Thursday, March 11, 2010

Anne Tyler

So, let’s be more positive. Anne Tyler – why is she so good?

I think this is quite an interesting question. I think we all find that our piffle detectors work quite well – Jodie Picoult yes, Anne Tyler no – but I personally sometimes find it difficult to work out exactly what tips a novel over into the piffle area. JP writes very fluently; it’s not that she’s not articulate. Her novel has a plot, quite a complicated one. Why is AT wonderful and JP pot-boilerish?

In my opinion, Anne Tyler’s novels convince because they deal with ordinary people who have little quirks which one has come across or could imagine that one might. These characters would be interesting even without a plot, but they usually find themselves in just slightly unusual situations and the reader is intrigued to know what will happen. There are few deaths in her novels (though I can think of a couple); no car chases; no murders or transplants or anything hugely dramatic; and that’s how I like my books. But there are plots, and these plots play out according to the characters’ personalities.

One of my favourite of her novels is “A Patchwork Planet”. The main character and narrator, Barnaby Gaitlin, is about 30 and considers himself the black sheep of his family. Never having been a man, I’m perhaps no judge, but his voice convinces me. He seems to think and speak as such a man might. He’s no saint but he’s an amusing and sympathetic character, often speaking colloquially (he calls someone a “lamebrain”, for instance) but sometimes using vivid descriptions – as when he describes an old lady who’s carrying a small dog “folded over her arm like a waiter’s napkin”.

The unusual aspect of the Gaitlin family is that it’s a very wealthy one – maybe something like a minor version of the Carnegies or the Rockefellers. Their wealth derives from a supposed visit by an angel to Barnaby’s great-great-grandfather to give him advice. The result is that he decided to make his woodenware factory manufacture a hugely successful mannequin called the Twinform - for women to try new outfits on, to see which combinations of clothes and accessories go together.

How did Anne Tyler think this up? This seems to me like real imagination - not just looking in the newspaper to find a current topic which might be exploited.

Barnaby is beginning to think that he should make something of his life, and the novel covers a year in which he makes a stab at changing things. He comes across one of these Twinforms manufactured by his family’s firm, and this becomes a symbol of change – just as women stood back and looked at a new version of themselves, in a new outfit, Barnaby looks metaphorically at himself and his life and decides to remake himself.

He works for an agency called Rent-a-Bak, which people can call up if they want someone with a bit of muscle to shift things around the house. (If only this existed in Edinburgh.) He is anxious (for various reasons) to be trusted, and obviously this is relevant to his job as well as other areas. A lot revolves round the agency – his co-worker is a main character, his boss helps bring about change in Barnaby, his clients come into the story too and prove that they trust him. The other main factor in his life is his family, particularly his mother, who married from a humble background into this wealthy and confident dynasty and who is desperate to conform – and for Barnaby to conform.

I realise that this sounds a bit far-fetched – angels and Twinforms and fortunes. But the characters are totally convincing in their reactions to these admittedly odd situations. Barnaby, for example, sees the angel thing as being eye-rollingly characteristic of his tedious family – and yet he wistfully half-believes that if only he could find his angel, he could be guided to a better way of life. Wouldn’t we all like an angel to wander past from time to time and tell us what we should do?

Anne Tyler prepares so beautifully for everything; it all slots neatly into the structure. And she requires her readers to pay attention. For example, Barnaby tells us early on about a Shakespeare sonnet which is never mentioned again till all of a sudden he speaks a line from it and it tells us exactly what he’s thinking about another character. And there’s a scene near the beginning that takes place at Baltimore Station – and this part of the story doesn’t seem to go anywhere. Until the end, when it suddenly – wonderfully – comically – does. I just love the sense of planning. Characters don’t wander randomly in and out; they work for their places in the novel by having a vital part either in the plot or the characterisation.

I love the way she plays with the reader. At first, Barnaby sounds rather creepy. Then you realise that he’s actually quite good-hearted. Then suddenly she makes him say, “Back in the days when I was a juvenile delinquent…” and you start wondering about him again. I love her little human truths: one client gets Barnaby to haul her Christmas tree down from the attic on New Year’s Eve because her grandchildren are coming and she wants the house to look festive, and Barnaby instantly understands – grandchildren are so important among his older clients. And at one point someone tells an old lady that she looks “youthful” and she thinks for a moment that he said “useful” and is thrilled – because one of the sad things about old age is that we no longer do feel useful.

And I like the way it finishes. Barnaby has moved on to some extent and it looks as if – well, I won’t say what – is going to happen. But things might go a different way. The ends aren’t quite all tied up; some of them are loosely looped and…

One of the reasons why I’m so interested in what differentiates commercial piffle – which may be good in its way – from storytelling that really grabs you is that from time to time in recent years I’ve had little goes at writing novels and then abandoned them because they seem to me to be coming out much nearer the piffle end of the spectrum. And I can’t quite work out how that happens. I’d much rather be Anne Tyler.

Though I’m sure Jodi Picoult is very rich…


  1. Yes, piffle does seem to sell, doesn't it? JP is probably more wealthy than AT. Very sad. I think many people have short attention spans and they need the dramatic to immediately suck them in or they give up.

    For me, the big difference (but not the only one) between piffle and good literature, is the style. The beautifully written sentences and use of words. And I LOVE a novel that will really make me think!

  2. One of Anne Tyler's books (Back When We Were Grownup, I think) caught my eye in the bookshop the other day. It looked intriguing on a quick flick through the pages. With your recommendation here, I shall chase some of her books up through our local library (wonderful place!); I'll let you know how I find them.
    I did agree with your comments on Jodi Picoult - I haven't been able to get past the first chapter in any ofher books yet. Maybe that just shows a lack of stamina in my character! I know a lot of people do really enjoy her books.

  3. I love Anne Tyler too; my favourite has to be Saint Maybe, which I know is taught in high schools and has, perhaps, become a bit mainstream. Still, it resonates with me because there's a bit of my life in it in some way (it would take much too long to explain it here).

    The big difference between piffle and non-piffle, in my opinion, is sensationalism. Piffle-authors exaggerate events and overdramatize them to capture the reader's attention. Good authors don't need to do this. Their writing style, the truthfulness of their characters and the solidity of plot achieve that aim sufficiently.

    The only JP book I've read was Her Sister's Keeper, and only because some of my colleagues raved about it. I won't be reading another by her.

  4. Wonderful review! You must read The Story Sisters and tell me what you think. I liked it very much, and I don't read many novels--mostly non-fiction these days. I also loved Tyler's Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. As for Jodi Picoult, I could never get past the blurb on the flyleaf. Y'all have convinced me that I shouldn't bother.

  5. What a thoughtful review. I am going to find an Anne Tyler book to read. I wonder if they are available on Kindle.

  6. This is going to send me back to Anne Tyler - I haven't read anything by her for a longish while, and I haven't read 'A Patchwork Planet'. I've always admired her writing from a man's point of view and her tightly crafted plots. I think the real skill of a writer is to make the unlikely and unrealistic believable, rather than immersing us always in the less palatable and dreary everyday existence. Piffle novels often rely on unlikely coincidence to further their plot whilst trying to convince us that these sort of things happen everyday by building on an idea, as you say, picked up from a newspaper. Not everything we read for pleasure has to be socially relevant. I feel a bit the same about the wealth of children's literature that deals constantly with divorce, step-families etc. Yes they have a place, but so does sheer fanatasy and comic writing.
    I love the idea of an angel handing out advice - we could all do with one of those!

  7. When I go to the library and find a book by AT that is new to me, I smile and know just what I am going to do when I get it home.

    Have also started re-reading all of Mary Wesley's books. Another author with a beautiful turn of phrase and quirky characters.

  8. Isabelle, what a wonderful piece of analysis you have given us. I had already been to the library and have borrowed the Amateur Marriage, and now am about to go off to the market and the second hand book dealers to see what else I can find by Anne Tyler. You have identified (along with other things) the fundamental necessity of truth in fiction - whether it be light or serious - which makes us believe in what is on the page, and care about what happens. Thank you.

  9. O adore Anne Tyler. She is one of those writers whose characters remain in my mind for such a long time, the things they do.
    The terrible thing for me, reading this, is how quickly I forget chunks of her books. And their titles. Its scary!
    Forget feeling useless, i am feeling witless.

  10. I had a friendly neighbour once who, after we moved away, went on to become a very successful writer of Romance novels, a genre which makes me cringe. While I am happy for her about her success, I would not want to have my name on such novels, no matter how wealthy it made me! I'll take Anne Tyler any day over the JPs of the world!

  11. Since I last commented on this post, I've read Tyler's Noah's Compass, and insist that you read it, too. I'm still thinking about it, and how Tyler can make characters and situations that have nothing to do with us (it seems) resonate so strongly with our hearts and minds and memories.