The Beginner's Goodbye
By Anne Tyler (Chatto & Windus 198pp £14.99)
The desire to speak with the dead is the striking theme of The Beginner's Goodbye, Anne Tyler's nineteenth novel. It is set, like many of its predecessors, in an unpretentious neighbourhood in Baltimore. The story is narrated by Aaron Woolcott, a man whose life has been more than commonly subject to misfortune. As an infant he suffered a flu attack that left him with a crippled arm and leg and a speech impediment. 'Really I'm not handicapped in the least,' he claims defensively, but he needs a leg brace and a cane. Then, in his mid-thirties, his wife is killed in a freak accident. As Aaron struggles with shock and grief, he reviews his marriage to Dorothy and realises that, despite their love, they were unhappy together. 'Out of sync. Uncoordinated. It seemed we just never quite got the hang of being a couple the way other people did.' In trying to understand what went wrong, he is unexpectedly aided by Dorothy herself. 'Solid and sturdy' as in life, she appears beside him as he goes about his daily routines, posing painful questions before vanishing as rapidly.
Less helpfully, Aaron is also accompanied on his journey to enlightenment by well-meaning neighbours and friends, who ply him with casseroles and cautious enquiries, invite him to dine with the newly widowed and, in their strategies to deal with the apparition who walks by his side, reveal an all-too-human discomfort when confronting the disquieting effects of death. Since it is Aaron who interprets their responses, it is an open question whether they actually see the ghostly Dorothy. Aaron himself veers between a conviction of her actuality and an awareness that he may have willed her into existence. 'But', he tells the reader, 'put yourself in my place ... you couldn't bear to think this wasn't real.' This, too, is part of his recovery.
Aaron is typical of many of Tyler's male protagonists: emotionally illiterate, self-absorbed, and unambitious. He has a predictably downbeat job, as editor for the family firm, a vanity press compelled by market forces to expand into the Beginner's series, stylishly packaged guides to life from cradle to grave, from The Beginner's Colicky Baby (their bestseller) to The Beginner's Funeral Planning. It was through The Beginner's Cancer that he first met Dorothy, an oncology radiologist, who attracted Aaron by her matter-of-fact approach to his disabilities. The title of the novel, The Beginner's Goodbye, suggests a commentary both on this publishing venture and on Aaron's progress through mourning
Recipient of a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and shortlisted for the International Man Booker Prize in 2011, Tyler, who recently turned seventy, has spent a lifetime exploring the apparently humdrum lives and everyday emotions of obscure people. Sometimes criticised for their narrow scope, her novels assert, with acuity, compassion and inventive humour, the uniqueness and value of each human life, not just to the individual, but to the family, friends and lovers who stumble alongside the central characters on their voyages of self-discovery. Tyler has also been accused of recycling well-worn formulae, but the ways in which a novelist revisits earlier work can be illuminating. The Beginner's Goodbye reprises many of the scenarios and themes of her very successful The Accidental Tourist, published in 1985. In both novels, the central character is suffering from the untimely death of a close family member - in the case of Macon, in The Accidental Tourist, the shooting of his young son. Both Aaron and Macon earn a living from quirky but apposite publishing ventures. Both are poor communicators, which contributes to their unhappy marriages, and both have a caring sister with whom they take refuge when forced to leave the marital home. There are many other similarities.
What is different is the texture and atmosphere of the two novels, and also the comparative appeal of the two men. The Accidental Tourist is a busy book, in which the comedy often veers into slapstick as Macon's citadel of self-protectiveness is stormed by a determined new lover. The action moves between Baltimore, London and Paris, and the reader is entertained by a rapidly changing kaleidoscope of characters, scenes and incidents. Nerdy and obsessive, Macon engages the reader's sympathy by his hapless humanity. The Beginner's Goodbye, by contrast, is shorter (fewer than 200 pages), the action confined to a few streets and houses and a handful of characters seen from Aaron's perspective. In a recent interview, Tyler remarked that the first-person viewpoint 'can reveal more of the character's self-delusions'. In Aaron's case, this is sometimes alienating. His prickly refusal to allow his disabilities to impede his life may be heroic, but it keeps the reader, as well as his well-wishers, at bay.
The effect of the book's restricted canvas is to sacrifice the comic ebullience of such novels as The Accidental Tourist or A Patchwork Planet to a quieter realism, in a carefully observed study of grief and its trajectory as experienced by an unremarkable man. It may also reflect a new stage in Anne Tyler's creativity, mirrored in her previous, elegiac novel, Noah's Compass, in which she stands back from the hurly-burly of people and events to scrutinise more closely her favourite themes of love, loss and personal redemption.
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Pamela Norris is a freelance writer. Her most recent book was Words of Love (HarperCollins).