In his beautifully spare poem “The Ovenbird,” Robert Frost concludes:
The bird would cease and be as other birds
But that he knows in singing not to sing.
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.
“What to make of a diminished thing” is a proposition that becomes ever more crucial with the passage of time in our lives, and particularly in the lives of writers who began young, with early successes and early fame. Like her older contemporaries John Updike and Philip Roth, Anne Tyler has addressed this painful subject in recent novels, notably Noah’s Compass, Ladder of Years, and this new novel, her nineteenth; but she has addressed it in her characteristically minimalist, understated, and modest way. Not for Tyler the boldly generic claim of such titles as Toward the End of Time (Updike), and The Dying Animal and Everyman (Roth); hers is The Beginner’s Goodbye—a title so unprepossessing, so quaintly self-referential, that you will have to read the novel to understand its significance.
Where Updike and Roth confront mortality in precisely delineated and, at times, excruciating terms, with an emphasis on the humiliating incursions of time upon the (male) body, in a diminution of sexual desire and of passion for life generally, Tyler presents her insistently ordinary, seemingly asexual characters with sympathy, but with no claim for our particular attention. These are not special people, Tyler insists; they are not even “interesting” people in the sense in which most (fictitious) people are “interesting.” (For why write about them, otherwise? Only the genius of a writer such as Samuel Beckett can transform a mundane subject matter into gold, through the singularity of style.)
In Updike’s Toward the End of Time, a long-married and now rather crotchety older couple find themselves, in a quasi-future United States, in a depleted suburban society both familiar and unfamiliar to them. So confined, and needing to wear diapers (“Depends Adult Incontinence Pants”), Ben ponders alternative worlds stimulated from reading science books; the grandfather of eleven children by the novel’s end, he acknowledges himself as “impotent”—yet stirred by “perverse fantasy.”
The quintessential Updike protagonist has always been a highly sexual being, at times, in such late novels as Villages, with its comically voluptuous (Ingres) cover, to an obsessive and even preposterous degree; the quintessentially Rothian protagonist is no less sexually driven, though in Roth the sexual component is often complicated by feelings of resentment, revulsion, rage, even sexual politics, as in The Humbling. In Updike, sexual love is the great, all-encompassing experience that blinds one—temporarily—to the ubiquitous fear of death; in the epigraph to Couples, from Alexander Blok’s “The Scythians,” are the striking lines: “We love the flesh: its taste, its tones,/Its charnel odor, breathed through Death’s jaws….”
In Roth, any sort of genuine love is rare, and sexual desire is a hook to ensnare us …