If I could write fiction like any author, I’d want to write like Anne Tyler. The first Tyler novel I ever read was Saint Maybe, which my sister checked out of the Colegio Bolivar library. It’s the same copy I have with me now; I guess one of us in an act out of an audacious sense of entitlement must have stolen it. If you look at the little flap of paper in the back (how old-fashioned and antique that seems now!), where the librarian would stamp the due date under FECHA DE VENCIMIENTO, the earliest date is 24 March 1998—more than ten years ago! Next to the due date we were supposed to write the grade we were in (who knows why), so there is also a historical record of the changes in my sister’s handwriting as well as mine. The small squat sixes of sixth grade, the taller and more elegant eights of eighth grade. A single thin nine. I guess it was after ninth grade, once we realized that we were the only people checking the book out, over and over again, that we decided that we were the proper owners of the book. Sorry, Bolivar library, forgive us! If it’s any consolation/defense, it has definitely found a loving home in our bookshelves.
I started re-reading Anne Tyler at exactly the right time. I’ve been sick since Sunday with an upper respiratory tract infection. TMI Warning I’ve been producing all this absolutely grotesque green phlegm, with the consistency of yogurt End TMI. It’s equal parts fascinating and disgusting—I am kind of amazed that something like this could come out of my body. On Friday night I took some Dayquil, drank some Visoda and bravely went out on the town with Corey for a birthday night of dancing at the 80’s dance night at the Crystal Ballroom. In the middle of “Burning Down the House,” I slipped on a puddle of water and dislocated my left knee, the same knee I’ve been injuring chronically since high school. This is at least the fourth time it’s been sprained. It’s much better today than yesterday, but it still feels weird, all stretched and unsteady. I’m taking Matt’s joints rehabilitation vitamin pills and icing it a lot. I can sort of hobble now, which is a big improvement.
Thus it feels like subconscious psychic foreshadowing on my part that I had the foresight to check out all these Tyler novels last week, like The Accidental Tourist and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. I re-read Tourist , lived vicariously through Macon’s injury and recovery and am now plunging eagerly through Dinner, which I’m not sure if I’ve ever read completely. I have this weird deja-vu feeling reading it, so I’m thinking that maybe I started reading it at some point, but just never finished.
There is something so wonderful and comforting about an Anne Tyler novel. When I’m keeping an injured leg elevated about heart level to encourage reduced swelling while reaching for the roll of toilet paper and hacking my guts out, I can’t think think of any other author I’d rather read. “The perseverance of human beings suddenly amazed him,” realizes one of the characters in Dinner. It’s this perseverance and doggedness that Tyler is particularly skilled at highlighting. Or as a character in Tourist observes,
‘You ever wonder what a Martian might think if he happened to land near an emergency room? He’d seen an ambulance whizzing in and everybody running out to meet it, tearing the doors open, grabbing up the stretcher, scurrying along with it. ‘Why,’ he’d say, what a helpful planet, what kind and helpful creatures.’ He’d never guess that we’re not always that way; that we had to, oh, put aside our natural selves to do it. ‘What a helpful race of human beings,’ a Martian would say. Don’t you think so?’
It’s just really nice to read books about people who are genuinely trying to be good, even if their actions don’t always make it seem that way. Tyler has a lot of love for her characters and it shines through in a way that makes me think of that famous quote about Salinger, that he loved his characters more than God loved them. (Further research led me to learn that this quote was by John Updike, and was meant as a criticism of Salinger. I never liked your writing anyway, Updike.)
Saint Maybe particularly hit home for me at this point in my life, mainly because it’s about a character who spends most of the book taking care of children who are not his own. Ian’s wry observations about taking care of children had me nodding my head vigorously, yes, yes:
He wondered how people endured children on a long-term basis—the monotony and irritation and confinement of them.
You could never call it a penance, to have to take care of these three. They were all that gave his life color, and energy, and… well, life.
It wasn’t easy. A lot of it was just plain boring. Just providing a warm body, just being there; anyone could have done it. And then other parts were terrifying. Kids get into so much! They start to matter so much. Some days I felt like a fireman or a lifeguard or something—all that tedium, broken up by little spurts of high drama.
The other part of the book that drew a straight line between my heart and the pages were the sections about the incertitude of knowing. A lot of the book is about learning how people who seem to “know all the answers” really, well, don’t. In fact, nobody does. Understanding the meaning of someone or something in your life is eventually understood as something that’s ultimately impossible to do:
Apparently, he thought, there were some people in this world who simply never came clear. Reverend Emmett, Mr. Brant, the overlapping shifts of foreigners… In the end you had to accept that the day would never arrive when you finally understood what they were all about. For some reason, this made him supremely happy.
It’s the “happy” part that’s key. Ian’s main conflict in this book is kicked off by the “arrogant certitude” with which he informs his brother that his wife is cheating on him. At the time, he feels like he definitively “knows” this as a fact, but over time he has to admit that no, he really doesn’t know it at all. More than anything else, this book seems to me now to be about surrendering that need for possessive control, to “know” how things are and how things are going to turn out. In the opening pages, Ian is described as someone who is always imaginng his life as seen from a distance, as observed by an outsider:
There were moments when he believed that someday, somehow, he was going to end up famous. Famous for what, he couldn’t quite say; but he’d be walking up the back steps or something and all at once he would imagine a camera zooming in on him, filming his life story. He imagined the level, cultured voice of his biographer saying, ‘Ian climbed the steps. He opened the door. He entered the kitchen.’
This passage really hit home for me with a particularly sharp pang because I used to do the same thing as a really little kid. I’d make lists of all the novels I was going to write. Sitting on the toilet or high up in the mango tree in the yard, I’d talk to myself and answer questions about my life, pretending I was being interviewed on a talkshow or by a reporter. Yeah, I was a particulary imaginative kid, but more than that, I had this ambitious, feroscious drive in me that I had to *BE* someone, you know? My ego was a hungry-hungry-hippo, and it wanted to feed. It still does.
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about ego lately (thanks Siddhartha!). When you graduate from college, you’re really forced to think about what you want to do in a grandiose, epic fashion: “so are you going to be one of those people who are going to *BE* somebody??” the ego hungrily, greedily chatters at you. “You’re not just going to waste and fritter your days/years away, right? You’re going to *DO* something, right?? You’re going to be GREAT!!” Sometimes this voice is helpful, because it can drive you to do things you wouldn’t normally do. Other times, it can be quite exhausting. Your ego is always demanding knowledge, knowledge, knowledge, defitive plans, facts, schedules. Sometimes you just can’t have that in life, though.
In Saint Maybe, another one of the main lessons that Ian learns is about “leaning into his burden.” About viewing it as a gift, rather than a weight. This is the only life you’ll have. So you might as well not get stressed out about things, you know? Next week I won’t be working as a prestigious research assistant with a really important professor in a well-known university, but I will be building submaries with third graders. And for now, that’s enough. It’s enough for now to listen to Alex Murdoch’s “Orange Sky” and the Dixie Chicks’ “Travelin’ Soldier” on Corey’s pandora country music station and daydream about the piece of bread with melted cheese I’m about to get up and make myself in a minute. Maybe this afternoon I’ll work on some applications for some potentially cool summer/fall stuff. And maybe learn the Higitus Figitus.
“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.”
–T. H. White, The Sword in the Stone (found on Slate’s The Happiness Project blog, my latest fascination/addiction)