Whilst reviewing the Women’s Prize shortlist earlier this year, I never made it to what is reputed to be Anne Tyler’s final novel (bar an entry in the Hogarth Shakespeare series). I did, though, wonder about its reception in my review of Sarah Waters’s The Paying Guests:
The only novel on the prize shortlist I’ve not yet read is Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread, but others have already written “defences” of her more traditional style: “the question of whether Tyler’s work errs too heavily on the side of consolation has lingered, despite (or because of) her immense and loyal readership and high-profile fans such as Nick Hornby and John Updike.”
I went on to consider Waters’s current reputation, so stratospheric that she doesn’t require defenders. But of course upon reading A Spool of Blue Thread as part of my belated Booker catch-up, I thought back to the words of John Blades: “annoyingly synthetic”, “cockeyed humanism”, “deliberately ingratiating”. Reader, I confess: I find it hard to disagree with him on the evidence of this book (Tyler has otherwise escaped my reading).
A Spool of Blue Thread takes place in a sort of timeless 1950s, in which lugubrious gentlemen drive their Datsuns and Buicks to the train station to pick up the prodigal son, and women in cotton dresses disagree about how best to do the washing up; its characters, social workers and carpenters, build things and nurture them (I will leave you to guess which gender is assigned which role); should the Baltimore in which this novel is set resemble in any way the decaying American dystopia of David Simon, I can only assume that the characters are unaware. There are certainly refugees and homeless, and they are invited for dinner to the large home that forms the epicentre of this family saga; but we never follow them back to their own homes, where they are sent with the leftover dessert in a box, and are given the distinct sense that, even in the simple act of reaching out to Them (and they are absolutely Other), some sort of moral victory has been won.
I’m being a bit unfair: the social worker of Tyler’s Whitshank family, its matriarch Abby, is shown to be a woman whose children feel neglected by her in favour of her “orphans”; the novel doesn’t quite endorse her apparent belief that inviting people to a large meal at which they’re made to feel a bit uncomfortable is some sort of virtue; and, most brutally, the novel afflicts her with dementia, as if to emphasise the process of forgetting in which the entire family is explicitly engaged:
The disappointments seemed to escape the family’s notice, though. That was another of their quirks: they had a talent for pretending that everything was fine. Or maybe it wasn’t a quirk at all. Maybe it was just further proof that the Whitshanks were not remarkable in any way whatsoever. (p. 74)
Which is all well and good – the bizarre stasis bubble in which the novel takes place is part of the point. But that passage is also what is wrong with the novel, as well as explanation of it: that flattening of its contours inherent in the universalisation of what at first seems to be being held as an angular, problematic quality; that breezy tone which appears not to want to hover over or consider anything very deeply; and, of course, the deadening homespun insistence on telling you What The Moral Of The Story Is.
“An outsider might say that these weren’t stories at all,” we read at one point (p. 71), and the novel seems to have a direction – to make us care, but also to complicate the Whistshanks’ own self-obsession. If indeed any of this was imparted in that sort of arch ironic tone of Austen (and Tyler shares a lot else with her, in deceptive complexity of her structures and dogged insistence that the “domestic” isn’t somehow lesser material for the novel), then I’d be fine. But I’m not sure it is: Tyler’s novel has nuances, for sure, but they are details pushed into high relief. Take Denny, the black sheep of the Whitshanks, the only member of the family who lives away from Baltimore, keeping his private life exactly that and refusing to engage in their heartland conservatism of home and work. The novel begins and ends with him, even though he is absent for much of it (as a way, I think, of emphasising that life does exist beyond the Whitshanks’ home); and yet, of course, he is intensely interested in all the most important parts of the family’s life – he’s the guy who points at what we’re meant to notice.
“In my opinion,” Red said, “going to Florida for the winner is kind of like … not paying your dues. Not standing fast for the hard part.”
“Are you calling Baltimore summers the easy part?” Merrick asked. Then, as if to prove her point, she said, “Whew!” and left off petting Heidi to bat a hand in front of her face. “Can somebody turn that fan up a notch?
Stem rose and gave the fan cord a pull.
“I can see why you might want two houses,” Denny spoke up. “Or even more than two. I get that. I bet sometimes when you wake in the morning you don’t know where you are for a moment, am I right? You’re completely disoriented. […] I love that feeling. […] You don’t know your place in the world; you’re not pegged; you’re not nailed into this one single same old never-ending spot.” (pp. 169-70)
Do you see?
There are a lot of names in the above, no? Red is the pater familias, the crotchety-but-good-hearted proprieter of the family construction firm; Stem is the favoured son, in fact adopted as a boy when his indigent father, a worker of Red’s, died unexpectedly. Merrick is the upwardly-mobile aunt. And so on. Few of these characters emerge from their sketches; they are pegged, as Denny is intended to show, in a family in which 22 is too young to marry if you’re male and too old not to be married if you’re female. And yet this conservatism is never indicated to be the problem, rather encoded into the novel as a whole: the Whitshanks, it holds, are “one of those enviable families that radiate clannishness and togetherness and just … specialness” (p. 19, my emphasis, but not my adjective).
Much of the novel is imparted in flashback – to Red and Abby’s courtship, to the youths of their children and further back to when none of them were born but the house in which they have all spent their lives was being built by Red’s father, Junior, about whose past nothing is otherwise known (“Where he came from was never documented, but the general feeling was that he might have have hailed from the Appalachian Mountains” [p. 52] – of course he did!). The world in which Junior built that house – in 1936 – and fell in love with it, eventually conspiring to “convince” its owners to leave – in 1941 – is tonally identical to the one in which Denny pokes holes in his own dad’s pieties. The policemen are friendly and don’t dig too deeply into Junior’s machinations; the road on which the house is built, Bouton, plays host to family parties on the porch; downtown is a quick drive away, and there are clubs to join and stores to visit for upholstery. It all feels adrift, listless.
In the novel’s defence (see how it needs one?), part of its purpose is to undermine these family myths by in its first half having the family endlessly retell them and, in the second, imparting them in full flashback. And on the level of its sentences and paragraphs, indeed in long passages, it does so beautifully: Tyler writes so apparently effortlessly, so smoothly and wittily, with sensitivity and empathy and all of that, that reading her is a pleasure. But the writing goes nowhere, and the flashbacks aren’t in nearly as much disagreement with the rosy family hagiographies as they would need to be to cast light on that weird stasis the family – and their town – seem to be in. There’s a super example, if I do say so myself, towards the very end of the second half’s long flashback to a vaguely more complicated, and certainly more filled-in, Junior and his slow movement towards moving into that house. Having made all that complicating effort, Tyler reaches the same point that Red reached hundreds of pages before:
Under the shelter of the trees the front of the house didn’t get the morning sun, but that just made the deep, shady porch seem homier. And the honey-gold of the swing, visible now through the balustrade, gladdened Junior’s heart. He had to stop himself from saying to Linne, “See? See how right it looks?” (p. 438)
That is, the interest in A Spool of Blue Thread lies in its prose and its flashbacks; which is also precisely where what is wrong with it can be situated. In other words, it has itself pegged.