Thursday, April 26, 2012

Breathing Lessons, by Anne Tyler

I recently read two articles in the Guardian, possibly both on the same day. The first article reported that the Pulitzer Prize Committee will not give an award for fiction in 2012.  In the history of the fiction prize, this is the 11th occasion on which this has happened, but it still ruffled some feathers. The three novels on the short-list were Karen Russell's Swamplandia!, Denis Johnson's Train Dreams, and the late David Foster Wallace's The Pale King, left unfinished at the time of his suicide and completed, I believe, by his editor. I read and enjoyed the first, but I didn't think it worthy of the Pulitzer. I never cared for Denis Johnson's short stories so never picked up his novels, and although I find Foster Wallace's writing brilliant, his books often leave me feeling the depth of despair that ended his life. Although the three judges charged with producing this short list defended their unanimous selections, the Committee passed on all of them.

Almost simultaneously, Anne Tyler, whose Breathing Lessons won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1989 and who is said to be nearly as reclusive as Salinger, suddenly decided to give a long, leisurely interview to the Guardian. Providence (and the Guardian) seemed to suggest that it was time to read this novel.

Breathing Lessons strikes me as a contemporary, American version of Mrs. Dalloway  -- a stream-of-consciousness account of a single day in the life of Maggie Moran. Maggie is by many accounts an ordinary middle-aged woman. Her teenaged daughter, Daisy, petulantly demands, "Mom? Was there a certain conscious point in your life when you decided to settle for being ordinary?" In the care of a good author, however, we realise that there is no such thing as an ordinary person, and both Woolf and Tyler reveal their characters' strengths, flaws and foibles.  Maggie has foibles galore.

On the given day, Maggie and her husband Ira are driving to the funeral of a schoolmate's husband. The book opens with Maggie collecting their car from the garage and immediately getting into a fender-bender with a truck because she was startled by something she heard in a radio interview. It was with her former daughter-in-law, Fiona, who announced that she would be remarrying soon. *crash!* Fiona leaves the irate truck driver fuming in the street as she races home to tell Ira, who is far more interested in the fresh dent than he is in Fiona's impending remarriage.  Ira reminds her that their son, Jesse, was an immature, irresponsible rock star wannabe and that the marriage had been doomed from the start. This is not what Maggie wants to hear; she defends her children as staunchly and unreasoningly as a mother bear. This, she reflects, may not always have been to their benefit.
Sometimes, deep down inside, Maggie blamed herself too. She saw now that there was a single theme to every decision she had made as a parent: The mere fact that her children were children, condemned for years to feel powerless and bewildered and confined, filled her with such pity that to add any further hardship to their lives seemed unthinkable. She could excuse anything in them, forgive them everything. She would have made a better mother, perhaps, if she hadn't remembered so well how it felt to be a child.
Flashing back to the beginning of Fiona's and Jesse's marriage, Maggie expresses the frustrations of mothers everywhere. How to be in several places at once and to keep everything running properly? While Fiona is in labour in hospital, Maggie frets about Ira's inability to keep things in order at home, about Jesse's immaturity as his child is about to be born, about... well, about everything. Maggie's maternal anxieties are downright palpable.  
She considered going home for a while (it was nearly five o'clock) but she knew she would only fret and pace, so she stayed where she was and kept in touch by telephone. Daisy reported that Ira was fixing a pancake supper. "No green vegetable?" Maggie asked. "Where's the green vegetable?" Ira got on the phone to assure her that he was serving spiced crab-apple rings on the side. "Spice crab-apple rings are not green, Ira," Maggie said. She felt herself growing weepy. She ought to be at home supervising her family's nutrition; she ought to be storming the labor room to comfort Fiona; she ought to take Jesse in her arms and rock him because he was nothing but a child still, much too young for what was happening to him. But here she stood, clutching a salty-smelling receiver in a public phone hutch. Her stomach felt all knotted and tight. It hadn't been so long since she was a patient in the labor room herself, and her muscles recalled it exactly.
Part of Maggie's task as a mother, she believes, is to get the family back together and keep it so, despite its nearly entropic tendency to fly apart. Ira has accepted that Jesse and Fiona were too young to be married with a child; he sees their individual failures quite plainly. He remembered that when Fiona had moved into their house, there had been clear signals of impermanence from the start. I admire how Tyler deftly uses toiletries to forecast the instability of the young marriage.
Wasn't it odd that for almost a year now she had borne off to the bathroom twice daily a tortoiseshell soapbox, a tube of Aim toothpaste (not the Morans' brand), and a toothbrush in a plastic cylinder? And that her toilet supplies were continually stored in a clear vinyl travel case on the bureau? She might as well be a guest. She had never meant to settle in permanently.
On their way home from the funeral, Maggie convinces Ira to stop at Fiona's mother's house, just for a visit. Ira's not fooled for a moment -- he knows full well that Maggie is scheming to reunite Fiona and Jesse. Wearily he shakes his head and makes the detour. After sending Ira out to play frisbee with their granddaughter, Maggie proceeds to tell Fiona how much Jesse still loves her. She knows she's stretching the truth, but it's just a small distortion, and it's for a good cause, right? Fiona had agreed seven years before to bear the child (as opposed to aborting it) and marry Jesse after Maggie had told her that Jesse had come home with plans to build a cradle. Fiona was sceptical but touched nonetheless, and no one but Maggie was surprised when the baby slept in a bureau drawer.  Finally, Ira stepped up as the good grandfather and hammered together a makeshift crib.
Leroy [the granddaughter] learned to crawl and she crawled right out of her bureau drawer, and the next day Ira came home with a crib. He assembled it, without comment, in his and Maggie's bedroom. Without comment, Fiona watched from the doorway. The skin beneath her eyes had a sallow, soiled look.
Still, Fiona falls once again for Maggie's stories and agrees to return with them to their house to meet Jesse for dinner. We know vaguely what will happen, and yet we're still as surprised as Maggie when it plays out as Ira had predicted it would.

By the time Maggie and Ira fall into bed at the end of the day, we realise, with copious thanks to Anne Tyler, that we never really change. We grow in some regards as years pass, but our motivations and personalities are the same from one decade to the next. Maggie is also living proof that although others may label her 'ordinary' and 'common', we are sadly blind if we fail to see that everyone has a wealth of quirky individuality.  Our common experiences are no less profound and poignant.

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