One can say much in the first person, and during the last twenty years or so many American novelists have imagined they could say virtually anything. But the “I” presents problems, limits, unwonted consequences, too:
I was born right here in Clarion; I grew up in that big brown turreted house next to Percy’s Texaco. My mother was a fat lady who used to teach first grade. Her maiden name was Lacey Dabney.
This paragraph opens the second chapter of Anne Tyler’s Earthly Possessions, and it is very arch. What do I know about “that” house, or Clarion, or Percy, that I should be thus invited in; if I accept the invitation, what can I make of someone who calls her mother “a fat lady,” or who imagines, without seeming herself to care, that I need to know the fat lady’s maiden name? Nor do matters improve when she starts speaking of herself:
These were my two main worries when I was a child: one was that I was not their true daughter, and would be sent away. The other was that I was their true daughter and would never, ever manage to escape to the outside world.
Thus twelve years, or, as it turns out, thirty-five, of Charlotte Emory’s life are reduced to a cartoon, and by her own hand, the possible anguish is then lost.
If what Anne Tyler had intended were a cartoon, then all might be well; Thomas Berger works rather successfully with the first person and with such cartoon figures. But Tyler is not writing Who Is Teddy Villanova? or Portnoy’s Complaint or Why Are We in Vietnam? or other first-person extravaganzas. Earthly Possessions, at least in its best moments, is a straightforward realistic novel about Charlotte Emory’s abduction by Jake Simms, a pathetic young man who is trying to rob a bank just as Charlotte is standing in line to draw out her savings so she can at last leave home. The robbery fizzles, Simms takes Charlotte as hostage by bus to Baltimore and then by car to the South. All the coy parts of the novel, the writing that is at once glib and strained, come not in the story of the getaway but in alternating chapters which describe Charlotte’s past as one of the depressed and zany inmates of “that big brown turreted house.” To add to the awkwardness, Tyler won’t let Charlotte allude in the present to anything in her past until the retrospective chapters can explain the references.
We have had enough, perhaps, of titles like Earthly Possessions—Foreign Devils, Fear of Flying, End Zone—titles themselves arch, novels that even at their best deprive the private lives they describe of dignity with a nervous or cute prose. Tyler’s novel could have been called Charlotte and Jake, and, had it been, she might better have seen how much her patient and unhurried dialogue can reveal all we need to know about …