Wednesday, August 22, 2012

We’re All Beginners

Raymond Carver’s short story “The Beginners” was later published as his best known classic, the Gordon Lish edited version, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”  As Mel says in the story, “It seems to me we’re just beginners at love.” Carver’s point, we’re all “beginners.”  Anne Tyler takes this concept and also applies it to loving and then losing (and everything else in between) in her new novel, The Beginner’s Goodbye.

I read the book soon after I finished Anita Shreve’s Light on Snow. Anne Tyler and Anita Shreve are two of my favorite contemporary American female writers.  They are different in so many ways, and their writing is so clearly unique to each.    I make the gender distinction only because there is a feminine touch to their writing, making observations about matters normally invisible to their male counterparts. 

Tyler has a special place in my heart as our very own Jane Austin, recording the foibles of society in that part of Baltimore I think of as Tylerville, where quirky dysfunctional men are portrayed along with their strange wives, mothers, and friends.    Although these people live in Baltimore, as does the author, it is a Baltimore of Tyler’s creation, more like a little city you’d find along a Lionel train board. 

The Beginner’s Goodbye particularly appeals to me as it is about a publisher, Aaron Woolcott, the narrator and protagonist. He works for a vanity publishing company that he and his sister, Nandina, inherited from their father (Nandina is more the grounded sibling and thus more in charge).  It is a vanity publisher in the old tradition, not the on-demand world of today (although Woolcott Publishing is a contemporary firm in the novel). But they also publish little guidebooks, slices of life they call “The Beginner’s” series.  Just fill in the rest of the title. Hence, The Beginner’s Goodbye is fittingly about loss and reclamation. 

Aaron, like many other Tyler leading men, is damaged goods.  Last time in Noah’s Compass it was Liam Pennywell.  In this case, Aaron is in his late 30’s, has a paralyzed arm, a stutter, and walks with a cane.  His mother and his sister have basically taken care of him and one would think bachelorhood would be his future, until he meets Dorothy, a plain speaking, but not very compassionate doctor, some eight years Aaron’s senior.  The two most unlikely people (for marriage) are married soon after they meet.  Here is Tyler’s description of their courtship as expressed by Aaron: It makes me sad now to think back on the early days of our courtship.  We didn’t know anything at all.  Dorothy didn’t even know it was a courtship, at the beginning, and I was kind of like an overgrown puppy, at least as I picture myself from this distance.  I was romping around her all eager and panting, dying to impress her, while for some time she remained stolidly oblivious.

Unfortunately, Dorothy is the victim of a tragic (almost comical) accident, and Aaron is now a widower. Here Tyler resorts to the contrivance of Dorothy “coming back,” Aaron catching glimpses of her and having imaginary conversations….until he can learn to say “goodbye.”

Tyler’s description of Dorothy is consummately written, viewed by a woman of a woman, although the narrative is Aaron’s: She was short and plump and serious-looking.  She had a broad, olive-skinned face, appealingly flat-planed, and calm black eyes that were noticeably level, with that perfect symmetry that makes the viewer feel rested.  Her hair, which she cut herself in a heedless, blunt, square style, was deeply absolutely black, and all of a piece.  (Her family had come from Mexico two generations before.) And yet I don’t think other people recognized how attractive she was, because she hid it.  Or, no, not even that; she was too unaware of it to hide it.  She wore 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 of a type that waitresses favored in diners.  Only I noticed the creases as fine as silk threads that encircled her writs and her neck.  Only I knew her dear, pudgy feet, with the nails like tiny seashells.  (Maybe a description to some degree of the author?)

As for the publishing concept, the “Beginners” books: These were something on the order of the Dummies books, but without the cheerleader tone of voice – more dignified.  And far more classily designed, with deckle-edged pages [just like the book I’m holding] and uniform hard-backed bindings wrapped in expensive, glossy covers.  Also, we were more focused – sometimes absurdly so, if you asked me. (Witness The Beginner’s Spice Cabinet.)  Anything is manageable if it’s divided into small enough increments, was the theory; even life’s most complicated lessons.  Indeed, maybe even saying “goodbye.”

Fate and chance figure heavily in Tyler’s work as does humor.  A tree falls on their house, and a TV crushes Dorothy’s chest: Sony Trinitrons are known for their unusual weight.…If we had had a flat-screen TV, would Dorothy still be alive? Or if her patient hadn’t canceled.  Then she wouldn’t even have been home yet when the tree fell.  Or if she had stayed in the kitchen instead of heading for the sunporch.

Tyler describes most of her characters to a tee by defining the opposite, a “normal” character in Aaron’s publishing company, Charles. Generally we deferred to Charles in matters of public taste.  He was the only one of us who led what I thought as a normal life – married to the same woman since forever, with triplet teenage daughters.  He liked to tell little domestic-comedy, Brady Bunch –style anecdotes about the daughters, and the rest of us would hang around looking like a bunch of anthropologists studying foreign customs.

Aaron moves in with his sister after he loses Dorothy and his house is partially destroyed.  In fact, he painstakingly avoids going back to the house although it is being renovated.  The contractor visits him at his sister’s.  Meanwhile, Dorothy begins to make unexpected appearances to Aaron, even having conversations (in his mind).  Everyone, in particular his secretary, Peggy, tries to cater to him, bringing him food, trying to comfort him.  But Aaron avoids the attention.  This comes to a boil one day.  Tyler’s dialogue shines:

‘”That is so, so like you,” Peggy said.
“Only you would think of resenting someone’s doing you a kindness.”
“I just meant –“
Normal people say, ‘Why, thank you, dear. This makes me feel much better, dear.  It makes me feel loved and valued.’”
“But you: oh, no.  You act so sensitive, so prickly; we all just walk on eggshells around you in case we might say the wrong thing.”
I said, “How did we end up with me all of a sudden?”
“It’s not fair, Aaron.  You expect too much of us.  We’re not mind-readers. We’re all just doing our best here; we don’t know; we’re just trying to get through life as best we can, like everybody else!”

Getting through life is what Tyler’s characters seem to be struggling to do and in the process, finding some happiness along the way.  Even straight-laced Nandina finds it and finally Aaron does in a perhaps contrived happy ending, that comically coincides with a new vanity title the firm publishes, one that goes on to be one of their best seller’s, Why I Have Decided to Go On Living.

I’ve made this observation before concerning some of my favorite writers as they age. Tyler is one year older than I am, and thinking some of the same thoughts.  Aaron is trying to piece together a photo album that was destroyed in the accident, frustrated that the photos were not labeled, having difficulty identifying subjects and years the photos were taken. This business of not labeling photos reminded me of those antique cemeteries where the names have worn off the gravestones and you can’t tell who is buried there.  You see a little gray tablet with a melted-looking lamb on top, and you know it must have been somebody’s child who died, but now you can’t even make out her name or the words her parents chose to say how much they missed her.  It’s just so many random dents in the stone, and the parents are long gone themselves, and everything’s been forgotten. 

Losing a child.  Indeed, the worst.  And in the annals of time, “random dents in stone.”  But from the tragic-comic we move to deadly serious, written on an entirely different plane, although it is also in the first person, and as in other Shreve novels, written in the present tense (narrated by a 30 year old as seen through the eyes of her 12 year old self).  Losing a child (and then saving another one) is central to this novel, Light on Snow.  Consider some of Shreve’s opening sentences that set the stage, both for the story and her style of writing:

“The stillness of the forest is always a surprise, as if an audience had quieted for a performance.  Beneath the hush I can hear the rustle of dead leaves, the snap of a twig, a brook running under a skin of ice.”

“I am twelve on the mid-December afternoon (though I am thirty now), and I don’t know yet that puberty is just around the corner or that the relentless narcissism of a teenage girl will make walking in the woods with my father just about the last think I’ll want to do on any given day after school.  Taking a hike together is a habit my father and I have grown into. My father spends too many hours bent to his work, and I know he needs to get outside.”

“A branch snaps and scratches my cheek.  The sun sets.  We have maybe twenty minutes left of decent light.”

“My father has lost the weight of a once sedentary man.  His jeans are threadbare in the thighs and tinged with the rusty fur of sawdust.  At best he shaves only every other day.  His parka is beige, stained with spots of oil and grease and pine pitch.  He cuts his hair himself, and his blue eyes are always a surprise.”

The father in the story is Robert Dillon, former successful architect, who two years before lost his wife and their baby in an automobile accident and out of great despondency quits his job and takes his then ten year old daughter, Nicky, and simply drives north, settling in a remote town in New Hampshire where he (and she) become virtual hermits, he taking up furniture making, Nicky more or less being left to herself to go to a school where she knows no one.

Until, in the woods and in the snow, they come across a new born baby that had been abandoned only minutes before and from there the action begins, ultimately leading to their getting involved with the police, the town, and finally, the mother of the child. Chance and fate play roles in Shreve’s novel as in Tylers’.

It is Shreve’s spare prose and character development that gives the simple plot suspense and the feeling of loss and redemption.  It is also a coming of age story for Nicky who is desperately seeking both a replacement for her lost mother and her lost sister.  Perhaps the mother of the baby, Charlotte, can be both?

Robert, Nicky, and Charlotte are all changed by the time the tale is told, masterly by Shreve.