Tyler, Anne (2015), A Spool of Blue Thread, Ballantine Books
In my review of John Irving’s In One Person, I pointed out that I (we all?) have problems with certain writers in figuring out whether my enjoyment of their work is strictly personal or whether these books are more broadly speaking great literary achievements. It’s not just Irving for me. Another writer who I find similarly troubling is Anne Tyler. Now, unlike Irving, I have not read all of Anne Tyler’s work, but what I have read I found instantly enjoyable. A friend on a literature forum I used to be on recommended Tyler to me and I purchased an omnibus volume of three of her novels, a horribly ugly book by the way. I stared with The Accidental Tourist and with that, I was off to the races. I have never not loved Anne Tyler’s work, but she’s not always been critically well regarded except in a mildly condescending manner. A Pulitzer winning novelist, Tyler has often been pegged as a soft family (or women’s) writer. In the post-The Wire era, who among us would volunteer her name when asked, during the recent race based crisis in Baltimore, which novelist to read to get a sense of the city? And this despite her dedication to Baltimore and her careful social and historical examination of its residents in book after book. Anne Tyler is not a remarkable prose stylist, but she is a fundamentally good writer of prose. Her writing, in some ways, could be compared to the great chronicler of Maine, Stephen King, in their unobtrusive efficiency and their dedication to the rhythms of ordinary life, but her prose is considerably more literary than that. With Tyler you never feel as if she wasn’t in control – and it’s a control that has been refined with each new book. Maybe the point of comparison shouldn’t be the rough-and-tumble efficiency of King, and rather the elegant refinement of John Updike. She lacks Updike’s olympian notes of stylistic beauty, but she shares with him not just the refined and yet unshowy language, but also the sense of effortlessness. Updike famously did not overly revise, and so his prose is a testament to his elegant brilliance (brilliant elegance?) – the same is true for Tyler, even though I don’t know how many revisions go into a page of her prose. Ultimately, Tyler, despite her accolades, her popular success and her Pulitzer is an underrated writer in the American canon.
I only wish that I had picked a different novel than A Spool of Blue Thread to make this point. Because, apart from some truly excellent chapters, this book confirms rather than challenges the prejudice against Tyler’s work held by many readers. Her twentieth novel mostly walks down well-trod paths, with her skill inducing not admiration as much as a kind of leisurely boredom. The novel is extremely well crafted, well structured, full of believable characters, and an admirable empathy with these lives, but in many places, the novel is a bit of an indictment of Tyler’s middle-class sensibilities, and her frequent blindness to lives outside of her immediate purview. Nothing in this book feels urgent, there’s no obvious reason that this book exists. And yet. And yet the book, as often as I was midly annoyed by its Tylerisms, also gave me immense pleasure and it has standout moments that truly surprised and moved me. It’s as if there was a fresh and relevant novelist hiding in Anne Tyler the accomplished routinier, not coming out except for small moments, a chapter here and there. It’s this book that has been nominated for the absurdly redefined new version of the Man Booker Prize and you know what? It may not be the best book on the list but it’s heads and shoulders above many recent winners of the award. A Spool of Blue Thread has empathy, skill and a clear-eyed observation of a particular stratum of society. Far too few books (and god-awful Booker winners) do these days. For all the sentimentality and unsurprising sepia toned nostalgia in the book, Tyler’s novel feels original in the sense of specifically composed to convey this story, line by line. She has told similar stories before, but you never feel as if she feeds you Coelhoesque stock phrases and stock emotions. Meanwhile, here are quotes from Julian Barnes’ Booker winning The Sense of an Ending. Click on the link, I dare you. I repeat. Booker. Winning. Anne Tyler takes no shortcuts. A Spool of Blue Thread is almost 400 pages long, with an exceptional sense of which scenes should run for how long to achieve the maximum effect. The book doesn’t turn on small individual paragraphs, on a pithy line or two. It’s the accumulation (and juxtaposition) of lives that creates the book. Right now as I type this there’s a niggling sense in the back of my mind of me talking myself into liking the book more than I liked it while reading, but I do honestly recommend it. And if you’re stuck halfway, irritated at the Whitshank family, I promise you, the book gets better.
One early problem I had while reading the book is that I couldn’t see the point of it. In Tyler’s variations of middle class life in Baltimore there’s always an idea, an emotion, a big character flaw or oddity driving the story. It took me a long time and hundreds of pages to see that point in her new book. The book consists of four parts, which get smaller and smaller, with the first part, “Can’t leave till the dog dies” the longest and least fractured of the four. These four parts are subdivided into numbered chapters, which don’t always function the same way. That’s, incidentally, another reason why I had to think of Updike’s lack of revision when considering Tyler’s novel. There’s a sense of slightly disintegrating discipline as we move through the book. The first two or three chapters of part one are relatively clear as having a uniting theme. While the book (with the exception of part 3, is more or less sequenced chronologically, there is some temporal overlap at the beginning, as we get to know the Whitshank family by looking at the role of some of its individual members. Tyler has done this before (this phrase is applicable to many parts of the book, sadly), with more direction and purpose, as when, in the 1983 novel Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, she offers us a Rashomon-like look at childhood, and the different ways family experience is coded for different family members. Not until the last part does Tyler really shift the perspective this time around, however. The Whitshank family of A Spool of Blue Thread is one of Tyler’s typical oddball families, consisting of the parents, a very dedicated and loving couple, and their odd children. There is their son Denny, who leaves home early, bouncing around the world without ever really telling his family. He comes out to his family on the phone but next thing they know he is engaged to a woman. Next time they hear of him he’s marrying still another woman, and having a daughter with her. And next time they hear of him, he is single again. He is the outsider because the rest of the family strongly values being connected to each other. This is one of the themes as is a kind of subdued upward mobility. Comfortable middle class life, with a stable, traditional marriage is implicitly and explicitly the goal – and the supposed takeaway from the book, as its final pages pivot to Denny’s point of view, revealing his intention to follow the Whitshank family tradition and establish his own middle class household.
The first (and last) chapter, featuring Denny is one of the ways Tyler offers up her message of middle class desirability. The first chapter, showing Denny’s deviancy as a contrast, as a way to define what it means to be a Whitshank is interesting. Being a Whitshank is not a question of DNA. The adopted family son, Stem, is, as many people point out, more of a Whitshank than Denny, the roaming, possibly bisexual, unsteady black sheep of the family. He does not hold a good, steady job, and the family embarrassment for him is palpable. He moves in and out of the story, and is never really expected to draw the reader’s sympathies. He is a mild irritant. This definition of class by exclusion is interesting in the light of recent events in Baltimore because that’s also the way race is defined, by having a clearly marked Other to distinguish from us. And this leads me to the other way Tyler offers her middle class message: the house the Whitshanks live in has been built by the just deceased grandparent generation. The inappropriately named Junior Whitshank, father of the current family patriarch Red Whitshank, has built the house, but not for himself. Builder by trade, he had built it for a different, richer family. He was lucky enough to be able to eventually move into the house himself. The Whitshank family history starts with this movenment into middle class respectability. Nobody knows where Junior Whitshank came from, what his background is. The family is tied to the house, it’s self made in a very literal sense this way. And I’m not giving away too much when I tell you that at the end of the book the house is sold. Not for poverty reasons, but due to unforeseen events. Many elements of the book resemble elements from previous books, and if you know Tyler’s work, you will recognize many of its characters and subplots, but one feels as if Tyler tried hard, this time around, to do two things at once. Tell a believable, warm-hearted story – and provide an allegory of sorts about the American middle class as a transitional phenomenon of social stability. I’m not sure she manages this divide awfully well, because in order to pull it off she has to add enough plot details and observations, to properly supply both “books” with support.
That said, there is a point where Tyler suddenly breaks with the narrative to go back in time to give us the story of the marriage of Junior Whitshank and his much younger wife Linnie Mae, the parents of Red Whitshank and originators of the Whitshank family as it exists in the present of the book. Their story starts off with a crime and a surprise but I will not offer any details except to say that the two of them originally came from the south and worked their way up from being out on the streets with only 7$ to their name to living in an upscale Baltimore neighborhood. I don’t want to give more details because the 80 pages allotted to the life of Junior and Linnie Mae are the most intensely pleasurable and readable of the whole novel. I didn’t care about structure, I didn’t take notes, nothing, I was completely swept up by the story. The greatest tragedy of the novel’s writing is that Anne Tyler could conceive of and write a character like Linnie Mae and have most of the novel be about the simple, kind but unspeakably dull present day Whitshanks. We care for them, sure, but Linnie Mae is a thunderstorm of a character. Smart, strong-willed, and deceptively kind-hearted, she is the kind of character described in blurbs as “she knows what she wants and she gets it” – but since the 80 pages are mostly from Junior’s perspective we get only bits and pieces of the character that she is. And at this point in Anne Tyler’s work, maybe that’s why Linnie Mae sticks out so sharply in the book. She has not been ground into the broad dough of what we have to call the Tyleresque novel. There are no mind-numbing quotidian details to soften our impression. The love story of Junior and Linnie Mae, if we can even call it that, is complicated, and frequently even surprisingly dark, but makes for exceptionally compelling reading. In fact it#s not just these 80 pages. The whole last third of the novel ties up much of the rest of the book and shapes it, making much that seemed like superfluous detail meaningful in hindsight. It’s a novel that truly rewards rereading and punishes those who bail on it halfway through. A Spool of Blue Thread is far from the best novel in an oeuvre that has quite a few remarkable highlights, but it’s also extremely well crafted, smoothly written, and for a brief time, very compelling.
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