12 February 2012

Anne Tyler: Celestial Navigation (1974)

I read Anne Tyler's The Amateur Marriage (2004) sometime last week and was quite logically expecting to find a few similar themes in her much earlier novel Celestial Navigation; yes, certainly there are some there. In The Amateur Marriage Pauline Anton (incidentally a bad driver like Maggie Moran in Breathing Lessons (1988)) meets a rather bizarre death by driving the wrong way up an exit ramp, whereas in Celestial Navigation Laura's husband (a hemophiliac) has a similarly unusual death from a scratch after opening a can of Campbell's soup; running away from home (and here there are analogies with several Reynolds Price novels) is a feature in both books, major events being Lindy's escape in The Amateur Marriage and Mary Tell's walking out on Jeremy Pauling in Celestial Navigation, in which we also learn that Jeremy's father had, many years before, left the family home to 'take a breath of air' and never returned; and then there is the lack of communication, which is a major theme in the Tyler world.

I've already noted Michael's introversion in The Amateur Marriage, but Jeremy's is extreme. He lives such an intense interior existence that he often has only a passing acquaintance with the outside world. The novel – which has five different first-person narrators who describe Jeremy from the outside, plus one third-person narrator who describes him from the inside – begins (in Baltimore, as usual) with the death of his mother in her boarding house when he's 38 and has never lived anywhere else: in fact his mobility is now circumscribed by the block his house is on, he becomes overwhelmed if he moves outside it, and collapses onto the pavement.

In Separate Country: A Literary Journey Through the American South (London: Paddington Press, 1979), Paul Binding writes about his late 1970s interview with Anne Tyler, who was for many years married to the Iranian psychiatrist and novelist Taghi Modarressi until his death in 1997, and says that she feels some empathy with Jeremy, for whom everyday acts of communication with the outside world – such as answering the door or the telephone, purchasing from shops, even opening the mail or leaving the house – are frightening activities. His perception of the world is not dissimilar, say, to someone under the influence of LSD, and life is seen in a series of flashes that resemble a photograph, between which there are darknesses during which he thinks about the flashes, and then forgets what he's been thinking about. When asked something, his response is frequently left unfinished.

An epiphanic moment comes on the arrival of the 22-year-old boarder Mary Tell with her four-year-old child: she has left her husband and is in need of some kind of affection to which Jeremy responds. For the first time in his life he experiences love, and although the hurdles he has to overcome are difficult and many, after a seven-year gap in narrative Mary and Jeremy are described living as man and wife with several children.

But Jeremy is far from completely 'cured', although his attempts to communicate via his art achieve considerable albeit unwanted success. However, he obsessively withdraws into his art, neglects all else and even misses his wedding day, whereupon Mary leaves with the kids, and despite his colossal, courageous efforts to retrieve the relationship, he is too late.

This is haunting.

(Addendum: Interestingly, in An Anne Tyler Companion (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998), Robert W. Croft claims that the cooperative Quaker community in Celo, NC, where Tyler spent her early years and was mainly educated at home with her brother Ty, fostered an outsider's way of looking at the world. Croft states that Jeremy Pauling is 'closest to Tyler's own personality', but adds that she's far more socially 'adept and efficient'. Paul Bail's Anne Tyler: A Critical Companion (also published by Greenwood, in 1996) takes Tyler's The Clock Winder (published in 1972 and her first 'Baltimore' novel) as the point where more autobiographical elements come into play, citing Celestial Navigation as the most intensely autobiographical. Bail sees a tension in the novel between Jeremy and May that could be said to represent Tyler as a writer and as a mother respectively, which to me seems a rather bold thing to say. But then, Bail says Wendy Lamb quotes Tyler on the problem of writing Celestial Navigation: 'It took years and it made me sick all the way through.' This is powerful stuff, although in a 2004 email interview with Mel Gussow, Tyler states that none of her characters resembles her, but she thinks she 'once donated [her] geographical dyslexia to one of them'. Um.)

The links below are to Anne Tyler novels I've written posts on:

Anne Tyler: If Morning Ever Comes (1964)
Anne Tyler: The Tin Can Tree (1965)
Anne Tyler: The Clock Winder (1972)
Anne Tyler: Earthly Possessions (1977)
Anne Tyler: Morgan's Passing (1980)
Anne Tyler: Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982)
Anne Tyler: The Accidental Tourist (1985)
Anne Tyler: Breathing Lessons (1988)
Anne Tyler: Ladder of Years (1995)
Anne Tyler: A Patchwork Planet (1998)
Anne Tyler: Back When We Were Grownups (2001)
Anne Tyler: The Amateur Marriage (2004)
Anne Tyler: Digging to America (2006)
Anne Tyler: Noah's Compass (2009)
Anne Tyler: The Beginner's Goodbye (2012)
Anne Tyler: A Spool of Blue Thread (2015)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You are cheering for Mary and Jeremy all though... no, it has to have a sad ending! Knowing which, I would not have started reading this excellent book.