I don’t often use this word, but Anne Tyler is one of my favourite novelists. And one of the things I admire about her novels is that her characters are engaged in managing ordinary lives, and she continually challenge stereotypes, especially of the adult, male, American protagonist.
Another reason to reread The Accidental Tourist (1985) is that it seems to me to be an exception to the disappointment of film adaptations. Starring William Hurt and Geena Davis, this film captured Macon’s maladroitness as it is slowly smoothed out by Muriel’s openheartedness.
Macon Leary and his wife Sarah are trying to come to terms with the random murder of their teenage son. The novel starts with their early return from a holiday at the beach to Baltimore. Anne Tyler describes how they are sit and what they wear. ‘They might have been returning from two entirely different trips,’ she says. Such observations are one of the delights of reading Anne Tyler.
Macon is the author of series of guides for people forced to travel on business called Accidental Tourist in London, Paris, …
Macon hated travel. He careened through foreign territories on a desperate kind of blitz – squinching his eyes shut and holding his breath and hanging on for dear life, he sometimes imagined – and then settled back home with a sigh of relief to produce his chunky, passport-sized paperbacks.
I love the word ‘squinching’. This is pretty much his way of careening through life, the separation from his wife, the increasingly difficult behaviour of his dog and his inability to deal with his losses.
After breaking his leg in a self-induced accident, he returns to his childhood home, where his sister and brothers also live. As a family they have some interesting patterns of behaviour; they get lost whenever they venture into the streets of Baltimore, they never answer the phone and their favourite food is baked potatoes. In a kitchen scene Anne Tyler describes a particular kind of order that Rose observes:
Rose stood on a stepstool in front of a towering glass-fronted cupboard, accepting groceries that Charles and Porter handed up to her. “Now I need the n’s, anything starting with n,” she was saying.
“How about these noodles?” Porter asked. “N for noodles? P for pasta?”
“E for elbow macaroni. You might have passed those up earlier, Porter.”
Macon is rescued by Muriel, the dog trainer. Her life is chaotic, but she is open, generous, logical in her own way, and, as several people observe, unlikely. People will wonder about such an ill-matched couple, his wife tells him.
He felt a mild stirring of interest; he saw now how such couples evolved. They were not, as he’d always supposed, the result of some ludicrous lack of perception, but had come together for reasons that the rest of the world would never guess.
As readers, we do know that Muriel’s efforts, her persistence, her kindness are just what he needs, and by the end of the book, so does he. And in turn he will ground her.
In the very few interviews that she has agreed to, Anne Tyler asserts that she writes, not what she knows, but to see what it’s like to be inside someone else’s life. She asks the question, ‘what does it feel like to be this kind of someone?’ (Read Lisa Allardice’s Guardian interview and listen to Mark Lawson’s Radio 4 Front Row interview).
And she does it gently, wittily, wryly, in 19 novels. She says that she has to like her characters, and even when they are behaving in absurd ways, the reader recognises something of themselves, their fears or foibles: perhaps you don’t alphabetise your kitchen stores, but people do organise stuff in their homes in very particular ways (see book word post on arranging books here, for example). Macon’s strategies for coping with the exigencies of travel are only a little more idiosyncratic than yours or mine. We can’t help sympathising with the hapless Macon as he is assailed by grief, the departure of his wife, breaking his leg, a badly behaved dog and a dog trainer.
Families are another constant theme in her novels because, she says, people are forced together in them and she wants to know ‘how they grate along’. That theme can run and run. Your family probably has some rituals, sayings and episodes that you don’t boast about.
Is she a women’s writer? She has been accused of being sentimental, homely, homespun, even anti-men, but she has many male admirers, including John Updike. It is true that her male characters, including Macon, are quirky, ‘rather a forlorn bunch’. But they are not wimps, unpleasant, grasping or self-promoting. And Anne Tyler herself claims that growing up with a loving father and brothers and having had a good marriage, her experiences of men have been good. ‘Isn’t everybody quirky? If you look closely at anybody you’ll find impediments, women and men both.’