At the beginning of her short story ‘Jakarta’, Alice Munro describes two young women who choose a spot on a beach because it’s sheltered and because ‘they want to be out of sight of a group of women who use the beach every day. They call these women the Monicas.’ The Monicas have two or three or four children apiece; they build a temporary domestic encampment on the beach (‘diaper bags, picnic hampers, inflatable rafts and whales, toys, lotions’); and their conversation revolves around the cheapest place to buy meat, the uses of zinc ointment, soda’s superiority to baking powder. Sonje and Kath don’t want to belong to the Monicas. In their hiding place, Kath smokes defiantly while she breastfeeds, and they read (in a nicely understated twist of self-reference) short stories by Katherine Mansfield and D.H. Lawrence. Sonje has lost her job at the library because she’s suspected of ‘Communism’.
There is an honourable tradition in English language fiction – in women’s fiction particularly – of narrative engagement with characters who don’t fit in, can’t conform, won’t join the friendly club of ordinary expectations. It goes back to Modernist alienation, to Katherine Mansfield and Jean Rhys’s lonely outsiders; or even further back to Maggie Tulliver’s haircut and Jane Eyre’s sitting with her book between the curtains and the window.
Anne Tyler, however, writes with intelligent and unapologetic enthusiasm about the Monicas. The heroine of The Amateur Marriage, her 16th novel, is absolutely ordinary. When we first meet Pauline in 1941 she’s a sweet, pretty girl who works as a receptionist in her father’s realty office; she goes into Michael Anton’s grocery store in the East Baltimore Polish district because she’s cut her head jumping off a moving streetcar in her haste to follow the parade of boys hurrying to enlist after Pearl Harbor. Under pressure from Pauline and from a euphoric collective excitement, Michael enlists, too. Pauline isn’t the least bit disaffected, or sceptical, or a misfit, and the novel (or at least Pauline’s half of it) concerns what becomes of sweet, ordinary, pretty girls in the long falling away from the splendid moment of their youth.
Pauline’s most splendid moment is when she comes running in her red coat to see Michael off after he enlists; she’s late, ‘gasping and tousle-haired and flushed’. The lateness, the scattiness, the emotional drama turn out to be characteristic, and will make Michael miserable later in his marriage to her; but, on this day, they’re part of her poetry. She’s not splendid because she’s special, but because she’s the living embodiment of every poignant story about young love: not just the stories she’s telling herself, but the stories everybody else is telling about her (this first chapter is narrated through the collective awareness of the women of the Polish district; afterwards – after Michael and Pauline move their family out to the new suburbs – the narrative retreats into the third person). ‘She was holding out her arms, and Michael dropped his belongings and started running too, and when they collided he swooped her up so her feet completely left the ground. Everybody said "Ah” in one long, satisfied sigh.’
One way of writing the apparent ‘ordinariness’ of lives is to find a language and imagery for what lies behind the conventional surface narrative of consciousness. Alice Munro’s misfits are by no means always articulate, but the characteristic movement of her writing is into the opacities of intuition. Anne Tyler, however, slips comfortably into indirect free style, into a language that might have been chosen by her characters themselves. We are eavesdropping on interior monologues rather than sharing the whole thickness of conscious awareness. There is a danger that the reader is in the close company of the slightly dull. And yet at its best – the scene, say, in which Michael bandages Pauline’s cut head in the grocery – the transparency of her narrative doesn’t seem banal. Pauline’s red coat and the cut (a ‘two-inch red line’) on her temple light the sexual flame that briefly transforms Michael’s colourless life.
Tyler is interested that a woman like Pauline might wear a red coat on a crucial day, and that such an accident could come to stand in the imagination of everyone involved for youthful vivacity and a bold seizing of life’s possibilities. She’s alive to the half-accidental poetry of everyday detail: the woman who when she heard about Pearl Harbor sat in the bathtub until the water got cold; Michael drying dishes after a row with Pauline, thoroughly polishing the bowl of each spoon before putting it away; the homey smell of fresh ironing on Pauline’s nightdress when she climbs into bed with Michael instead of going out to meet another man. She knows that serious things get expressed in non-literary, unsophisticated language (‘Well, just look at Davey Witt. Davey refused to sleep in a room alone now. Lord only knew what those poor boys had been through, so far away from Baltimore.’) She leaves the language transparent so that through it we can see with the same eyes as her protagonists. This is the reunion of Michael with his mother after he’s been invalided out of the army:
Long, long afterward, reminiscing together about how oddly exhilarating those hard, sad war years had been, more than one of the women privately summoned the picture of Michael Anton and his mother hugging on the sidewalk while Pauline watched, smiling, tipping slightly backward against the weight of his bag.
This is meant to sound slightly sentimental. The novel is full of people’s sentimentalities (particularly Pauline’s): they’re part – but only part – of how her characters hold their lives together and understand themselves.
This isn’t a sentimental book, however. In fact it’s disconcertingly, even desolatingly, unsentimental. Michael never goes overseas and is invalided out of the army in less than a year, after being accidentally shot in the back during training. We later find out that he was actually shot in the buttocks, almost certainly deliberately, by a bunk-mate who disliked him. So much for romance, and for heroic sacrifice. Michael keeps the facts quietly to himself – although not secretively: he’s not particularly ashamed of it – and it’s characteristic of the way irony works in this novel, and in Tyler’s writing in general, that the less than glorious truth never becomes a means of overturning the conventional account of things.
The dissolving of Michael and Pauline’s romance happens over decades, through an accretion of small dissatisfactions. It doesn’t turn anyone into a misfit or a sceptic, or not that you’d notice. The two are simply temperamentally incompatible: her extravagant chatter and scene-making (‘Oh, Eustace’s feelings; yes, by all means let’s consider Eustace’s feelings – some old man who quote-unquote worked for you a million years ago. Never mind that I’ve got an entire enormous party on my hands and a three-year-old child underfoot’) jars against his stolid, reasonable reliability (‘So in terms of the children, in terms of their . . . oh, shall we say, recreational activities, I admit one could very well argue that . . .’). The gentle indulgence of the narrative voice makes the ungentle truths that it delivers, about the botched compromise of this ‘amateur’ marriage, all the more unsettling and interesting.
Moments of tenderness – of sentimentality, too; who can always tell the difference? – are no guarantee of happy endings, or even of resolution. The reader of this novel sprawled across half a century is left with two incompatible orders of truth: the truth of particular moments that feel in the instant of their happening like intimations of transcendent certainty; and the different truths delivered by passing time and change. On the night of Pauline’s 23rd birthday, after she’s run home to her parents, Michael comes after her and tells her: ‘“Of course I love you. I couldn’t not love you. I wouldn’t know how to not love you.” . . . He had the feeling that if he held his breath, the two of them could stay suspended for ever in this moment of stopped time.’ However, when on their 30th wedding anniversary Pauline fondly remembers the bandaging and the red coat, Michael says she is ‘hauling forth yet again the one and only peaceful moment the two of us ever experienced’. Pauline is taken aback:
‘So what if we fight a bit? I just think that proves we have a very spirited marriage, a marriage with a lot of energy and passion! I think it’s been a fun kind of marriage!’
But he said: ‘It has not been fun.’
She dropped her hand.
‘It’s been hell,’ he said.
She thought even as she was hearing the words that she was mishearing them. He couldn’t be saying what she thought he was, could he? And not even in the heat of battle! In a perfectly reasonable voice!
It is a gratifyingly space-clearing moment sweeping aside every hopeful thing this kindly, decent pair have lived by (and no small number of literary conventions of the domestic novel, too). The insight is ruthless.
Pauline shouts back at Michael: ‘If you’re so miserable, leave! If I make you so unhappy. If your life is such a torment. Go! What are you waiting for?’ Michael does just that. He marries – in his fifties – the duller and steadier friend who was always more suited to him. Pauline tries to keep her loneliness at bay by bothering her family to fix her plumbing, and by dating widowers who talk about their late wives’ seafood allergies and flower baskets, and come into Pauline’s house only for cocoa. Our last sight of her is when she wakes up alone at night, thinks gratefully for a moment that it’s morning, then realises that the light is only from the lamp she’s left switched on. When we learn in the last chapters that Pauline has died in a car crash, the news is both shocking and appropriate (well prepared for, too, by the descriptions of her driving). Her life had crashed. Nothing in the novel offers to redeem that everyday catastrophe.
Tyler’s work has been championed by Nick Hornby and Roddy Doyle, among others, as part of a case for the deep seriousness of domestic-realist novels, which are, it’s argued, sneerily sidelined as ‘middlebrow’ by a cultural establishment that values experimentation and philosophising above storytelling and mimetic truth-to-life. It’s true that ‘highbrow’ sometimes seems more of a style choice than evidence of higher-order intellectual engagement; and it’s irritating when the gift of making an illusion of life on the page is damned by faint praise.
In the past decade or so there has been some closing of the rift opened up by Modernism between the ‘literary’ and the ‘popular’ novel. Tyler herself doesn’t talk much about her work, although she has said that she hopes to be ‘considered a serious writer. Not necessarily important, but serious.’ This modesty translates in her novels into an intense concentration on her imagined characters and their lives. (‘A serious book,’ she says, ‘is one that removes me to another life as I am reading it.’) At moments the effect of her concentration is almost trance-like. This is Ben Joe trying to get to sleep in If Morning Ever Comes:
He pushed his eyes shut; they popped open again. He turned on his back and looked at the ceiling and switched the room upside-down, picturing the furniture hanging from the ceiling and the light fixture sticking straight up from a bare and peeling plaster floor. To go out of the room, he must reach up an unusual height to the white china doorknob, and when the door was opened he must step over a two-foot threshold of striped wallpaper onto the chandeliered floor of the hallway.
In writing so absorbed there’s always the danger of drowning the reader in too much detail. This is from The Amateur Marriage:
This morning he planned to buy window caulking. It was a more entertaining errand than some others. Hearing Anna remark last night upon the draft from the sitting-room window, he had felt a quickening of enthusiasm. Now he reviewed the possibilities. Rope putty? Strips of felt? Or should he go for the more professional approach and buy an actual caulking gun?
There are places in The Amateur Marriage where the narrative comes close enough to real-life ennui to bring on twinges of impatience. But they are rare: the inventory, for example, is put together with humour (it’s perfectly timed, that ‘quickening of enthusiasm’).
Tyler is indefatigably inventive: there seems no end to the stories she can make up. Her tone doesn’t vary much, but her plots do: in Celestial Navigation a lonely artist acquires a happy family that stops him working; in Breathing Lessons the wife of a minister is taken hostage in a bank robbery; in Saint Maybe a young man imagines he has caused his brother’s death; in Ladder of Years a forty-year-old wife and mother leaves her family on the beach, and makes a new life for herself. The details are as well dreamed-up as the big stories: a woman responds to last week’s messages on the answerphone, thinking they’re new; a chequered rug in a student apartment is set out with tiny plastic chess pieces; Pauline and Michael’s children speak in French on the night their sister disappears. Attention catches on fragments as good as these on every page, used with a light touch, never portentous.
If she has themes, they never become merely routine. She writes well about women who find themselves too much identified with their family role; but she’s also good on the surprising cruelty of nice women’s thoughts. She seeks out the cracks in ordinariness: intuitions of disaster (Michael’s brother falling to his knees in the street, a first sign of the illness that will kill him); flashes of loathing between people generally concerned for one another’s welfare. Occasionally the voice is a touch cute, or a touch homiletic – reminding us that this work derives from, among its other honourable ancestors, the domesticities of Little Women and Good Wives – but mostly its cosinesses are viewed from a sceptical distance. Relationships are as radically unstable as perception is; resolutions are provisional.
There is a resolution of sorts beyond Pauline’s car crash in The Amateur Marriage. In the last paragraphs, Michael, who has been much happier in his second marriage and has never regretted leaving Pauline, suddenly remembers her with a flash of love:
He could almost pretend to himself that Pauline had still been alive all this time, pursuing her own routine in her own corner of the world . . . When his footsteps drew closer – their familiar, uneven rhythm – she would stop work to listen, and when he came into view she would straighten, shading her eyes with one hand. ‘Is it you?’ she would ask. ‘It’s you! It’s really and truly you!’ she would cry, and her face would light up with joy.
It’s too unexpected – and too late – to be sentimental; it doesn’t change anything, or make anything that’s happened all right. The novel asks what it means if love, tested over time, doesn’t last. At its end Tyler asserts the enduring value of imagination, which can recover the power of feelings otherwise decayed and lost in time.