Musings of Navigating The Finite remainder of life from Porchville, with the hope of a glimpse of The Infinite

Friday, August 19, 2011

Why is Anne Tyler so Popular?

I just finished another Anne Tyler novel Dinner At The Homesick Restaurant.  Good God, even the title just drips with Anne Tyler:  dinner = mundane, homesick = ineffectual and pushed around by life, and Homesick coupled with Restaurant = the eccentric…all elements in a Tyler novel.  Who the hell names a restaurant The Homesick Restaurant?  It sounds like a place where wimps would go and cry in their soup.  It is exactly the kind of name that an odd Anne Tyler character would come up with, and exactly the kind of place that I wished that I could have found in week three of some of my business trips.  And there it is, the odd dichotomy of Anne Tyler…what a dumb sounding name, it almost makes my skin crawl, and yet, if I can dispense with all the typical daily macho horseshit from my psyche, how manly and tough I am—like about what happens to me in week three of a business trip, I find the notion of dragging myself in to a joint called the Homesick Restaurant where real mashed potatoes with real gravy is served by a real, average looking with flaws, middle aged, woman that smiles a real smile and calls you “hon” to be extremely appealing.  There have been times on business trips when I would have killed for an hour with my wife and a plate of Kraft macaroni and cheese.

I have read four of Tyler’s novels, The Accidental Tourist, Breathing Lessons, Noah’s Compass, and Dinner At Homesick Restaurant.  The first two I read on my own about 20 years ago and the specifics have long left me.  I can only remember these oddly ineffectual characters that seem to have absolutely no control over their lives.  Things happen to them and they react to it, sometimes in an eccentric and bizarre albeit harmless manner, but never do they seem to take the bull by the horns and take charge of their lives.  I read Noah’s Compass last year and just finished Dinner At The Homesick Restaurant a few days ago because they were selections of the book club that I not only belong to but through a typical “Anne Tylerian” act of mundane life, came to run.  In any event, I am certainly not an Anne Tyler expert.  In fact I find her success and my reaction to her books to be confusing.

Why in the world are Anne Tyler’s novels so popular?  They have no plot.  There is no action.  There are no heroics.  They answer no huge moral questions, and, for that matter, hardly look at even small moral questions.  The protagonists are not someone that you would envy.  They have little to do with popular culture, fame, glamour, or fortune.  They are apolitical and seem to be written before feminism existed.  There are no grand questions.  And on top of that, Tyler, like one of her characters, does absolutely nothing to help her sales.  She does not do book tours, interviews, public readings, or appears in the media.  And yet, from Wikipedia, we have:

Tyler's ninth novel, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, which she considers her best work, was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1983. Her tenth novel, The Accidental Tourist was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1985 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1986 and was made into a 1988 movie starring William Hurt and Geena Davis. Her eleventh novel, Breathing Lessons, received the Pulitzer Prize in 1989” 

On the other hand, let’s consider the customer reviews on Amazon for Breathing Lessons.  Out of 110 reviews, there are…WAIT  110 reviews?  For a Pulitzer prize winner that has been around since the late 1980s?   Hmmmm!

Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone:  157 one & two star reviews out of 5,665 reviews.  An unhappiness factor of 2.7%.

Breathing Lessons:  34 one & two star reviews out of 110 reviews for an unhappiness factor of 30.9%.  And it won a Pulitzer!  

Looking at the low reviews, we find these comments:  “Biting the bullet”, “Disappointing”, “Pointless and rather depressing”, “A waste of precious reading time”, “An utter, irritating bore”, “A big ho hum”, “Couldn’t get through it”, “A Pulitzer, really?”  Oddly enough I agree with and understand all these comments.   

When I read a Tyler novel, I am caught between two thoughts: 1) What is the point of this? 2) Damn this is really good, but I don’t have a clue why.  Her books are like one of those dreams where I am walking through the bedroom of my home and I open the closet door, and there is a grand ballroom that I have never seen before.  And I think, how could I have owned this house for 30 some years and never noticed this ballroom?  Then I go down a hallway and it suddenly turns into a cave.  It is all very inexplicable yet perfectly acceptable.  It never enters my mind that this is a dream, that it is not real.  I just marvel that I have never noticed any of this before.  And so it is with Tyler.  Her books usually have no plot, no excitement. They grind on and on. Her characters are ineffectual eccentrics that persist in doing odd things for inexplicable reasons. Life hands them a turd, they look at it and say “Oh, it is a turd” and they put in their pocket and bumble on.  Sometimes I ask myself why am I reading this?  And then for days after I finish the book, I wallow in self reflective thought about the different characters, oddly unsettled.  Perhaps what Tyler does is throw up a fun house mirror showing us exaggerated distortions of our own lives. Who has a life with plot?  How many of us have some grand defining moment of heroism?  Most of us lead quiet un-notable lives and maintain a few eccentricities.  So we end up reading weird little books written by a weird little woman that somehow inexplicably gnaws at our Souls.  Perhaps Tyler shows us that we are not alone.

EDIT 11/5/2016:  There is a Reader's Review on NPR's Diane Rehm  show about this book.  You can listen to the discussion, 51 minutes long, or read the transcript:


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  1. I've never been an Anne Tyler fan. I'd say to myself: "You should be loving this book. What's the matter with you? This is a GREAT book. It's a Pulitzer Prize winner. All the critics love it." But I could just never get into her stuff. I think it's because ever since college (when I read to make my brain bigger and impress professors) I only read for pleasure. I read to escape, to laugh, to cry, to go someplace I've never been. I don't need to wallow in the dull foibles of human nature. I do enough of that in real life. But maybe I'm missing something. Maybe I should revisit Anne Tyler. I'll let you know if I do.

  2. I understand your sentiments. I wished I could say, well try this one...but of the four I have read, you hit the nail right on the head "wallow in the dull foibles of human nature." You are not going to escape in a Tyler novel, you will have your nose rubbed in one dull foible after another. I am somewhat of a wallower by nature. One of the women in our book club said she wanted to whack the characters on the back of their heads and shout "Wake up!"

    If you look at the principle of "so many little time..."* I am not sure that Tyler is a good reading investment. Thanks for your comment.

    *From the sweatshirt.

  3. I dunno, Henry. After reading this I know I would never want to read one of her books. It would bore me. I have enough trouble reading fiction as it is and only read fiction because I am expected to. I hate fiction like this where the author thinks that I have extra time to watch their characters bumble along, or however you put it. Fun blog post, though. I didn't know you were in a book club.

  4. I am not only in the club, I run it. It was one of those Anne Tyler things. I belonged to a Kindle Club on Amazon Customer Forums. The person who ran the club got accepted at graduate school. "Sorry folks, I won't have time for this any longer." Good bye. So I sort of ineffectually took over the club. We just moved to Goodreads for a better forum platform than what Amazon offered.

  5. Well, folks, I have to disagree. I love Ann Tyler. She appeals to the heart, to the funnybone. Her characters with all their foibles make me laugh out loud. Or weep. They're authentic. They're like my neighbors, my family. By gum, they're like me. Or I'm like them. As for reviews, some are to be trusted; others aren't. I've written a few myself I'm not on the Pulitzer committee, but if I handed out prizes, I'd give her a few.

  6. Yes old Baguette, I could see you and I starring in a Anne Tyler novel.

  7. You're comparing literature to mainstream drivel, that's where your confusion comes from. Anne Tyler is a literary genius.

    1. Sue, thank you for stopping by and commenting.

      No doubt, I read my share of mainstream drivel, and upon closing the book never think of it again. Tyler seems to tie me up in knots for a few days thinking about her odd characters.

      I must confess a lack of intellect and education combines in me a failure to see her genius.