As I mentioned at the start of this project, the original impetus came from a Facebook meme that challenged me to name ten personally influential authors as quick as could, tapping into the literary stream of consciousness that flows through my noggin. (The sandbars are comprised of all the books I’ve regretfully bypassed over the years.) The first ten entries that will be appear under the My Writers banner are in the order that I came up with them given the prompt. I bring up this tedious bit of background as a way of noting that it’s no coincidence whatsoever that Anne Tyler is presented right after Margaret Atwood. I stand by my previous assertion that Atwood was the author who introduced me to novels for and about grown-ups, but Tyler emerged as a major presence on my bookshelf at almost the exact same time. If anything, her commitment to depicting grave maturity in her work was even more striking, moving and enveloping.
To continue the comparison–and to use a term I don’t especially like but is far too apt to bypass in this instance–Atwood may have written about adulthood, but Tyler wrote about old souls. Though I was still relatively young while first reading this books, Tyler’s view of adulthood always seemed a little more distant, weighed down by responsibilities and disappointments. Even her youthful characters were somehow mired in the stasis of middle age. Saint Maybe, her 1991 novel, encompasses this perfectly. Ian Bedloe, the story’s protagonist, is only seventeen-years-old at the start of the book, but he is making highly fraught, very mature decisions that wind up saddling him with the burden of a life made full with obligations before he’s even begun to figure out who he is and where he should be going. Tyler’s primary mode centers on a quiet existential agony that manifests as tepid melancholy. Her territory is the plain and ordinary, but she sees the emotional complications that underlie all the interactions that take place there. Even when her characters go on quests–such as Delia Grinstead walking out on her family to strike out with a new life in 1995’s Ladder of Years–it looks an awful lot like standing in place.
Appropriately, Tyler documents this all with a calm, straight-laced style. There are no florid flights of description in her books, which, after all, would only serve to glamorize the manifestly normal lives she depicts. I don’t mean to imply that her prose is dull. It is piercing, unhurried, precise and elegant. She is never intrusive, choosing instead to carefully carry the impressions and dashed hopes of her characters to the reader, like shallow saucers filled with a rare elixir. There’s a tremendous, admirable modesty to Tyler as a writer, a overwhelming sense that she’s following a tender calling rather than bestowing great art on the word with feigned magnanimity. She may be one of the only fiction writers with a Pulitzer Prize sitting somewhere among her belongings who never entertained pompous aspirations of writing The Great American Novel.
It was Breathing Lessons, the novel that won her that Pulitzer, that was my first encounter with Tyler. It may have been the ideal beginning, the focused tale of Ira and Maggie Moran, a married couple on the road because of a funeral in a different city. The rolling confinement naturally brings up discussions of all the things that are concerning them, individually and as a well-worn partnership. The seeming narrowness of the storyline gives way to the vast concerns of everyday people, the nicked history of shared life exposed in all its intricacy. I’m not sure if it’s Tyler’s best novel (if pressed, I’d probably opt for Saint Maybe), but it’s probably the one the best exemplifies her unique skill as a writer: an abiding empathy that is tinged by the most kindhearted cynicism possible. She opens up whole worlds by focusing on the parts–and especially the people–that too often get overlooked.