Her work, in spite of all the prizes, has sometimes been accused of cuteness or sentimentality—but her artful play with symbols suggests something more complex than thatby Benjamin Markovits / July 15, 2020 / Leave a comment
Anne Tyler has built a remarkably successful and steady career across almost six decades without having to adapt too much the narrative strategies that eventually produced her literary breakthrough in the early 1980s. If she’s had a late flowering (her novel A Spool of Blue Thread was shortlisted for the Booker in 2015—more than 30 years after her first Pulitzer nomination), it wasn’t, like Philip Roth in the 1990s, because she changed stride. On the BBC recently, she said: “I always say when I’m starting a book, ‘This one’s gonna be different.’ About halfway through, I say, ‘Oh, darn, it’s the same book over again.’” She writes about family life and the way you have to shape your personality to live with other people. These things change with the times but they don’t lose their importance. Her worldview may be reliably, even comfortably, old fashioned but it is still perfectly capable of processing new information.
Baltimore, where Tyler lives and where most of her stories are set, serves in her fiction as a kind of generic all-American town where, as she wrote in her 1982 masterpiece Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, the houses are “dark and deep and secretive.” But it’s also a specific hybrid—on the border between north and south, with a tradition both of moneyed gentility and a backcountry white working class. For the most part, though, her subject is not the majority-black city that Baltimore has become, with its deep problems: a shrinking population, and one of the highest homicide rates in the country. Her characters tend to be white and aspiring middle class and the problems they face are the inherent problems of family life: fighting between parents and kids, and trying to learn from your experience of one of those roles as you tackle the other.
For Jane Austen (Tyler often gets compared to her), the most interesting decision her characters could make was: who should I marry? And Austen realised that the moments leading up to that decision could provide, in novel after novel, both a narrative structure and a deep test of moral sensibility. As Ezra puts it in Dinner…