Intimate Violence in Anne Tyler's Fiction: "The Clock Winder" and "Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant"

By Sweeney, Susan Elizabeth | The Southern Literary Journal, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview

Intimate Violence in Anne Tyler's Fiction: "The Clock Winder" and "Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant"


Sweeney, Susan Elizabeth, The Southern Literary Journal


I. Yoked by Violence Together

Critics and reviewers have described Anne Tyler's novels as examples of "the psychology and spirit of game-playing" (Koppel 283) and "the comedy of manners" (Leithauser 54). Her fiction may indeed seem positively sunny in comparison to the cool acidity of Margaret Atwood or the Gothic grimness of Joyce Carol Oates. And yet, despite Tyler's apparent optimism, every one of her novels crystallizes around a moment of strife or loss that precipitates the rest of the action, and which I will call "intimate violence."

Even the beginnings of Tyler's novels feature catastrophes, casualties, and crises. As Doris Betts explains, she does not recount the gradual passage of time, but instead "enters it at a still spot near some point of change, insight, or decision for her protagonist" (25), Sometimes a member of the protagonist's family inexplicably disappears: Simon runs away in The Tin Can Tree (1965), and Caleb Peck in Searching for Caleb (1976); Joanne Hawkes leaves her husband in If Morning Ever Comes (1964), and Charlotte Emery leaves hers in Earthly Possessions (1976); Beck Tull abandons his entire family in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982); and Delia Grinstead abandons hers in Ladder of Years (1995). Sometimes a friend or relative suddenly dies: Janie Rose in The Tin Can Tree, Mr. Emerson in The Clock Winder (1972), Jeremy Pauling's mother in Celestial Navigation (1974), Pearl Tull in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Max Gill in Breathing Lessons (1988), and first Danny Bedloe and then Lucy Bedloe in Saint Maybe (1991). Often the precipitating event is a literal crime, such as the bank robbery and kidnapping that opens Earthly Possessions, or the senseless murder of nine-year-old Ethan Leafy, during a Burger King holdup, which prompts his parents' separation in The Accidental Tourist (1985). A Slipping-Down Life (1970) commences with a relatively simple and self-destructive act of violence--teenaged Erie Decker carves the initials of a local musician, Drumstrings Casey, onto her forehead--that nevertheless changes all the characters' lives. Morgan's Passing (1980), a novel that is structured as "a wallpaper story" (Betts 34), might seem the exception to this rule, and yet it also opens with a crisis: Emily Meredith's sudden childbirth during a puppet show.

Tyler's novels not only begin in violence, but they are organized around such moments of strife or loss. The central crisis may be the first incident in the plot; it may be a past event which her characters try to forget, or which they find repeated in the present. But whenever the crisis occurs, it changes the still surface of her characters' lives like a stone dropped in water. Afterwards, however, Tyler's characters do not return to the way things were (or, rather, the way things seemed to be). They continue changing and developing--a process that remains always unfinished, for Tyler's novels resist conventional narrative closure.

Such moments--whether they be departures, deaths, crimes, or simpler everyday acts of betrayal or destruction--are appropriately described by the phrase "intimate violence." These crises set the plot going because they disrupt the characters' closest relationships with parents, siblings, or children, at the same time that they often lead to alternative intimacies with strangers outside the family. (1) In Earthly Possessions, for example, Charlotte's abduction tears her away from her husband, her hometown, and the only life she knows; but it also engenders enriching and even satisfying relationships with her kidnappers. This turn of events may sound melodramatic or perverse. In Tyler's fictional world, however, it is not--perhaps because she shows how all human interactions are marked by contradictory needs for autonomy and intimacy. As Frank Shelton says, "her fiction constantly, almost obsessively, deals with the vexing relationship between distance and sympathy" (852).

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