16 December 2012

Anne Tyler: Morgan's Passing (1980)

A major theme of Anne Tyler's Morgan's Passing is the gulf between appearance and reality, which runs everywhere in the book, but especially in the protagonist Morgan Gower, who regularly looks at his fancy dress wardrobe and tries to decide who he's going to be that particular day: a soldier, a sailor, a river boat gambler, a whaling ship harpooner? Morgan lives in chaos – largely the chaos of his own identity – with wife Bonny and his seven daughters.

There are many interesting sentences and phrases here, such as in this description of Morgan's everyday reality: 'He felt he was riding something choppy and violent, fighting to keep his balance, smiling beatifically and trying not to blink'. Generically, he seems to come from the same cast as Jeremy Pauling in Celestial Navigation, only instead of suffering from geographical dyslexia he has what might be described as existential dyslexia. When Kate, his youngest, plucks his hat off, is she removing the guise and allowing him to see himself in a truer aspect, are the real father and real daughter meeting each other briefly? If so, maybe that's why he fleetingly thinks of having yet another baby, perpetuating the chaos but paradoxically holding things together more: is that wallowing in turmoil, or fending off an unknown enemy, or both at the same time? And some people – Tyler included – see her work as milk and cookies? I really don't understand.

Then there are Tyler's usual social dysfunctions, like Morgan's father killed himself during Morgan's adolescence for no apparent reason; Morgan's sister Brindel (who is autistic, perhaps) lives with them because she split up from her husband, and although she later leaves the family for an earlier lover, she leaves him too to re-join the Gowers as the former lover is only in love with her former self: how she seemed then. It's no accident that after Morgan sees a movie it doesn't seem realistic because 'Everyone had been so sure of what everyone else was going to do [...]. Didn't B ever happen instead of A, in these people's lives?'.

Morgan (who somehow gets away with not seeming to be as spooky as he at first appears) stalks Emily and her husband Leon, who seem to live an antithetical existence to his, their lives seeming to be mapped out, although their happy marriage is not as happy as it appears.

The Gower family, it perhaps goes without saying, are bad drivers, and there is the occasional hint of absurdity on the surface, which on reflection isn't as absurd as it seems:

'"Do you like Tolstoy?"
"Oh yes, we have it in leather."'.

Eventually, Morgan gets Emily – a girl who's old enough to be his daughter – pregnant, and in so doing splits up both of the families. And the title comes from a personal notice in the local paper that Bonny rather disturbingly inserts, about the death of Morgan, only in reality she knows he's very much alive.

This is one of the funniest (and at the same time one of the most disturbing) novels of Tyler's I've read so far, making it my fourteenth and still counting.

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: 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)

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