan's half. Emily, who has almost as much time center stage, is a quieter presence … but no less vivid. Her diffident devotion to the plainest truth reflects a similar bedrock simplicity in Tyler's prose—the other side of the coin to Morgan's (and his creator's) ebullient profusions. The effect of this synthesis is a totally believable fictive world with the concrete reality of a Manet and the radiant colors of a Matisse.

Thomas M. Disch, "The Great Imposter," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1980, The Washington Post), March 15, 1980, p. 5.

Eva Hoffman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

On one level, [Morgan's Passing is about a] disturbed man, a man "who had gone to pieces," or who had "arrived unassembled." Gower Morgan, the novel's protagonist, is … someone who, for lack of an identity of his own, impersonates a ragtag assortment of selves. The actual circumstances of his life are ordinary with a vengeance….

The interplay of a drab, mediocre reality and of second-rate fantasies is an intriguing theme. It suggests what happens to the needs of the spirit when they have no outlet for expression; it hints at the comedy of an imagination without style, a madness without panache. The unlovely, prosaic texture of the protagonists' lives is best conveyed through masterfully detailed descriptions of urban landscapes and of commonplace objects. (p. 38)

But, like the disjointed tidbits of Morgan's house, or the fragmented elements of his character, the various pieces of the novel, although intriguing in themselves, simply refuse to jell, focus, or add up. Morgan's dissatisfaction is so without contours, his perceptions and flights of fancy so vapid and lacking in energy, that it is difficult to sympathize with his condition, or to understand why Emily, after an ardorless courtship, decides to leave Leon and marry Morgan. Because Morgan's peculiarity seems without purpose, it drives the reader to ask the most naive questions: What's wrong with him? What does he want? Why doesn't he do something? In fact, all the protagonists of Morgan's Passing are separated from their alienated, eccentric, or neurotic brethren who so thickly populate the pages of modern fiction by their lukewarm emotional temperature, the absence of delineation or intensity even in their pain. They are too lethargic, too passive, and the novel remains suspended in a chilly, murky, ozone-thin limbo—a bit as if Flannery O'Connor were writing in a fog. Without an exploration that would make the characters more familiar, and without a perspective that would make their estrangement significant, Anne Tyler is left with a story about weirdness—and weirdness, as a novelistic subject, is simply not enough. (pp. 38-9)

Eva Hoffman, "When the Fog Never Lifts," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1980 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 7, No. 6, March 15, 1980, pp. 38-9.

John Leonard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Before she is done, Anne Tyler will have populated an entire imaginary state of Maryland with odd people about whom you are obliged to care because their oddities are what we see at an angle in the mirror in the middle of a bad night—what we might have been, what we want to be, what we should have refrained from becoming. She is a witch. (p. 206)

Miss Tyler, witty, civilized, curious, with her radar ears and her quill pen dipped on one page in acid and on the next in orange liqueur, is asking whether art is adequate to the impersonations life insists on, death absolves. She is a wonderful writer. (p. 207)

John Leonard, "'Morgan's Passing'," in The New York Times, Section 111 (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 17, 1980 (and reprinted in Books of the Times, Vol. 111, No. 5, 1980, pp. 206-07).

A. G. Mojtabai

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Morgan's Passing" is a narrative replete with colorful and idiosyncratic detail, precise in its tenderness. And yet, for all its intentness of specification, the book—like its subject, Morgan Gower—eludes and continues to elude one. The reader stalks Morgan as Morgan stalks Emily and, always, Morgan is just barely out of reach, turning the corner or dipping into some doorway or flattening against a wall, as fugitive and remittent as the refrain from a song one can't forget yet can't quite remember….

[The] novel demands something deeper—not explanation, exactly, but penetration, a sense of intimate particularity. Morgan is so intriguing that he cries out for capture, an act of imaginative possession. What we have are suggestions—scattered moments and the blur of passage. Morgan remains a problem, and Anne Tyler's relation to Morgan is perhaps part of the problem. She seems at once too casually fond of Morgan to subject him to a truly loving, yet deeply probing scrutiny, and too beguiled by his disorderly charm to give us any outside perspective on him. (p. 14)

There is much to praise in Anne Tyler's eighth novel. This might have been the story of a midlife crisis, a familiar tale, with steady, reliable associations, however tormented; but Miss Tyler chose instead to depict an unfamiliar state of continual crisis, a condition for which there exist no charts or manuals ready to hand. And Miss Tyler has scrupulously adhered to a moderate tone, shunning sensationalism and easy emotion. Yet there is a cost. Intimacy and anguish are stinted in this novel and the loss is felt. The author's undeniable skill and her level of engagement seem at odds here. The title "Morgan's Passing" may well be a play on "passing on,"… but there are too many laughs all around and the sense of the book is of Morgan always just passing by, gliding by, far too blithely. (p. 33)

A. G. Mojtabai, "A State of Continual Crisis," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 23, 1980, pp. 14, 33.

James Wolcott

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Like a sentry or a detective, Anne Tyler seems to notice everything: the pale fluorescent gloom of laundromats, pockets filled with lint-covered jellybeans, the smell of crabcakes and coconut oil on a Delaware beach, grapy veins in the calves of middle-aged mothers. As a chronicler of domestic fuss, Tyler can be compared to John Updike…. In Tyler's work, however, everything is scuffed-up and comfortably lived-in; "Wash Me" is written into the dust. Her characters are fraying at the edges, strays and daydreamers sunk in their own reveries. Circumstances prick them awake, and like the dolls Tyler describes at the end of Earthly Possessions they share a look of bewildered surprise, "as if wondering how they got here."…

Like Earthly Possessions, Morgan's Passing is a misfit romance. In Earthly Possessions, the misfits—a bank robber, his hostage, and the robber's seventeen-year-old knocked-up sweetheart—drove past Tastee Freeze after Tastee Freeze on their getaway spree. Short in length and detail, the streamlined novel covered a lot of turf…. By comparison, Morgan's Passing is a book of small compass, pent-up energy. Long before Morgan and Emily link arms, the reader has connected the dots separating them, so there's no suspense, no surprise…. Sentence by sentence, the book is engaging, but there's nothing beneath the jokes and tussles to propel the reader through these cluttered lives. It's a book...

(The entire section is 450 words.)

John Updike

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The only question remaining about Anne Tyler's] talent is: Will it ever, in its scintillating display of plenitude, make a dent as deep in our national self-awareness and literature as that left by the work of O'Connor, and Carson McCullers, and Eudora Welty? For Anne Tyler, in her gifts both of dreaming and of realizing, evokes comparison with these writers, and in her tone and subject matter seems deliberately to seek association with the Southern ambience that, in less cosmopolitan times, they naturally and inevitably breathed. Even their aura of regional isolation is imitated by Miss Tyler as she holds fast, in her imagination and in her person, to a Baltimore with only Southern exits, her characters, when they...

(The entire section is 694 words.)