17 February 2012

Anne Tyler: A Patchwork Planet (1998)

'I just can't stand to be one of those artificial fathers [...] with those busywork visits to zoos and smalltalk suppers at McDonald's', says Jesse in Breathing Lessons, but that's what Barnaby Gaitlin is (only it's a walk in the park and burger and fries at Little Pete's) in A Patchwork Planet, and the novel begins with him waiting at Baltimore railroad station for the 10:10 to Thirtieth Street Station, Philadelphia to spend the day with Opal, his daughter by his ex-wife Natalie. Barnaby believes he gives Opal 'a sense of whatchamacallit. Connection', and one of Anne Tyler's principal concerns is connection, or the lack of it.

On one occasion, after Barnaby's mother slams the phone down on him because he says she looks better without her hair dyed, he says: 'Just because we were related didn't mean we were any good at understanding each other.'

Even the most basic form of communication can fail here. Grace Glynn, a client of Barnaby's, mishears his name as 'Bartleby', which is a nice touch: the black sheep of the family, the social code-breaker seen as Melville's anarchist.

Sometimes a kind of claustrophobia can result from social difficulties.
 On the journey home from Thanksgiving dinner with Barnaby's relatives, Sophia can't understand why he (a poorly paid helper) didn't accept his mother's offer of taking back the large loan he's repaid, and he can't understand why she won't pick up the money Sophia's left at her aunt's in the mistaken belief that Barnaby stole it from her. He says: 'I grew extremely conscious of how closed in we were.'

The novel also begins and ends with Barnaby's sentence 'I am a man you can trust', the second sentence being written in a note he's written in an envelope with Sophia's money, which he imagines her opening in Philadelphia station. The sentence is preceded by 'Sophia, you never did realize'. 'Realize', of course, is very similar to 'understand', but I'm not at all convinced that Barnaby understands, as he still seems reluctant to relinquish the self-destruct button.
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: The Accidental Tourist (1985)
Anne Tyler: Breathing Lessons (1988)
Anne Tyler: Ladder of Years (1995)
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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