Home at Last, and Homesick Again: The Ten Novels of Anne Tyler
Jones, Anne G., Hollins Critic
On television, a woman whose house has just been flooded for the third time in nine years says she thinks she can move back in next week. I am baffled. "Why," I ask, "do they stay there? Why don't they move?"
"Because," says my friend, "it's home."
I have trouble with this. On leave now, I leap across regions, trailing boxes of books. So "home" is for me a mystery more observed than undergone. For many others, too, "home" and "family," here and now, are meanings in the midst of change.
Yet as most reviewers have pointed out, home and family are two of Anne Tyler's favorite themes. Anne Tyler's books tell of staying at home or running away or coming back home or making a new home or failing to. Usually, house and family--place and persons--fit together, to be a home: the rigid Pecks' rigidly contiguous houses in Roland Park (Searching for Caleb); the Tulls, their lives divided between row house and restaurant (Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant).
The novels too have family traits; they share memory and history and genes. Their richness of physical texture, and their distinctive characters, draw a reader to celebrate the multiplicity and variousness of experience, to share Caleb Peck's "delight in noise and crowds." But nearly every novel has its Daniel Peck as well as its Caleb. Daniel's urge is to pull it all back together, to search for the wandering Caleb. In the spirit of Daniel Peck, then, let me suggest some patterns I have found in Tyler's blessed profusion.
I think Tyler's texts concern themselves, through the metaphor of home and wandering, with the issue of personal psychic growth. In The Reproduction of Mothering (Berkeley, 1978), Nancy Chodorow describes early growth as a painful and a paradoxical process: the infant "achieves a differentiation of self only insofar as its expectations of primary love are frustrated." At best, the person matures with both a sense of a separate self and a sense of basic relatedness, the memory of "primary love." But each sense may remain vulnerable to the other: "merging brings the threat of loss of self" and "separateness ... threatens ... the infant's very sense of [related] existence." Even though we emerge from the experience of these first fierce paradoxes, as adults we carry their traces and retell their story. For Tyler, "home" signifies the trace of that "sense of oneness," and wandering the trace of autonomy. The intensity of these longings is apparent in her characters; the struggle for both autonomy and intimacy structures her plots. Tyler's recurrent metaphors complement the plotting: for example, "strings" suggest merging, and "foreignness" suggests separateness. Some characters move out of symbiotic love; they become able to love another person who is different and separate. Others never make it away from home.
Tyler's interest is not limited to the growth of a central consciousness. Although family may serve as a metaphor for one person's several alternatives, Tyler is also concerned with family as a community of persons in relationship. Freud, says Janet Malcolm, called human relations "tragic"--"because we cannot know each other." For Tyler, they are tragicomic. We can at least know that we do not know. In her first novel, If Morning Ever Comes, point of view is largely limited to the protagonist Ben Joe Hawkes. But even there, Tyler uses dramatic irony to explore the reality of multiple consciousnesses. In Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, that early amused and affectionate sense of irony has grown into a moving sense of the tragedy as well as the comedy of the paradox at the heart of the family. As they fatally miss one another, the Tulls will inevitably do more damage than they heal. In all her novels, Tyler's characters and her families continually express their conflicting urges toward wandering with Caleb into the (object-) world and staying at home in hopes of bliss with Daniel. Frustrated in both, they often find themselves, when home at last, homesick again. …