Monday, January 24, 2005

The Comic Characters of Author Anne Tyler

Book 7 of ’05: Morgan’s Passing by Anne Tyler.

I’ve been reading Anne Tyler’s novels for the past three decades. I stumbled onto her books as I made the transition from comic books and sci-fi to “serious” fiction. A treasure of modern American literature, Tyler has assembled an impressive and much-loved body of work.

I can’t think of the people in Tyler’s novels as characters. They seems more real, more genuine, than most fictional characters. Strangely enough, that’s because the people in her books, the families that inhabit the pages of her novels, are so odd, so out of step with the mainstream. Yet despite their quirkiness, Tyler's characters are endearing. We quickly develop an affection for them.

It is just as we take her characters to heart that Tyler introduces a heart-wrenching twist into the narrative. A husband cheats on his wife of many years. A child dies. A young woman finds herself impregnated by someone other than her husband. Then comes the resolution. It’s never thoroughly satisfying—not from the way it is written, mind you—but because the resolution is lumpy, crooked, uneven. It may be disturbing, not what we expected at all from these people at all. But there is comfort, too.

Tyler uses humor to underscore and emphasize the tragic. Her comic characters—who are never so broadly drawn as to be preposterous—punctuate the misfortunes and misjudgments that befall us all in life. And in that way, she binds us all together. Here, Tyler says, is life. It can be funny and foolish and a little screwball, but it is also piercingly sweet and delectably heart wrenching. Her characters, her novels, are funny the way life is funny—you laugh to keep from crying.

Three favorite passages:

"Morgan’s oldest daughter was getting married. It seemed he had to find this out by degrees; nobody actually told him. All he knew was that over a period of months one young man began visiting more and more often, till soon a place was set for him automatically at suppertime and he was consulted along with the rest of the family when Bonny wanted to know what color to paint the dining room. His name was Jim. He had the flat, beige face of a department-store mannequin, and he seemed overly fond of crew-necked sweaters.” (p. 97)

“The trouble with fathering children was, they got to know you so well. You couldn’t make the faintest little realignment of the facts around them. They kept staring levelly into your eyes, eternally watchful and critical, forever prepared to pass judgment. They could point to so many places where you had gone permanently, irretrievably wrong.” (p. 106)

“I used to think it was enough that I was loving; yes, I used to think at least I am a sweet and loving man, but now I see that it matters also who you love, and what your reasons are.” (p. 310)

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