“It Happens All The Time”: Anne Tyler’s “A Spool of Blue Thread”

Anne Tyler-A Spool of Blue ThreadWhilst 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.

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.


“These Queer Enthusiasms”: Sarah Waters’s “The Paying Guests”

51sqHh5h3PL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_It is a Very Good Thing that Ali Smith last night won the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction: here is a British writer interested in serious innovation of form – something not always associated with the prose writers of these isles. That she does so demotically and entertainingly only makes her win all the more deserved. Smith re-energises the novel without making it inaccessible.

There is, of course, a pejorative usage of “accessible”: “a good read” is so often a euphemism for “a bit slight”. 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.” In this context, it is interesting that the another of the shortlist’s more traditionalist authors, Sarah Waters, is conversely so widely fêted that the idea anyone might need to speak up on her behalf is absurd.

“Absolutely brilliant,” wrote Jacqueline Wilson of Waters’s novel, The Paying Guests. “Read it, Flaubert, Zola, and weep,” applauds Charlotte Mendelson. “A joy in every respect,” intones Lionel Shriver. And yet Waters writes old-fashioned novels in many ways, with beginnings and ends and gripping plots, which read quickly despite their often vaguely Victorian girth. The Paying Guests is set in 1922, precisely because, Waters has said, her previous novels have focused on squarely on either the nineteenth century or the 1940s. That is, Waters is a British writer producing novels in a third person limited voice and set in eras not entirely under-served in British culture.

So why is she, too, not tarred with the “accessible” brush? In large part, it’s because Waters’s project is far more subversive than her chosen form makes it appear (and this is part of the project): she queers these classic ages of British history, burrowing under her copious research to imagine the stories of marginalised groups, most particularly lesbian women. Even her novel The Little Stranger, which doesn’t feature an actual lesbian couple at all, is a novel about repression: its first-person narrator hides much from the reader, whilst Caroline, the young woman of the crumbling manor house with whom (which which?) he falls in love, is heavily implied to be closeted. That is, Waters writes terrific yarns which present familiar contexts in familar ways – and then peoples those settings with feelings, perspectives and experiences which are under-represented in the record and in fiction.

The Paying Guests, then, is told from the third-person-limited perspective of Frances, a twenty-five year-old woman eking out the disappointed, disappointing years following World War I in the suburban villa she shares with her mother. They are, like the rather grander country gentry of The Little Stranger thirty years later, struggling for money: her father dead, and economics changing, Frances persuades her mother to take in lodgers in order to supplement their meagre income. The couple who answer the advert, the Barbers, are from Peckham and Walworth rather than Champion Hill: vulgar and jejune to Frances and her mother’s eyes, they fill Mr Wray’s old room with dinky little Buddha statues, and share a little too much of themselves for the landladies, who tuck the weekly rent into their pockets “in a negligent sort of way – as if anyone […] could possibly be deceived into thinking that the money was a mere formality.” [p. 11]

Class and deceit come to be the guiding stars of the novel: throughout, Waters paints in understated but terrifically evocative ways the careful gradations of class struggling to reassert themselves in an England disrupted by war. Men resent the women who have taken their jobs; a clerk like Mr Barber looks down on mere manual workers, amongst whose numbers he would once have certainly sat; Mrs Barber’s clothes are a little too flighty; Mrs Wray’s friend from over the road clearly imagines herself one step above poor old struggling Frances. All of this is more or less unspoken, however, and the manner in which no one quite says what they mean comes to power not just the social whirl – from Walworth dances to Champion Hill soirées – which Waters depicts beautifully, but the scurrilous plot that bubbles underneath the surface.

That plot only really takes full hold of the novel in its final third, and yet the reader never feels played with. In part, this is down to, yes, readability: Waters writes so well that 600 pages simply speeds by. It’s also, however, because she peels back the novel’s layers at precisely the right pace. When we first meet Frances, she seems much older than she is, not a little stuck up and certainly rather grey. As we slowly learn that, during the war, she was a violent suffragette and had a romantic relationship with a fellow suburban bohemian, Christine, we are at first surprised; as her sexual repression becomes evident in her uncomfortable responses to Mr Barber’s proximity, we first think the novel might move one way; when her passion for Christine, and her misplaced fear of her mother become clear (when her new lady lodger cuts and crimps her hair in a contemporary style, Frances is shocked that her mother finds it smart), we are quickly plunged into a slow but compelling blossoming of a relationship with Lillian Barber herself.

Lillian is a good example of the novel’s strength in depth: she is in many ways unknowable. Apparently kind and straightforward, throughout the novel we with Frances worry that she may in fact not be all that she seems – that she may be manipulative or foolish, impetuous or selfish. Frances must learn to trust Lillian, as we must – as everyone who wishes to love must – and this process gives the novel a great deal of its shape prior to its final-third crisis. If anything, I rather preferred the involvingly plotless parts of the novel more: everything happens, and is then wrapped up, rather quickly, and the novel takes on the feeling of the 1920s melodramas which first inspired it. At one point, for example, the lawyer for a wrongly accused defendant announces to the court in which we know the true culprit sits, “the person or persons […] must certainly be looking at these proceedings with very mixed feelings indeed.” [p. 581]  Oh, the tension of irony!

What unites all this is a study of the effects of lies. “The rest of us become narrow and mean when we live falsely,” sighs Frances [p. 302], having spent years denying herself – indeed, hiding even the fact that she has maintained a loose friendship with Christine. Frances goes back and forth between having the courage of this conviction and fearing its logical conclusion, and this terribly human inconsistency is, like everything else in this humane and careful novel, delicately depicted. She and Lillian endlessly debate who is braver, but in point of fact they are brave in different ways: Frances can imagine different ways of living, and Lillian, who lacks that capacity for the bigger picture, nevertheless often takes the action which make them possible. What develops between them, then, is a thoroughly believable – because riven with tension – love affair.

Ultimately, superb characterisation of this sort is a laudably old-fashioned virtue for a novel to exhibit. The Paying Guests is rather unfashionable in this respect: compared with Outline it is fervently traditionalist. That, as I was reading the novel, I could see an argument for it pipping How To Be Both to the Baileys post, says many things – as does the universal acclaim for Waters’s skills as a writer and a storyteller. Hers are novels of huge warmth and heart, but also skill and cunning. Smith’s victory is excellent news for the health of the British novel – but that’s because Smith understands, like Waters (who will surely have her year), that accessibility isn’t a dirty word. Read The Paying Guests, and then read it again … and again.