Life Before Man
Like a sentry or a detective, Anne Tyler seems to notice everything: the pale fluorescent gloom of laundromats, pockets filled with lint-covered jellybeans, the smell of crabcakes and coconut oil on a Delaware beach, grapy veins in the calves of middle-aged mothers. As a chronicler of domestic fuss, Tyler can be compared to John Updike. When Updike writes about an ice-cream parlor tabletop in The Coup or a fast-food restaurant in Rabbit Redux, the suburbs can take on a Nabokovian shimmer of new-found delight. In Tyler’s work, however, everything is scuffed-up and comfortably lived-in; “Wash Me” is written into the dust. Her characters are fraying at the edges, strays and daydreamers sunk in their own reveries. Circumstances prick them awake, and like the dolls Tyler describes at the end of Earthly Possessions they share a look of bewildered surprise, “as if wondering how they got here.”
Earthly Possessions, Searching for Caleb, The Clock Winder, Celestial Navigation—Tyler’s most recent novels are all set in Maryland, as is her latest, Morgan’s Passing. Easter Sunday, 1967. After a puppet show at the Presbyterian church ends abruptly, a garrulous fraud named Morgan Gower comes to the rescue of the puppeteers—foultempered Leon Meredith and his bride, Emily. Small-boned and enormously pregnant, Emily lies on a pile of muslin bags, suffering from labor pains. Pretending to be a doctor, Morgan delivers Emily’s child near a pizza parlor, rides with her to the hospital, then vanishes like a troll into the hollows of the forest.
As the years go by—1969, 1971, 1973—Morgan watches his daughters sprout and putters away behind the counter of a hardware store; meanwhile, Emily and Leon put on puppet shows at schools, parties, church socials. The Morgans and the Merediths keep brushing up against each other, and in the summer of 1975 they share a nervescraping weekend together at a resort beach in Delaware—“The weekend passed so slowly, it didn’t so much pass as chafe along.” Later, sorting through snapshots taken at the beach, Morgan becomes entranced with Emily, so skimpy and pale in her dark leotards and billowy black skirts. Longing spears Morgan, and he starts writing Emily letters and trailing her through the streets of Baltimore (“His hat rounded corners like a flying saucer, level and spinning”). He even comes over to Emily’s apartment and bangs away on her kitchen pipes, a regular Mr. Fix-it. Soon the inevitable happens: smelling of cough syrup and cigarette ashes, Morgan embraces Emily, they kiss, and love chimes through the air.
Like Earthly Possessions, Morgan’s Passing is a misfit romance. In Earthly Possessions, the misfits—a bank robber, his hostage, and the robber’s seventeen-year-old knocked-up sweetheart—drove past Tastee Freeze after Tastee Freeze on their getaway spree. Short in length and detail, the streamlined novel covered a lot of turf:
We drove through an endless afternoon, passing scenery that appeared to have wilted. Crumbling sheds and unpainted houses, bony cattle drooping over fences. “Whereabouts is this?” I finally asked.
“Georgia,” said Jake.
By comparison, Morgan’s Passing is a book of small compass, pent-up energy. Long before Morgan and Emily link arms, the reader has connected the dots separating them, so there’s no suspense, no surprise. Instead, the book is stuffed with accounts of weddings, crowded dinners, cute squabbles (Morgan’s daffy mother seems to have drifted in from “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman”), and symbolic-as-all-get-out puppet shows (Emily and Leon are like “two children in a fairy tale”; Morgan is compared to an elf, a gnome, a magician). Sentence by sentence, the book is engaging, but there’s nothing beneath the jokes and tussles to propel the reader through these cluttered lives. It’s a book with an idle motor.
Yet what finally undoes Morgan’s Passing is the characterization of Morgan himself. Smoking, coughing, stroking his beard, traipsing about in sombreros and capes, dispensing dubious advice, telling whopping lies, Morgan Gower is a scruffy, king-size Life Force—Henderson the Rain King’s slightly retarded brother. Fanatically finicky (he frets over shopping lists, dispatches disgruntled letters to Radio Shack), Morgan is nonetheless imbued with a largeness of spirit denied his friends, lovers, and kinfolks. Tyler seems to adore Morgan, polishing his buttony eyes as if he were a toy panda. Tyler’s novels are all filled with appealing eccentrics—most memorably Jeremy Pauling, the agoraphobic artist of Celestial Navigation (her best novel, I think)—but never has one eccentric so noisily nudged the other characters into the wings. By the end of the book, Morgan’s intoxication with life’s “beautiful and luminous” riches reminds one less of Henderson in the African forest than of those fag-hag scene-stealers in films like Auntie Mame and Travels with My Aunt. Morgan’s Passing is spry and friendly, but after seven accomplished novels one expects more from Anne Tyler than the message “Live! Live!” spelled out in pink neon.
Not unlike Morgan, the heroines of Margaret Atwood’s previous novels long to leap out of their skins—to be triumphantly reborn. The mind-racked narrator of Surfacing tries to smash through history and culture by discarding her clothes and stalking through the Canadian woods as a fur-creature, chewing roots, sucking strawberries, listening to “multilingual water” lap against the shore. Joan Foster, the star of Lady Oracle, writes trashy thrillers under a pseudonym—“Terror was one of my specialties; that and historical detail”—and stages her own suicide in order to lead a posthumous life. Near the end of Lady Oracle, the Junoesque prose-poetess wonders if it isn’t time to quit writing Gothic novels about virgins, treacherous corridors, and Byronic brooders: “Maybe I should try to write a real novel, about someone who worked in an office and had tawdry, unsatisfying affairs.” No, she decides; impossible.
Impossible for her, but not for her creator. Set in Toronto, Margaret Atwood’s Life Before Man is a grimly ambitious “real novel” about a tawdry triangle. Elizabeth, a survivor with a cruelly scarred childhood, works at the natural history museum, as does Lesje, a frail fraidy-cat who shrieks whenever someone surprises her from behind. At home Elizabeth’s husband Nate prepares macaroni-and-cheese dinners and chisels toys in the basement; rocking horses, mostly. Nate gravitates toward Lesje, and they eventually shack up; Elizabeth in turn seduces Lesje’s former live-in lover, William. Sex with William is not an event that rocks the heavens—“It was like sleeping with a large and fairly active slab of Philadelphia cream cheese”—and she later has an even more squalid grope with a traveling salesman, who crawls all over her in a parked car.
Nothing holds: her lover commits suicide, her daughters’ kisses land on her cheek like “cold dewdrops,” her foul old gorgon of an aunt wastes away with cancer. So Elizabeth lies in bed scheming and mourning, her existential funk setting the sulky mood of this book. Compared to the erotic fancies of Atwood’s earlier fiction, the language is slack, glum, matter of fact. Here is Nate hanging around the museum:
He’ll climb the steps and lean in the same spot where he used to do time for Elizabeth, one shoulder against the stone. He’ll light another cigarette, watch the museum-goers passing in and out like shoppers, and wait for Lesje. She won’t be expecting him. Perhaps she’ll be surprised and pleased to see him; once he could count on it. Perhaps she’ll only be surprised, and possibly not even that. He anticipates this moment, which he cannot predict, which leaves room for hope and also for disaster. They will either go for a drink or not. In any case, they will go home.
The cover of Life Before Man shows a landscape photographed through a pane of misted-over rain-dappled glass: a world bathed in cool damp grief. It’s dismally appropriate. No one in this novel is surprised by joy; no one here necks at the movies or roots for the Blue Jays or cracks jokes or dances barefoot on the carpet. Politics?—futile. Sex? Rape, mostly, and cream cheese. Life Before Man is like one of those Bergmanesque movies in which the characters dwell so deeply in their own sorrows that they don’t even have pets. Instead: Medium shots of empty snowy wastes are followed by close-ups of coffee spoons, dripping faucets, furrowed brows, ticking clocks. Even Lesje’s passion for dinosaurs—she’s a paleontologist—is less an expression of temperament than it is an elaborate doomsday conceit. Like the dinosaurs (says this novel), mankind is dumbly lumbering toward extinction, a new Ice Age sheeting the planet as the sun blinks good-night, good-night. “Lesje backs against a wall chart, the geological ages marked in color blocks. Dinosaurs, a hundred and twenty million years of tawny yellow; man, a speck of red. She’s a fleck, a molecule, an ion lost in time. But so is Elizabeth.”
So are Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, Daisy Buchanan, Mrs. Dalloway, and Hardy’s Tess; but their lives leave us with more than the taste of crematorial ashes on the tongue. After the playful ironies of The Edible Woman and Lady Oracle and the obsessive lyricism of Surfacing, the bleak monotony of Life Before Man impressed many reviewers as daringly “mature,” as if by peeling all pleasure from life Atwood had reached the picked-clean Samuel Beckett bones of existence. Near the end of the novel, Elizabeth pays a bedside visit to Auntie Muriel, the gorgon who made her childhood so miserable. “Sickness grips her. Nevertheless, nevertheless, she whispers: It’s all right. It’s all right.” And in the closing pages Elizabeth blinks back tears after staring at a display of Chinese propaganda posters. “China does not exist. Nevertheless she longs to be there.” “Nevertheless” is Atwood’s terse way of echoing Beckett’s I can’t go on, I’ll go on…. In the chill twilight, one foot after another, endlessly. Some fun!
Life Before Man is a work of unbending intelligence and discipline. As an admirer of Surfacing and (especially) Lady Oracle, I wish I could sing its praises, but Atwood writes about her characters’ stunted lives with a brittle contempt that I can’t stomach. Elizabeth, Atwood notes, wears the sort of stockings that come out of plastic eggs; Lesje dishes out Betty Crocker Noodles Romanoff to her schnooky lover. Gratuitous details like these are intended to screw the characters in place as forlorn, banal figures.
The only passages in Life Before Man I freely enjoyed were those describing post-coital pique, as when William gives Elizabeth an insultingly hardy slap on the bottom after he’s been seduced. “Elizabeth shivers with irritation. Stupid; sometimes she is very stupid. Get your goddamn jockey shorts on and get out of my bed.” Bad as bad sex can be, it bangs some life into Elizabeth, and into the novel; and for a brief moment one can forget about specks and smudges and the fate of the damned cosmos.