Monday, May 11, 2015

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“A SPOOL OF BLUE THREAD” by Anne Tyler (Chatto and Windus – NZ distributors Penguin-Random House, $NZ36:99)
            I do not have to tell you who Anne Tyler is because Anne Tyler (born 1941) is one of America’s most esteemed writers – a multiple-award-winner with many acclaimed novels behind her. I am allowed to tell you, however, that to read her 20th and latest novel A Spool of Blue Thread is like reading the work of an inspired newcomer. Mature in its vision, its style is nevertheless so fresh, clear and engaging, that you would think it was written by somebody half Tyler’s age. And this is a good way to approach the novel, because A Spool of Blue Thread is very much about ageing and the perceptions of different generations in the family context. Let nobody damn this fine work of fiction with the idiotic label “family saga”. To me “family saga” implies one of those fat potboilers that relate tycoons’ struggles over property, stretched sensationally across three or four generations.
A Spool of Blue Thread is no such tiresome thing.
This is a novel about a real and credible family. In fact, as Tyler explicitly describes them, the Whitshanks are an ordinary family even if, like every ordinary family, they imagine themselves to be special.
There was nothing remarkable about the Whitshanks. None of them were famous. None of them could claim exceptional intelligence. And in looks they were no more than average. Their leanness was the raw-boned kind, not the lithe, elastic slenderness of people in magazine ads, and something a little too sharp in their faces suggested that while they themselves were eating just fine, perhaps their forefathers had not.”  (Chapter 2, pp.55-56) 
To give you just a little soupcon of plot, the Whitshanks live in an affluent suburb of Baltimore (the scene of most of Anne Tyler’s novels) in a fine house acquired in the 1930s by grandfather Junior Whitshank, who was a master builder and very particular about his residence.
Now father Red Whitshank and mother Abby Whitshank are in their 70s. Red, a building contractor, is slowing up and has had a mild heart attack. Abby, a social worker (as Anne Tyler’s mother was) is starting to have odd lapses of memory and brain fades.  Could this herald Alzheimer’s or dementia? So their adult children come home to make some decisions about who will care for Red and Abby now that they’re getting past caring for themselves.
And that is the set-up of the novel. But plot as such not the essential thing. The technique is to establish the basic context and then bit by bit reveal the long-standing alliances and fissures in the family, and how they came about. The fissures are not extreme. Like the family itself they are credible. But it is Anne Tyler’s skill to show us how much they dominate these characters’ lives anyway.
There is the disruptive effect of the family’s black sheep Denny, who is in a permanent state of unhappiness because his parents adopted another son, “Stem”, and then seemed to prefer him. There is the domestic perfection of Stem’s wife Nora, whose polite and studiedly Christian ways are a mild rebuke to the more unfocused Whitshanks. There are Abby and Red’s two married daughters, comparing their respective husbands and each sometimes pointedly suggesting the superiority of her own abilities in child-rearing. Sibling rivalry among adults is a less overt than sibling rivalry among the same people when they were children, but it is still acute.
Tyler’s omniscient third-person narration allows her to jump from consciousness to consciousness, but also to make leaps back in time. Abby has an idealised memory of her first courtship, in the late 1950s, by Red. When Red’s memory takes us back to those same years, the scene is less ideal, with some rough edges, although the sense of their love is no less urgent. Even more daringly, Tyler takes us right back to the years of the Great Depression, in the early 1930s, when grandfather Junior first met grandmother Linnie. These characters are dead and gone in the “present” of the story, but Tyler is revealing to us the way attitudes and patterns of thought have been transmitted through the generations in the form of those traditions and phrases that younger people inherit without fully knowing it. Young Junior and young Linnie are in some sense the embryo from which the whole tone of the family will grow. The past hangs on the present. Repeatedly the present situation is undercut by a scene from past, which Tyler inserts after it.
In every time-frame, however, what hits you most is the absolute accuracy of Tyler’s observation. There are those family pressures that lead Abby to reflect:
One thing that parents of problem children never said aloud: it was a relief when the children turned out okay, but then what were the parents supposed to do with the anger they’d felt all those years?” (Chapter 6, p.156)
There is the chaos of a family beach holiday, with all generations doing their best to correlate. There is the devastating awkwardness of a funeral scene. The pastor hardly knows the deceased or the deceased’s family, there is the pecking order of who gets to speak, and while the family expect a church funeral, they’re not quite sure how they should react when they actually get one. And there are the times when adult siblings, no matter how different they are from one another, instinctively know how to react when the family home is invaded by an unwelcome aunt. If the milieu is specifically American (Baltimore, with familial traditions coming from further South), the patterns of interaction are fairly universal. Anyone who has lived with an extended family will recognise much of this.
It is particularly effective that so much meaning is conveyed in conversation, with Tyler’s sharp ear for the type of things that are actually said at family gatherings.
As to what it all means – I can only conclude lamely that this novel becomes a diagnosis of the whole condition of being a family. I would also note that Anne Tyler, projecting herself imaginatively into all her characters, is fully aware that males of every type think differently from females of every type. And could any male writer create the image of a woman-as-life-force as convincingly as Anne Tyler creates her young Linnie? The 1930s Depression scenes, in a way the “Rosebud” to which this novel leads, are dramatically among the strongest.
As for that title, A Spool of Blue Thread, as I read the novel I began to construct elaborate ideas about the thread that leads us through the labyrinth that is a family. But that is not what it means. You have to read the whole novel before the title’s meaning becomes clear.
I send up a solemn prayer – please, please don’t let anybody try to make a film or miniseries out of A Spool of Blue Thread. It would flatten the characters, simplify the time sequence and lose all those fine literary skills that make this the remarkable thing it is.

Irrelevant Footnote: This is not really related to Anne Tyler's fine novel, but it is grimly ironic that in the week I read about middle-cllass inhabitants of Baltimore living in leafy suburbs, the same city of Baltimore was in the grip of riots sparked by police brutality towards a black youth. Inhabitants of the same city can live in quite separate worlds.

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