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The Ghost of Desire

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Edward Gorey Charitable Trust
Drawing by Edward Gorey

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, as in the enigmatic ending of The Dying Animal, when an unnamed (female) companion warns the aging lecher Professor Kepesh against succumbing to the plaintive summons of a former lover: “If you go, you’re finished.” In Roth’s more recent Everyman, a grim contemporary allegory that begins with its protagonist’s burial and works through his largely uneventful life, the unnamed “everyman” becomes obsessed with his health, or rather with his bodily decrepitude, and a terror of what lies ahead: “The profusion of stars told him unambiguously that he was doomed to die.” Surrounded by friends and former lovers who are also aging and dying, Roth’s hapless protagonist feels a sympathy with others that is largely missing in Roth’s younger and brasher protagonists:

She’s embarrassed by what she’s become [through illness], he thought, embarrassed, humiliated, humbled almost beyond her own recognition. But which of them wasn’t? They were all embarrassed by what they’d become. Wasn’t he? By the physical changes. By the diminishment of virility…. What lent a horrible grandeur to the process of reduction…was, of course, the intractable pain.

This is the fate of “Everyman” as a species, and no one is spared. Yet though a heroic gesture is futile, swallowed up in so impersonal a fate, Roth’s everyman is so overcome with emotion when he sees his parents’ graves in a cemetery—(the very cemetery in which he is soon to be buried)—that he breaks down:

He couldn’t go. The tenderness was out of control. As was the longing for everyone to be living. And to have it all all over again.

By contrast, Anne Tyler’s characters are never subjected to such purely physical extremes. Their creator is not so cruel: her aim isn’t to terrify her readers, or to wring from them genuine pity and sympathy; her more modest intention is to provide an assurance that what we’ve always known, or should have known, about family life, romantic love, and loss is true after all. Her most engaging novels—Searching for Caleb, Celestial Navigation, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, The Accidental Tourist—are sweetly sentimental valentines to the ordinary, domestic, unambitious life, usually set in Baltimore’s oldest suburb, Roland Park. In these early novels, written under the inspired influence of Eudora Welty, Tyler’s characters are magical without being whimsical or fey; even when down on their luck, they seem to inhabit enchanted realms of the spirit.

In more recent novels, however, Tyler’s lyricism has largely faded; the amplitude of spirit—magic—for which she was known has diminished nearly to the vanishing point. Her protagonists are older, and detached from their dysfunctional but not terribly charming families; they are cranky eccentrics for whom it’s often difficult to feel much more than exasperation. There are few poetic moments in The Beginner’s Goodbye, perhaps appropriately given the depressed state of its main character, but there is little to shock or discomfort. This is a novel about grief in which the raw visceral experience of grieving is not explored except in a cursory way. Experiences, impressions, emotions are blunted, as in a soft-focus movie:

We were traveling through the blasted wasteland surrounding [Johns Hopkins University], with its boarded-up row houses and trash-littered sidewalks, but what struck me was how healthy everyone was. That woman yanking her toddler by the wrist, those teenagers shoving one another off the curb, that man peering stealthily into a parked car: there was nothing physically wrong with them. A boy standing at an intersection had so much excess energy that he bounced from foot to foot as he waited for us to pass. People looked so robust, so indestructible.

An actual street scene in this part of Baltimore suggests a very different sort of “robustness”—but Tyler’s characters are suburban whites prone to see what they want to see, out of the habitude of a lifetime, and Tyler is their tirelessly indulgent chronicler. Though their time is supposed to be the present, it’s a sort of time warp into which little of real life intrudes, as in one of those films in which it’s always the 1950s or the early 1960s, before Kennedy’s assassination—and before Baltimore’s homegrown epics Homicide: Life on the Streets and The Wire. One senses, behind this political timidity, a “liberal” sensibility—but the moral compass of the fiction is determinedly old-fashioned, “traditional,” and conservative; it takes no risks, and confirms the wisdom of risklessness.

In The Beginner’s Goodbye, a thirty-six-year-old man named Aaron has lost his wife Dorothy in a sudden, freak accident, when a dead tree falls on their house; Dorothy is crushed, though her body is bloodless—“The mound of her bosom was more of a…cave. But that was understandable! She was lying on her back!” In a state of affectless shock following his wife’s death, Aaron is akin to Macon Leary of Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist, who’d lost his son in a robbery-shooting in a fast-food restaurant, and soon loses his wife of twenty years to divorce. Aaron walks with a limp and suffers from an intermittent stutter; his sense of himself, in physical terms, is rather more that of a seventy-six-year-old man than one of young middle age, since it’s difficult to believe that he ever lived in California or, indeed, had the pluck to approach the older Dorothy, to ask her to dinner.

Both novels of regeneration-through-loss present quasi men who never quite strike us as convincingly “masculine”; their lives are circumscribed by domestic routines of stupefying dullness, of which they seem but dimly aware. Tyler has always been fond of eccentrics, loners, recluses; not “neurotics”—still less “psychotics”; not the passionately God-possessed freaks of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction but milder aberrants who live at the periphery of society in near anonymity, until someone or something comes along to shake them out of their lethargy.

Narrated in the first person by the widower Aaron, The Beginner’s Goodbye begins with seriocomic urgency: “The strangest thing about my wife’s return from the dead was how other people reacted.” Aaron’s doctor-wife Dorothy, dead for almost a year, suddenly begins to appear to him unpredictably, and in public. Aaron is convinced that Dorothy isn’t an apparition or a hallucination but “real”:

Other people pretended not to recognize either one of us. They would catch sight of us from a distance, and this sort of jolt would alter their expressions and they would all at once dart down a side street, busy-busy…. I didn’t hold it against them. I knew this was a lot to adjust to.

It isn’t clear if Aaron is hallucinating, or very quietly mad, or, in an alternative universe to which fiction alone has the key, he is actually being visited by his wife:

Maybe the reason I didn’t ask Dorothy why she had come back when she did was that I worried it would make her ask herself the same question. If she had just sort of wandered back, absentmindedly…then once I brought it up she might say, “Oh! My goodness! I should be going!”

At other times, Dorothy’s presence is more ambiguous, and may not be public but merely private:

Then I was walking toward the post office…and Dorothy was walking beside me. She didn’t “pop up” or anything. She didn’t “materialize.” She’d just been with me all along, somehow, the way in dreams you’ll find yourself with a companion who didn’t arrive but is simply there—no explanation given and none needed…. Oh, she looked so…Dorothy-like! So normal and clumsy and ordinary, her eyes meeting mine directly, a faint sheen of sweat on her upper lip, her stocky forearms crossing her stomach….

And there is the Dorothy who appears to her former husband as a plainly guilty conscience:

She said, “I would have asked more questions.”
“Pardon?”
“We could have talked all along. But you always pushed me away.”

After a year and more, Aaron has begun to think that his grief

has been covered over with some kind of blanket. It’s still there, but the sharpest edges are…muffled, sort of. Then, every now and then, I lift a corner of the blanket, just to check, and—whoa! Like a knife! I’m not sure that will ever change.

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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