2 March 2012

Ann Tyler: The Accidental Tourist (1985)

This is the story of Macon Leary, whose wife Sarah leaves him not very long after their son Ethan has been shot through the head for no reason. He eventually gets together with Muriel, then goes back to Sarah, then back with Muriel again. In between we meet Macon's siblings, learning about their missing compasses, and about their absurd reluctance to use the telephone.

The absurd raises its head early in The Accidental Tourist, and page three plunges us into almost Beckettian territory when the Learys cut short a week at the beach to drive back to Baltimore, and on the way Sarah recalls saying to her husband, 'Macon, now that Ethan's dead I sometimes wonder if there's any point to life', and Macon had replied: 'Honey, to tell the truth, it never seemed to me there was all that much point to begin with'. But then, as a writer of travel guides who hates travel, absurdity for Macon more or less comes with the territory.

Macon's idea of smooth travel is being at no risk of communicating with anyone while traveling, of making the journey seem seamless. Books can serve as protection against strangers, and he has for years taken on his professionally necessary travels the novel Miss MacIntosh, My Darling by Marguerite Young, which the Dalkey Archive Press describes as a book 'of the road, a journey or voyage of the human spirit in its search for reality in a world of illusion and nightmare', adding that 'in prose of extraordinary richness [Young] tests the nature of her characters—and the nature of reality'. It also favorably compares the novel to Melville's Moby-Dick.

Macon, along with his two brothers and his sister — and also Tyler herself — all suffer from 'geographic dyslexia', and it now seems to me that probably Macon is the character the author has said she 'donated' this affliction to rather than Jeremy Pauling in Celestial Navigation (see my post here. Nevertheless, the differences and the similarities between Macon and Jeremy are very striking. Jeremy has a very advanced case of geographical dyslexia, which manifests itself in an inability to step beyond the block, or even answer the door or the phone, without experiencing some (often very profound) degree of anxiety, whereas Macon travels the world but at the same time screens himself from it by essentially ignoring it, by retreating into habit, cosiness, the familiar. As the title The Accidental Tourist suggests, the journey is peripheral to the purpose, just a necessary but loathesome burden between two points. Macon abstracts, or absents, himself from unfamiliar aspects of the outside world as a coping mechanism. It's significant, after his temporarily incapacitating fall, that he wonders if he's engineered it so that he can return to the comfort zone of his siblings.

When Macon's sister Rose thinks that she doesn't know a family more conventional than the Learys, the narrator, responding through Macon's thoughts, says: 'This was perfectly true, and yet in some odd way it wasn't. Macon couldn't explain it.' I feel much the same way about Tyler's novels, which seem normal on the surface, but lurking underneath are all kinds of strange creatures.

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: Celestial Navigation (1974)
Anne Tyler: Earthly Possessions (1977)
Anne Tyler: Morgan's Passing (1980)
Anne Tyler: Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982)
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)

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