The Amateur Marriage
by Anne Tyler
Knopf, 306 pp., $24.95
If the term had not been coined to define an essentially surrealist/exotic mode of twentieth-century fiction, “magical realism” would more accurately describe the considerable emotional power that can be generated by a sudden illumination of meaning in the ordinary, routine, and largely unobserved in our daily lives. Realism is a mimicry of life in the quotidian, not the heroic or the cataclysmic; at its core, the greatest of all dramas can be simply the passage of time. Where the essential strategy of poetry is distillation, the strategy of the realistic novel is accumulation, which is why novels as diverse as Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale, and James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan trilogy depend for their effect upon a painstaking if not obsessive recording of minutiae. When the realistic novel works its magic, you won’t simply have read about the experiences of fictitious characters, you will have seemed to live them. Your knowledge of their lives transcends their own, for they can only live in chronological time. The experience of reading such fiction when it’s carefully composed can be almost literally breathtaking, like being given the magical power of reliving passages of our own lives, indecipherable at the time of being lived.
Through sixteen novels of poetic realism set predominantly in Baltimore in the middle decades of the twentieth century and encoded with this unnerving “magic” in the minutiae of daily life, Anne Tyler has created a gallery of American originals. Tyler’s people seem to be members of a single extended clan, lovingly observed eccentrics inhabiting a mythic Baltimore located somewhere between the elevated folksiness of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town and the flat-out grotesqueries of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. Her slightly seedy, quaintly run-down neighborhoods are contiguous with the small Mississippi towns and villages of Eudora Welty, Tyler’s most obvious influence, and the North Carolina settings of Reynolds Price, with whom Tyler studied as an undergraduate at Duke University. Ostensibly mid- to-late twentieth century, Tyler’s Baltimore is quintessential 1950s, radically different from the adulterous/alcoholic suburbias of John Cheever and predating those of John Updike while bearing no relationship at all to the postmodern cityscapes, ravaged by irony as in a harsh fluorescent glare, of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo.
Though African-Americans play walk-on roles in some of Tyler’s fiction—there is a “darky,” Eustace, who assists in a grocery store in The Amateur Marriage—Tyler’s Baltimore shares no borders with the cityscapes of Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, John Edgar Wideman, or Walter Mosley. As Tyler’s themes are exclusively domestic and family-centered, so her settings seem to exist in a historic void: it’s significant that, in The Amateur Marriage, men who serve in the armed forces in World War II, and the women who wait for them at home, never express a single political thought about the war, its origins, its consequences, the unmitigated horrors of the Holocaust. Evil as a force …