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Redeemed by Muriel

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There are books I admire but don’t read again and books I reread compulsively. The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler falls into the latter category. It was only a recent seventh rereading that finally revealed why. It had taken me that long to hold the sum of this extraordinary novel in my head – to realize that this was a great and subtle piece of writing where every character, every phrase was a carefully chosen part of a magnificent and subtle whole. It is also, even after multiple readings, extremely funny.

Essentially this is a love story but one which offers a surprising view of what love may be. Anne Tyler’s characters inhabit her native Baltimore but in a parallel universe – they are people on the margins, often eccentric, people who are just trying to get by, seemingly untouched by external social and political events. The central character is Macon Leary who has suffered a catastrophic loss: his 12-year-old son has been killed in a random shooting. His marriage collapses and he’s left alone in the marital home. But Macon is revealed as a man who lives in perpetual apprehension of the outside world – his son’s death has simply confirmed his worst suspicions that the world is messy, uncontrolled and meaningless, and that goes for its inhabitants as well.

The early chapters describe his increasingly frenzied attempts to get his household ‘under control’: sheet bags instead of pyjamas, skate boards under linen baskets to speed up laundry procedures. He struggles on with his work, which is writing travel guides of an unusual nature. The mission of the Accidental Tourist guides could be summed up as ‘making travelling businessmen feel they haven’t left home’ – a beautiful metaphor for Macon’s own terror of anywhere unfamiliar. ‘I am happy to say that it is now possible to buy Kentucky Fried Chicken in Stockholm’ is the highest praise he can offer that city. Other travel hints include: ‘Always bring

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There are books I admire but don’t read again and books I reread compulsively. The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler falls into the latter category. It was only a recent seventh rereading that finally revealed why. It had taken me that long to hold the sum of this extraordinary novel in my head – to realize that this was a great and subtle piece of writing where every character, every phrase was a carefully chosen part of a magnificent and subtle whole. It is also, even after multiple readings, extremely funny.

Essentially this is a love story but one which offers a surprising view of what love may be. Anne Tyler’s characters inhabit her native Baltimore but in a parallel universe – they are people on the margins, often eccentric, people who are just trying to get by, seemingly untouched by external social and political events. The central character is Macon Leary who has suffered a catastrophic loss: his 12-year-old son has been killed in a random shooting. His marriage collapses and he’s left alone in the marital home. But Macon is revealed as a man who lives in perpetual apprehension of the outside world – his son’s death has simply confirmed his worst suspicions that the world is messy, uncontrolled and meaningless, and that goes for its inhabitants as well. The early chapters describe his increasingly frenzied attempts to get his household ‘under control’: sheet bags instead of pyjamas, skate boards under linen baskets to speed up laundry procedures. He struggles on with his work, which is writing travel guides of an unusual nature. The mission of the Accidental Tourist guides could be summed up as ‘making travelling businessmen feel they haven’t left home’ – a beautiful metaphor for Macon’s own terror of anywhere unfamiliar. ‘I am happy to say that it is now possible to buy Kentucky Fried Chicken in Stockholm’ is the highest praise he can offer that city. Other travel hints include: ‘Always bring a book as a protection against strangers.’ His own book, which he’s been lugging around, unread, for years is called Miss Macintosh, My Darling and is 1,200 pages long. His happiest moments are spent back at his desk assembling his reports. He strips facts from other guide books then ‘righteously, mercilessly, weeds out the passive voice’. His life is approaching meltdown when he trips over his own domestic arrangements and breaks a leg, necessitating a trip back to his family home. One of the major themes in Anne Tyler’s novels is her characters’ struggle to negotiate a balance between family and self-identity. Macon’s sensation of relief and dismay at being home neatly illustrates this conflict. Furthermore our introduction to the Leary siblings, unmarried sister Rose and divorced brothers Porter and Charles, achieves an astounding and almost impossible feat. It makes us realize that Macon, for all his strangeness, has really done rather well. He has grown up, left home and sustained a relationship for nearly twenty years. Whereas his siblings, agreeable people who run a family business, are still enjoying the meals of childhood and every night playing a card game they have invented and only they can understand. We are not surprised when we hear Rose announce that to keep the kitchen ‘under control’ she has alphabetized the contents: that’s why the allspice is next to the ant poison. Who will save Macon Leary from himself? Is redemption even possible? For it has to be said that though tall and pleasant-looking, Macon does not immediately strike one as a romantic hero. Fastidious, fearful, insensitive and an unrepentant pedant, he is the kind of man likely to respond to a lover’s tender ‘I never expected to feel like I feel!’ with the distinctly testy ‘As I feel!’ Salvation comes in the unlikely and not entirely attractive shapeof Muriel Pritchett, a dog-training, single-parent ‘divorsy’. It is a daring and playful act on the part of Anne Tyler to offer us a heroine as challenging as Muriel. Skinny, with eyes like caraway seeds and limp black hair, she is described by Rose as looking like ‘a flamenco dancer with galloping consumption’. But though not entirely likeable, Muriel is admirable. Her situation is precarious: she is a divorced and unsupported mother of 25 with a 7-year-old son. There is no question of Alexander being an adorable son substitute – he has a shaven head, pink-framed glasses and twelve different allergies. But the clue to Muriel’s attraction – for Macon at least – is there in almost the first words she utters: ‘I’m not scared of a thing in this world’; and astonishingly, it turns out to be true. Even more astonishingly she manages to infect Macon with her own sass and confidence. Because, though patchily educated, Muriel has survival skills. She has three jobs; she gets a low rent on her house by doing all the repairs; she has a car that she keeps on the road by sharing it with a teenage mechanic. Nothing fazes her. When a young mugger demands their wallets Muriel simply thumps him on the jaw with her handbag and tells him sternly to go home. Eventually Macon moves into her run-down house, and, to his astonishment, begins to relax and thrive. This is a household where the concept of ‘control’ isn’t readily apparent. It is thronged with  visitors, split infinitives and pieces of furniture propped up on tins of tomatoes. But astoundingly he comes to value the richness of Muriel’s life, and the richness of life itself. This awareness leads him to a profound insight. Could it be, he wonders, that ‘who you are when you’re with a person may matter more than whether you love them?’ Anne Tyler is the consummate master of showing not telling, and three different incidents then follow which show us the person Macon becomes in Muriel’s world. The tense, cold and anxious man is transformed into a merry, tolerant fellow who is teased at home for his soft heart. Of course life is never that simple or straightforward, even in fiction. But the final pages of The Accidental Tourist are profoundly affecting and full of hope. For the first time Macon finds a way of accepting his son’s death. Equally importantly, he decides with whom he will spend the rest of his life. Finally and symbolically he abandons forever his copy of Miss Macintosh, the book carried specifically to prevent contact with other members of the human race. Anne Tyler is one of those writers who are passionately loved by their readers but enjoy a very low profile. It must be said, though, that her almost invisible public persona is her own choice. From her book jackets we know she was born in 1941, raised until 11 in Quaker communes and hit the ground running with her first novel in 1964. I admire her resistance to the idea of profiles or lifestyle pieces: the books speak for themselves. Fortunately for the true fan the advent of email has allowed a slight thaw. Occasionally she answers questions on line about her working methods. From one interview I took away two useful facts. First, she chooses to write on a deliberately uncomfortable sofa and – I particularly liked this detail – before she gets down to work she likes to sit for half an hour whilst clicking the top of her biro. Second, she has remarked that when she meets her fans they are often disappointed that she doesn’t speak like the characters in her books. She creates worlds so believable and engrossing that we  can hardly bear to accept that they are just fiction. But perhaps it also reflects the fact that we respond, yearningly, to the warmth of her world. ‘Feel-good’ is too facile a label for her writing: perhaps it is more that she clearly loves her characters as we do and as a result we are nurtured and enriched by their company.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 26 © Frances Donnelly 2010


About the contributor

Frances Donnelly lives in Suffolk and would like to offer special thanks to Sally Hunkin whose copy of this book she read seven times and inadvertently destroyed.

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