12 March 2012

Anne Tyler: Ladder of Years (1995)

When Delia and Joel are talking about the absence of words to express subtleties, Joel regrets that there's only one word to describe the various hues of freckles. He is of course expressing his love, his desire, for Delia, but in a tangential, restrained, although highly eloquent manner. This is typical of the whispered art of Anne Tyler: there is never any mention of penises or clitorides, vaginas, or ever nipples.

Sometimes, however, her restraint, her deliberate avoidance of saying things seems to fall flat, becomes unrealistic, particularly with her characters' use of interjections: expressions of disgust, anger, frustration, are always covered over by words like 'Cripes!', 'Hot dog!', 'Jiminy!', 'Gosh!', 'Sheesh!', 'Compost happens!', etc, all quaint euphemisms that have a hollow ring, that in no way match the gravity of the situation. Yes, this is (most probably) the early nineties and still Dr Samuel Grinstead rebukes his son for saying (gasp!) 'for Christ's sake!'. Compared with movie language (and we've moved light years away from the shock of the word 'damn' in Gone with the Wind), Tyler's novels are stuck in a distant past as far as interjections go. (Perversely, this can be as charming as it is annoying.)

And yet she's no wilting, schoolmarmish writer, she can be (and indeed often is) caustic, and her characters can lash out at the aural anesthesia of smalltalk or the safety valves of religion that automatically annihilate any attempts to delve into troubling, complex thoughts by their soothing, readymade, robotic reflexes.

Living with Sam and the kids, Delia sometimes felt 'like a tiny gnat, whirring around her family's edges', and certainly the bizarre newspaper article that announces her disappearance and that serves as an introduction to Anne Tyler's Ladder of Years strongly indicates someone almost incidental to the lives of her family: neither her husband nor her children can decide for sure on her height, weight, the color of her eyes or what she was wearing. So who can be surprised that, without a word, she has walked out of their lives. After about a year she walks into the life of Joel and his son Noah, but then in a few months walks out again, back into Sam's. I suppose I saw the end coming, but I can't say I'm too happy with it: so like other characters of Tyler's, was Delia trying on another life, or stepping outside of time a while? Sheesh!

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: 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)


Kathy Waller said...

Della had gone from being her father's receptionist to being her husband's receptionist, working in the same office, living in the same house, wearing the same style of clothes she wore as a very young woman, propping up husband and children but receiving complaints rather than respect. In her year away, she adopts a new persona--legal secretary in a gray (not pink and ruffled) dress, confident, free to create her own life without the past pulling at her back into old patterns. When she returns home, she brings a new independence and maturity, and her family really see her for possibly the first time.

That's my reading. As for Joel and Noah--I don't know what to think, and I'm disappointed that Delia would allow them to become so dependent on her and then just leave. And, as a panelist on NPR said many years ago, if a MAN had walked away from his family for a year and then walked back in as if nothing had happened, I would be incensed.

But no matter. Tyler's characters are so quirky and engaging, they can do what they want and I'll still love them. (By the way, if my son said, "for Christ's sake!" I would express disapproval. In my world, it's not a phrase you use in front of your elders or in polite company.)

Dr Tony Shaw said...

Point taken, Kathy, although - as you suggest - Della is very hard on Joel and Noah, playing with their emotions like that. And of course she's by no means the only character of Tyler's who leaves her family to try on a new life just like that.

Obviously, I love Tyler too, which is why I've gotten through fourteen of her novels and shall not rest until I finish the lot.

I'm still a little mystified about the importance of 'for Christ's sake!", though: it's not exactly blasphemous, after all.