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The Ghost of Desire

Though Aaron insists that he loves Dorothy, or had loved her, he rarely recalls her in terms other than those that stress her physical plainness and clumsiness. She was five-feet-one—(he is six-feet-four). Dorothy was “short and plump and serious-looking” with “owlish, round-lensed glasses that mocked the shape of her face. Her clothes made her figure seem squat—wide, straight trousers and man-tailored shirts, chunky crepe-soled shoes…. Only I knew her dear, pudgy feet, with the nails like tiny seashells.” She was eight years his senior, with the “social skills of a panda bear.” Only Aaron knows that beneath her boxy clothes she was “the shape of a little clay urn.”

In their wedding picture Dorothy is ill-dressed, in a “bright-blue knit stretched too tightly across the mound of her stomach.” It’s difficult to imagine the couple as lovers since both seem asexual, or prepubescent, incongruously encased in middle-aged bodies. Aaron and Dorothy haven’t the impassioned adolescent yearning of Carson McCullers’s misfit lovers, which so pervades that writer’s work as to make the grotesquely improbable probable, and poignant. Even as he awaits her visitations Aaron continues to find fault with Dorothy:

If she had properly valued me, for instance, wouldn’t she have taken more care with her appearance? It was true that I had been charmed at first by her lack of vanity, but now and then it struck me that she was looking almost, well, plain, and that this plainness seemed willful. As the months went by I found myself noticing more and more her clumsy clothes, her aggressively plodding walk, her tendency to leave her hair unwashed one day too long.

The possibility strikes Aaron in the imagined words of his older sister: “It’s too bad his wife had to die, but was she really worth quite this much grief? Does he have to go on and on about it?

Aaron learns that a carpenter-friend was visited by his father after the father’s death, and that the carpenter wasn’t particularly surprised or upset by the visitations, to check up on his work:

Must have been a couple of months or so he did that…. He never said anything. Me, neither. I’d just stand there watching him, wondering what he was after. See, the two of us had not been close…. So I wondered what he was after. Anyhow, he moved on by and by, I can’t say exactly when. He just stopped coming around anymore…. He came back to make sure I’d turned out okay.

When Dorothy’s unpredictable ghost is on the scene, The Beginner’s Goodbye quickens, and the reader is drawn into the pathos of Aaron’s delusion. Obviously he is being haunted by the unfulfilled nature of his marriage, and by his inadequacy as a husband. Like Macon Leary of The Accidental Tourist, who drives his wife from him through his inability to mourn the death of their only son, Aaron is meant to be congenitally obtuse, and maddeningly passive. Most of the time Tyler can’t seem to think of anything for Aaron to do other than try to avoid well-intentioned friends and neighbors who ply him with unwanted casseroles (“After I recorded each dish, I dumped it in the garbage”) or take him out to restaurants where he has to endure relentlessly banal conversations about food.

He sees his dull, predictable friends and fellow office-workers; he has supper with his garrulous, possessive older sister Nandina (“born lanky, and ungainly, and lacking in all fashion sense…. An aging girl, was what she was…. Her elbows jutted like coat hangers, and her legs descended as straight as reeds to her Ping-Pong-ball anklebones”); he revisits his demolished house, which is being repaired and renovated. Unlike Leary of The Accidental Tourist, who falls in love with an endearingly ditzy dog trainer who transforms his zombie-bachelor life into something approximating real life, Aaron remains in a stasis of indecision waiting for his deceased wife to “appear” to him.

Anne Tyler has a special place in her heart for people who lack enthusiasm, zeal, spirit—who prefer to stay at home watching favorite television programs rather than venture forth into independent lives. Ezra of Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant conceives of a restaurant that is resolutely non chic, nonglamorous and nongourmet, where “he’d cook what people felt homesick for” and “what you long for when you’re sad and everyone’s been wearing you down.” No waiters but waitresses who are “cheery, motherly” and might urge upon customers “gizzard soup…made with love.”

Macon Leary of The Accidental Tourist makes a living writing moderately profitable self-help books in “chunky, passport-sized paperbacks” with such titles as Accidental Tourist in Belgium, Accidental Tourist in France, Accidental Tourist in Germany, et al., simply written little books for people who find themselves in intimidating situations for which they are not temperamentally or intellectually suited. (“Did Amsterdam have a McDonald’s? Did Mexico City have a Taco Bell? Did any place in Rome serve Chef Boyardee ravioli? Other travelers hoped to discover distinctive local wines; Macon’s readers searched for pasteurized and homogenized milk.”)

So too in The Beginner’s Goodbye. Aaron works for a family publishing house known in the trade as the Beginner’s Press, part vanity press (typical books are memoirs titled My War, My Years with the City Council, The Life of an Estate Lawyer, published for a fee, and virtually unedited) and part self-help press that has published a series with such titles as The Beginner’s Book of Kitchen Remodeling, The Beginner’s Book of Birdwatching, The Beginner’s Wine Guide, The Beginner’s Book of Dog Training. “These were something on the order of the Dummies books, but without the cheerleader tone of voice—more dignified. And far more classily designed.” The best seller in this series is The Beginner’s Colicky Baby. In the depressed state of clarity following his wife’s death, Aaron one day feels revulsion for his life’s work:

A set of instruction manuals whose stated goal was to skim the surface. A hodgepodge of war recollections and crackpot personal philosophies that no standard publishing house would have glanced at. This was the purpose of my existence?

Aaron comes to realize that his marriage had been unhappy—“Or it was difficult, at least. Out of sync. Uncoordinated. It seemed we just never quite got the hang of being a couple the way other people did. We should have taken lessons or something; that’s what I tell myself.” And, more harshly: “What I do remember is that familiar, weary, helpless feeling, the feeling that we were confined in some kind of rodent cage, wrestling together doggedly, neither one of us ever winning.” Aaron remains baffled and exasperated by his wife in their posthumous marriage:

I felt she expected something of me that she wouldn’t state outright. Her face would fall for no reason sometimes, and I would say, “What? What is it?” but she would say it was nothing. I could sense that I had let her down, but I had no idea how.

By the novel’s end, Aaron has worked through his “issues” of miscommunication with Dorothy, and in the final vision he has of her, she is “shining all over, and growing shimmery and transparent…. And then she was gone altogether.” Unsurprisingly, Aaron soon remarries, a woman from his office of whom we know little other than that she has eyes of a kind “a child might have drawn…with the lashes rayed around them like sunbeams” and enjoys cooking, and so will nourish him in a way that Dorothy could not.

This is a spare, quiet, understated little novel, a slender autumnal tree from which most leaves have fallen. Like the Beginner’s series from which the title has been taken, it makes no great claim upon our imaginations or our emotions; it “skims the surface” of grief in a trajectory that ends, as if inevitably, in the widower’s marrying his office secretary. Tyler’s affably bright prose style isn’t geared for irony or a deep countermining of emotion, let alone profound emotion; if this is a novel of loss, it’s also a novel of the failure to express loss, the failure to have fully lived before loss, as one senses that the protagonists of Updike’s and Roth’s autumnal novels have indeed lived. Yet there is a singular, curious passage in The Beginner’s Goodbye like no other I can recall in Tyler’s fiction, in which the zombie-like Aaron undergoes a sensuous private experience that verges upon the erotic in its wonderment and intensity:

The cookie was oatmeal-chocolate chip. It wasn’t a flat disk, like the kind you buy in stores; it was a big, humped hillock of a thing, lumpy with whole oats and studded with extra-large bits of chocolate, not chips so much as chunks. I took an experimental nibble. The chocolate lay coolly on my tongue a few seconds before it melted. The dough had been baked exactly the right length of time—some might say underbaked, but not I—and it was chewy inside but crisp outside, with some tiny sharp pieces of something that provided a textural contrast. Nuts, maybe? No, not nuts. Harder than nuts; more edgy than nuts. I really didn’t know. I seemed to have finished the cookie while I was deliberating, so I pried the lid off the tin and selected another. I needed to pin this thing down. I bit off a mouthful and chewed thoughtfully. The oats had their own distinct identity; I suspected they were the old-fashioned kind, rather than the quick-cooking. I would have liked a glass of cold milk but you can’t have everything.

On and on the cookie-eating continues in a trance of bliss, as, unwittingly, the widower is falling in love with whoever baked these cookies in which, as she will later reveal to him, the secret ingredient isn’t nuts but soy grits—“For the supplemental protein.” Tyler seems to be telling us that, underbaked and lumpy as these cookies may be, they are yet worthy of a man’s desire.

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