Saturday, December 06, 2008

the last book I read

A Patchwork Planet by Anne Tyler.

There are those - Nick Hornby, Roddy Doyle and Jeremy Paxman among them, apparently - who think that Anne Tyler is the world's greatest living novelist.

I'm not sure I have an opinion about that, as this is only the second of her books that I've read (Back When We Were Grownups being the other), but her style does raise a question that I raised a while back in an album review - is it more difficult to write an 18-minute symphonic rock epic with lots of widdly-widdly soloing and toe-stubbing tempo and key changes, or a two-and-a-half minute punchy three-chord pop song that starts, makes you laugh/cry/dance/sing/think/whatever and then stops again?

The equivalent question for a novelist would be - is it more difficult to write a novel that takes radical liberties with "normal" novel orthodoxies (previous books in this series provide examples in terms of structure and the authorial voice - other well-known examples include Finnegans Wake and Pale Fire) or one in a more linear style, and furthermore one in which no murders occur, no-one flies an aeroplane into a house, or anything like that? When you rule out all that stuff, it could be argued, all you've got left to hold the reader's attention is your actual skill at writing believable characters who interact in interesting ways. Which, it could be argued, is more demanding.

Anyway: Barnaby Gaitlin is the wayward scion of a rich philanthropic Baltimore family (most of Tyler's novels are set in Baltimore). After a troubled childhood and adolescence which saw him embarrass the family with a series of petty thefts that his parents had to cover the cost of (as they never tire of reminding him) as well as spend a period in a reform school (or a school for "the gifted young tester of limits" as their motto has it), he embarked on a brief marriage which produced a daughter, Opal, who now lives with her mother in Philadelphia after the subsequent divorce. Barnaby has settled into a comfortably undemanding existence working for a company called Rent-A-Back which provides odd-job services to the elderly and infirm.

As the novel opens Barnaby is at the railway station in Baltimore waiting to catch a train for one of his regular visits to see Opal; while waiting around he observes a scene whereby a man persuades a woman to deliver a parcel to his daughter who will be waiting at the station in Philadelphia. Barnaby follows her to her rendezvous, and, after a bit of low-level stalking, manages to engineer a meeting with her on a subsequent train journey, and, eventually, spark up a relationship. Sophia is a few years older than him, and seems to be viewed by Barnaby's relatives as something of a sign of belated maturity in the black sheep of the Gaitlin family.

That's about as exciting as the plot development gets, but the unspoken point of the plot, such as it is, is Barnaby's gradual and belated (and slightly reluctant) realisation that he is what everyone else (well, apart from his immediate family) already knows he is: a good guy. The sneaky way that the last sentence of the novel is the same as the first, but carries a totally different meaning, conveys this very neatly.

Let's get a few criticisms out of the way first: it is all a bit cosy and parochial, and it's fairly clear that things are going to work out OK in the end without any major catastrophes occurring (or, arguably, anything very much happening at all). Also, this is a novel written by a woman, in the first person, through the character of a man. I can't think of that many novels like that, so I haven't got much of a basis for comparison, but I didn't find the authorial voice completely convincing, certainly less so than in Back When We Were Grownups, which was written from the perspective of a middle-aged woman - less of a stretch, you would think, for obvious reasons.

However (and returning to my earlier point) it's not easy to rework very similar territory for each book and come up with something fresh every time, but Tyler's observations of human interaction in general and family life in particular are acutely well-observed. And while it's true that everything does, in general, work out OK for those who you want it to work out OK for, it doesn't quite happen in the way you might imagine it's going to.

In any case, going back to the musical comparisons, I've always felt complaints that, say, Oasis keep making the same record again and again to be a bit unfair - it's a good record, and if you get bored with it, as is your prerogative, then you can always go and listen to some Joni Mitchell or something instead. Similarly, any notion that Anne Tyler should start writing experimental lesbian vampire fiction seems a bit unreasonable. Reading this novel and the ones I mentioned above (and the lesbian vampire stuff, if you like) is what will make you a rounded and multi-faceted individual that women will be mysteriously drawn to, like a magnet. Oh yes.

1 comment:

funkyrainbow said...

Lewis Arms Tongwynlais - sorry to be leaving this on your book comment space but cant find another place on your blog to contact you! I am researching my family and am interested to see that you have family links to the Lewis Arms in Tongwynlais. I also have links to the family - back to the 1841 census when Edmund and Martha Thomas were the publicans. Their grand-daughter Martha Ann Lewis is my maternal great great nanna. If you are interested please drop me an email - I woulod love to know how you fit into the tree!