It is dangerous to stray outside New England, to places where the chill predictabilities of winter are overlapped by the warm ocean currents of self-indulgence and self-deceit: to places where the bracing necessities of shoveling snow are replaced by the velvet and slippery deceptions of bodily warmth. Harry DeKroll entertains mild regrets for Key West in the days when it offered “the great escape,” for days when easily available mind-altering substances adjusted reality more effectively than today’s intake of con leche and Oprah. Harry the Housesitter is the narrator of Ann Beattie’s new story “The Siamese Twins Go Snorkeling.” He stands by and watches someone else get a life (and employ him to service it), while he himself is occupied with work on “Great American Novel about drifters in Key West; yes, it will have been written before, but ne’er so well expressed.”
Alison Lurie, by contrast, has invented a character who in Key West is at odds with everyone around him. He alone has a stern purpose: it is suicide. For others, day devolves sweetly into day, heat and luxuriance feeding upon themselves, and if—like one character—you are crippled and constricted by arthritis, you think of Key West as a lap into which you can tumble, a salving mama; or if you are gay and HIV-positive, and watching your blood-count the way people in harsher climates watch the barometer, you can choose the moment when the waters will take you under. But Wilkie Walker is the man whom the waves refuse. His egotism is like a life vest, constantly bobbing back, floating him nose-to-nose with the possibility of his professional failure and washing him against the wreck of a twenty-five-year marriage.
His wife Jenny is now forty-six, and Wilkie is seventy. They married just after she graduated, and the marriage saved her from aimlessness. She wanted to devote her life to someone, and Wilkie needed her devotion. At that time he had two failed marriages behind him. Attractive but emotionally selfish, he is a man of high intellectual attainment but scant practical ability. He would rather delegate the business of shopping or household repairs or balancing a checkbook. Besides taking care of his day-to-day needs, Jenny has been his faithful secretary, researcher, in effect co-writer. She has always minimized her role, and allowed Wilkie to take full credit.
As well as a solipsist, Wilkie is a naturalist, and a popular author. He has been working on a book called The Copper Beech, and it is almost finished. Only one chapter is needed, and the book has already been announced in his publisher’s catalog. It is to be the culmination of his life’s work, drawing together all his interests and concerns. One can easily see that this could be a fateful moment in a writer’s life. Because after it, what is there left to do? The writer puts down the pen: he dies, artistically and perhaps actually.
So it is no surprise to learn that Wilkie is dragging his feet. He feels forced to review, to examine his life’s work. Is it possible that he has done more harm than good, distracting himself and other people from serious scientific issues, encouraging them in sentimental anthropomorphism? He fears “he had made his point so well that it had become banal.” His books have been taken up by teachers and his environmentalist message passed down the generations. Like many popularizers, he detests his fans; he feels they have taken his work from him and distorted its messages. He is dismayed to find he is “quoted everywhere by those Family Values creeps.” And now the animal rights activists regard him as outmoded, and eco-warriors have stolen his thunder.
All this—his feeling of purposelessness, his sourness at the loss of his reputation, his fear of useless old age—crystallize in Wilkie’s conviction that he has bowel cancer. He is determined not to suffer a lingering, humiliating death. Suicide seems the way out, but wouldn’t that hurt Jenny? Possibly the best thing would be to arrange himself a fatal “accident.” He believes she could cope with that, just about. The Last Resort now becomes the story of Wilkie’s search for death, and its maddening ways of baffling and eluding him.
This is thin ice for a comic writer. Alison Lurie glides over it with elegant expertise. This is her first novel in ten years. Throughout her long career she has struck a perfect balance, as scathing observer of personal relationships and as satirist of the wider society. And so it is in this book. Her wryness, her poise, the painful smiles her text elicits remind one often of Muriel Spark, but she has a fuller humanity and less innate ferocity; shrewd but never shrewish, she has, perhaps, more liking for her characters. She brings the reader into a quick intimacy with them, and does it without fuss; her creations register sharply on the page. She doesn’t proffer judgments, but she gives the reader the evidence to form her own. Wilkie is not a foolish figure. He is treated with something better than sympathy—with fairness.
It was Jenny’s helpful idea that the Walkers should winter in Key West. She thought it would reenergize them—but as the days pass, she begins to feel despondent and useless. Wilkie is not working, so she is not. He is brooding, snapping at her, shutting himself up alone for hours but making no progress with his final chapter. His attitude undermines her and taps into her deepest insecurities. Is she good enough for him? Was she ever good enough? This devoted wife has very little life of her own. Jenny’s friends, of course, accuse her of being a “walking anachronism.” They get angry on her behalf, believing Wilkie exploits her. But “feminism had done nothing for her except make her chosen life seem peculiar and estrange her from her friends.” It’s clear that Lurie is not on the side of these commentators, with their simplistic, prescriptive views, so intrusive and useless when applied to the mystery that is a long marriage. On the other hand, she catches very deftly the emotional tone of a woman enmeshed in such a marriage, whose instinct is first to refer everything, however personal and painful, to her spouse, and who in fact does not seem to have a separate identity. When she goes swimming in the ocean and is stung by a man-of-war, her reaction is “My husband will think I’m a total idiot.”
The man-of-war incident is a turning point for Jenny. Floundering in pain, drinking in salt water, she is rescued by Lee, the proprietor of a women-only guest house. She goes to work part-time at the guest house and has an affair with Lee. The reader is given a clear sense of Lee’s physical presence, but her character is not convincingly developed; she is far too good to be true. There are several second-rank characters in the book whose purpose fails to clarify, and who loaf about like unwanted extras on a film set. Yet there are two comic triumphs among the minor actors. Barbie is the estranged wife of a Republican congressman who is having an affair with a showgirl. She has come to Key West to sort out her feelings, and—again—with the background intention of drowning herself if life gets unbearable. Damp ineptitude pervades her life. She has never been able to manage anything properly—not even to get born again in the Lord: “…A couple of times she had tried to put her life into the hands of Jesus, but it had never worked out.”
She has, however, an unexpected talent for small appliance repairs, and is able to fix Lee’s toaster while contemplating annihilation. A gushingly sentimental fan of Wilkie’s, she is saved from death by a suddenly discovered need to Save the Manatee.
Barbie’s mother Myra—a bullying grande dame—is an off-stage presence for much of the book, and is trailed extensively before she appears. Can she possibly be as bad as the reputation that precedes her? When she does appear, with “a voice that had some of the characteristics of a leaf-shredder,” we realize that Lurie knew exactly how to play her in; we are in the presence of a memorable monster.
Meanwhile, Wilkie’s plans are going badly. There are just too many people wanting to drown themselves, in Key West. He has to control carefully the circumstances of his accident, not only for the sake of plausibility, but because he is worried about his posthumous reputation. But death is not at Wilkie’s orders, and will not come at his prompting. Death, in fact, is laughing at him. And so massive is his anger that Jenny begins to feel she hates him. Alison Lurie teases out each paradox in their situation. The novel itself is something of a paradox: a novel about death, in which the author is enjoying herself. Merciless as ever in nailing pretension and self-deceit, Lurie treats the risky subjects of aging and mortality with the ironic detachment that is her trademark. The Last Resort is a melancholy book, which wears its melancholy with a jaunty air, and there is not a clumsy word in it.
Yet it is unlikely that this eighth novel will be seen as Lurie’s best book. One weakness is the unsupportive nature of the supporting cast, the multiplication of characters with no real part to play. The other weakness is structural. After Wilkie’s discovery—no surprise to the reader—that he has a perfectly sound digestive tract, he has to get used to the idea of living again. At this point, some three hundred pages in, the story loses some of its grip. It was the successive suicide attempts and their thwarting, the successive installments of the farce, that kept the narrative patterned. All the same, the reader is sufficiently involved with the characters to want to know how they will make their various reconciliations with circumstance. Wilkie’s mind begins to move on familiar lines, as he contemplates another year, another book, another popular hit. “Manny the manatee. Or did that sound too Jewish?”
During the time he calls “while I was so preoccupied,” he has exposed his own nature and alienated his wife. Wilkie will not learn from his experience. He is probably beyond learning. But Jenny has negotiated herself into a brighter future.
Alison Lurie has a light touch. She uses no shock effects. She is an uncomfortable writer in the way that Jane Austen is uncomfortable: the comparison has been drawn before, and this book strengthens it. There is the same beadiness of eye, the same almost imperceptible smile, and the unspoken questions, left hanging in the air. However small the canvas, her characters inhabit a complete moral universe.
In Ann Beattie’s universe, there are no fixed stars, no orbits, only a nebulous, shifting vapor of misperception and incomprehension. It is not quite invisible to the people it surrounds. Says the narrator of “Cosmos”:
“I’m beginning to think we all drift into things.”
“Like snow,” he says.
“Not like snow. That we drift sort of unnaturally.”
This is quite possible, because these are people who do not know their own natures. They are unsure about the boundaries of their own bodies, their own nature, and when they find them they do not know how far they are safe to break them down, for other people’s benefit. Dumbness besets them, an inability to say what they want or even know it, and there is frequently a contrast between out-of-control, almost surreal events of the stories, and the damped-down personalities of the narrators who report them to us.
This is a collection of thirty-six stories written over some twenty-five years. Most are taken from Beattie’s five previous collections, but eight are new. In the title story, the narrator is a Clinique salesperson of limited aspirations: “…I did sometimes think about growing herbs and having a dog, though when I think about it, that does seem pretty pathetic.” When her relationship breaks up—the one on which she has pinned her pallid hopes—a friend fits her out with some herbs in pots and a cardboard dog that disintegrates in the rain. The impermanence makes them laugh. The narrator, wondering if she dare be effective in the world, has a touching half-belief that she might do something to stop other people from making mistakes, or that she might do something to nurture a precocious but immature teenager who spends her life painting her toenails, or that she might love her three-year-old niece, who hates having her hair combed but who sustains beneath her baby birds-nest a set of connected thoughts and desires that the thirty-one-year-old storyteller must envy. She is a typical Beattie heroine, a woman whose consciousness of her own inadequacies is crushing, and whose dithery hesitations almost involve her and the three-year-old in a fatal accident.
She is saved by “a geeky guy in glasses and a baseball cap,” one of the unlikely angels who drop into the stories from time to time. In “The Four-Night Fight,” a flickering belief in order is strengthened by the actions of an unnamed neighbor, an adolescent boy who carefully picks up the trash strewn about by a dauntless raccoon. The animal is a regular domestic chaos-maker, and the narrator’s husband, it seems, is not interested in deterring him. In “Shifting,” the angel is another teenage boy who helps the narrator take control of her life; who perhaps, at last, makes her want something. Her immediate need is to learn to drive a car with a gearshift. Throughout the story you marvel that she is out on the roads at all. What will happen when she reaches a crossroads? Would she know what sign to follow? Would she even recognize a signboard, never mind a sign?
The choice she makes is stained with embarrassment. Like many other Beattie narrators, she is overwhelmed by the presumption of doing anything at all. “That was in 1972, in Philadelphia,” the story ends. Not much has changed. Desire is still chancy, provisional. Beattie’s observation can be slicing, and make the reader understand how the muddle of individual lives weaves and knots itself into a social cat’s cradle far beyond unraveling. Even the most firm-minded person would be undone by the situation the title story describes: “The day when the screenwriting course ends is ambiguously described in the brochure. As best we can make out, it may end on different days for differ-ent people with different astrological signs.”
But Beattie’s immediate difficulty is in staying true to the distractible narrators without sending the reader’s mind off in some spiral of irrelevancy. The vacationers in “Park City”—an accidental, but not random grouping—share “an oddly configured first-floor suite that is laid out like half a spider. There are five corridors leading to five bedrooms….” For the rest of the story this reader never rid herself of the image of the decimalized spider.
The strongest new story here is “Cosmos,” the first in the collection. A lesser writer might have padded it and made it into a novel. The narrator lives with a difficult eight-year-old stepson and a man who, as usual in Beattie, measures out his feelings in a grudging fashion. Carl’s version of a proposal of marriage is “You’re not going to find anybody better than me, because you’re not perfect yourself.” The writing catches perfectly the note of domestic overanxiety that is the prelude to interpersonal crisis; kitchen utensils look like weapons of war.
The narrator teaches history, but as a Canadian in a US school she cannot be sure that she is putting the approved interpretations on events. Switched to an English course, she finds herself trying to induct a tight-knit group of Japanese students into a way of life she is not sure she understands herself. Desperate to communicate with them, she finds herself exaggerating, enhancing the mundane; trying to coax a smile and a flicker of human confederacy, she mythologizes her own life. It is a dangerous proceeding, as any of Ann Beattie’s characters would have been able to tell her. It leads to mayhem in the yard, fire in the trash can, escalation of non-communication. The narrative shifts adroitly through its time-scheme, and its comedy is perfectly composed.
Of the rest, “The Four-Night Fight,” its rhythm echoing the runaway row it describes, is gruesomely funny and tightly written. “Ed and Dave Visit the City” comes up fresh and idiosyncratic, its surprise ending an unnecessary and uncharacteristic flourish. It does what Beattie can do so well, almost uniquely well—capture the exquisite melancholy of the moment we know will be recollected. It is a phenomenon everyone recognizes but no one is able to explain: the lifelong persistence of the inconsequential, the fraction of a second when what is perfectly ordinary seems distilled to an essence, so that one says, “Because this is so usual, I shall remember it forever.”
It is these moments that Ann Beattie has made her own. Out of the glancing half-perceptions of her characters she has, through her edgy talent, created an integrity of vision. The danger with collections is that a mood, delicately modulated within each story, permeates everything and becomes stifling; the evanescent seems fixed; delicacy bulks itself out. Big successes show up comparative failures. The character’s ability to tolerate ambiguity strains the reader’s own capacities, and the accretion of naturalistic detail becomes stifling. One suspects, like the narrator of “Zalla,” that “some things get to be lumped together for effect, and others to obscure some issue.” Rounded up into a human zoo, Beattie’s characters are a defeated breed. Just sometimes the cage door bursts open; but before they can swarm out, the wind slams it shut again.
Barnaby, narrator of Anne Tyler’s A Patchwork Planet, has—if he says it himself—“a very promising past.” His family, the Gaitlins, are a wealthy and philanthropic Baltimore family, so outwardly conventional that they are able to cherish without fear of criticism the bizarre idea that their lives are influenced by angels. Each male Gaitlin has his special angel, and he has to be alert for her when she comes along. Barnaby has not spotted his yet. He was a bright child: his grandmother says he “learned to read so young that he used to look in the child development books to check how he ought to be acting.” But in adolescence he started to do some very odd things. With a gang of neighborhood boys, he broke into houses. He didn’t steal cash, or dive on the usual prey of teenage raiders. He read letters, and made away with photograph albums, and picked up tiny objects of no obvious worth.
Barnaby is, to himself, an object of no obvious worth. He seems to exist on the margin of his own life, an accidental tourist, forever stalking the perimeters of his own inner reality and wondering at what he glimpses there.
After his juvenile delinquencies came to light, his family paid off the neighbors so they would not press charges, and sent him away to a school whose letterhead stated that it caters for “the Gifted Young Tester of Limits.”
…We had to wear suits to class. (Which explains why I favor pyjama tops now.) And every time we cursed, we had to memorize a Shakespeare sonnet…. When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes…I thought it was me he was talking about.
Barnaby has a failed marriage behind him, and a child. His ex-wife Natalie takes it upon herself to set out his circumstances to him, when he turns up, late and scruffy, for an access visit, “swatting at my clothes to settle them a bit”:
“A rented room,” she mused, “an unskilled job, a bunch of shiftless friends. No goals and no ambitions; still not finished college at the age of thirty.”
“Twenty-nine,” I corrected her. (The one charge I could argue with.)
“Thirty in three weeks,” she said.
More childlike than immature, with perceptions that are fresh and surprising, Barnaby is a person for whom the world seems to be made anew each day. He is very bad at thinking about himself and very bad at knowing what other people think about him, but his insights, such as they are, are self-deprecating ones. The most successful saints are those who cannot see their own goodness. Like Maggie Moran in Tyler’s Breathing Lessons, Barnaby is an unflawed optimist, with an innocence so fragile that the reader holds her breath for him. He is utterly charming, and charm is perhaps the hardest quality to get onto the page. The voice that Anne Tyler has given him is miraculously sure and true; her particular gifts, her arts that look like no art, have never been more effectively employed.
Barnaby works for an organization called Rent-a-Back, which does the messy and heavy chores for an aged cast of grouchy or winning eccentrics. Early in the novel he meets and falls for Sophia, a careful, cool young woman, a banker, whose highly controlled day-to-day life is the opposite of his. Each day before she goes out to the office, Sophia pops into her Crock-Pot the ingredients for their evening meal; when they eat them, they are gray and gluey and indistinguishable, but undeniably nourishing. Barnaby is a nurturing person surrounded by controlling persons. Sophia is one of the latter, but it takes him the whole book to see it. His derelictions excite her, his inadequacies reward her: “She was as proud of my sins as I was of her virtues.”
The insight is hard-won. Most of the time, Barnaby does not understand his own emotions.
And some nights I brought a girl home and we’d be going through the preliminaries, carrying on some oh-isn’t-that-interesting conversation on the couch, and she would give me this sudden puzzled look, and I’d lift a hand to my face and find my cheeks were wet. Water just pouring out of my eyes. I won’t say tears, because I swear I wasn’t crying. But my eyes were up to something or other.
Perhaps there is something to be said for ignorance. This is a story of the mysterious healing of a wound not perceived, of an almost catastrophic injury to the psyche, which—because of the character’s inherent modesty—is perceived as no more than an insect bite. It is also a very funny book, and one that shows on almost every page Anne Tyler’s unique gifts as a writer within the realist tradition. Her characters seem to walk the earth, not as types, not as representatives, not as shadows from the author’s psyche, but as themselves. Here is Barnaby’s workmate, his colleague at Rent-a-Back:
Martine drove seated on a cushion, that’s how small she was…. She must have weighed ninety pounds at the most—tiny little cat-faced girl with sallow skin and boxy black hair squared off above her earlobes. But tough, I have to admit. A Sparrows Point kid, from steelworking stock. Scraped sharp knuckles on the steering wheel; gigantic black nylon jacket that smelled of motor oil. “How was your trip to Philly?” she asked, and her voice had a raspy scratch to it that made me want to clear my throat.
It may be that the most successful realist writer is the one who knows when and how to nudge strict naturalism out of the picture. Tyler knows; she transforms the mundane into the bright, the sharp, the hyperreal, which reflects our own perceptions and yet transcends them, so that, in a self-congratulatory way, we experience the world as more interesting and complex than before. This successful realist does not describe the world, she packages it and presents it: more vibrant, more touching, more true. Yet at the same time she convinces us that she is giving an accurate description of a world that is contingent and dangerous, like the “patchwork planet” of the title:
Mismatched squares of cloth no bigger than postage stamps, joined by the uneven black stitches of a woman whose eyesight was failing…. Makeshift and haphazard, clumsily cobbled together, overlapping and crowded and likely to fall into pieces at any moment.
This is an almost plotless novel, and like The Last Resort it is slightly over-extended. To cut fifty pages would not have hurt it. The reader only becomes restless when there is a hint of falsity, and perhaps the prominence of Sophia in the novel is hard to sustain. Forethought and prudence are normally markers of maturity, but Tyler shows how they can be play-safe, infantile traits; it is almost impossible to believe that Sophia is a sexual being, Barnaby’s lover, and a threat to the happiness we hope he will attain with grimy little Martine. Besides, it is risky for Tyler to outstay the welcome of her habitual douceur. One of the high points of this narrative is a potluck Thanksgiving dinner at which no one has provided a turkey. There are two pumpkin chiffon pies, a marshmallow-yam casserole, and a cake made in Sophia’s Crock-Pot, and the difficulty is this: “If a meal is mainly dessert, it’s hard to know when it’s over.”
But this is a quibble. Fifty pages of Tyler, even if they are superfluous in one way, are likely to be sharper, wiser, and more perfectly composed than the pages of almost any other English-language novelist. Anne Tyler’s work is so easily enjoyable, so consistently entertaining, that it has sometimes been viewed as trivial and escapist. But she is in no way a superficial writer, and to interpret her as such is to misunderstand the value of comedy. Comedy is not a tool in her kit, but a central mechanism; it is not a means to soften pain but an end in itself. And pain is not absent from her planet. Her characters are the resilient survivors of quiet inner disasters. Barnaby’s world is not a cosy one. Rent-a-Back’s clients do not let him preserve any illusions that life gets easier, or that age brings wisdom. They see their future clearly: their increasing debility, their end. Like Alison Lurie’s latest novel, A Patchwork Planet is an enterprise which smiles in the face of death.
November 5, 1998