Tuesday 31 July 2007

The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler

There seems to be quite a few novels I've read this year you can only describe as bone-achingly tragic. I haven't long read Sophie's Choice. It's difficult to find the words that can sum it up - you come away wanting to neck a jar of razor blades. This has come not long after The Remains of the Day, Giovanni's Room, and On Chesil Beach. And just to add yet more to a catalogue of books dripping with woe, I've just finished Anne Tyler's The Amateur Marriage.

Be warned, there are some spoilers below.

Beginning shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, Michael is an unremarkable mommy's boy leading a very ordinary existence at the family grocery store. In an instant his life changes - a group of panicky young women burst into the shop, desperately seeking first aid for a girl who'd fallen and banged her head amid the parades of local boys who'd joined up. In what is a rash moment for Michael, he bandages Pauline up and rashly runs off with her to enlist. Before long the army has swallowed him up, only to be swiftly spat out again with a wound picked up on manoeuvres. But the couple remain caught in hysterical tumult of the times and he and Pauline are soon wed. But it is abundantly clear this marriage is a mistake. The unravelling of the relationship and the subsequent fall out is painfully tracked over 60 dysfunctional years.

Superficially there's nothing in the premise that causes a spotlight to pick The Amateur Marriage out of the mass market herd. Doomed marriage, middle class respectability, and 1950s families have long been a fictional staple. But The Amateur Marriage is an interesting book. To begin with, the characterisation is rigidly gendered. At first the protagonists appear in thrall to the usual stereotypes - Pauline is emotional and irrational, Michael is measured and reasonable. The basic personality clash is the foundation for three decades of quarrels and argument. But overall, the women are the dynamos of this book - their biographical trajectories are toward having a career or being domineering wife. In all cases, they're independent, they're individuals. The three males characters on the other hand are all basically the same. They're unprepossessing, quiet, easily dominated, boringly rational, and are very dependent on the women. But Tyler does not use strong women to critique the family unit, rather they are the central supports for what is a meditation on masculine crisis.

Ostensibly the book is about Pauline and Michael, but I could not get away from the feeling it's all about the man. At every point in his life, Michael is haunted by the alternative lives he could have led with the simple and uncomplicated girls of his youth. When he marries for a second time, it appears he has found his soul mate at last. Anne is not prone to rages or emotional outbursts, she too is measured and reserved. But towards the novel's close, his retired elderly self is vexed by her refusal to retire. For a man who'd worked for himself all his life, placing him in a position where he has nothing to do while Anne stays working is almost too much for him, and the longing for Pauline, who, despite everything, at least allowed him to be the breadwinner, comes poignantly flooding back. Though Pauline too reflects on regret, is it subsumed by a life mitigated by the close bond she has with her children. Ultimately she is forced to find herself as a mom because this is all that is open to her. Paradoxically, Michael's economic independence, his more distant relationship with his children, and the freedom granted him by his divorce from Pauline continually place him in a position of existential angst. The masculinity derived from being the man of the house(s) is consistently undermined by the dependence he has on his wives, a dependence that paradoxically enables him to keep this position.

The conclusion is plain, Careers, feminism, and uppity women are all challenges to the forms masculinity has assumed in the context of the nuclear family, but if there is a crisis in masculinity, it is internal to the very relationships that constitute and reproduce it.


Leftwing Criminologist said...

You don;'t half seem to read some depressing novels, mind you i've mostly been reading criminology books which are hardly the most uplifting in the world either.
anyway glad to see you back blogging

Phil said...

Cheers comrade. I don't just read tragic stuff, it just seems to randomly fall like that.

Louisefeminista said...

Hey Phil, there's nowt wrong with reading depressing and tragic bks. Uplifting? Pah! All overrated.

Anyway, I see you are reading Wyndham at the moment. I haven't read Baldwin's Giovanni's Room though read Another Country years ago.

Good to see you back to the land of blogging, comrade...

Phil said...

Thanks Louise. Haven't seen you blogging for a while. Having a bit of a holiday?