The Amateur Marriage

by Anne Tyler
ISBN: 0670044911

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A Review of: The Amateur Marriage
by Lyall Bush

Anne Tyler has a way of creating modern fables that look and feel like realist fiction, but lack the easy resolutions of fables. The Amateur Marriage, her 16th novel, is no exception, though the eccentric optimism that shapes the pages of earlier novels is absent here, replaced by a view of life no less bright and now balanced by caution. Tyler's characteristic voice is present even in the opening pages which record a critical, film-like moment in the lives of a young couple in 1941. Days after Pearl Harbor, with Baltimore's St. Cassian neighborhood swept up in a small frenzy of enlisting, a pretty girl named Pauline Barclay enters a Polish grocery store dripping blood from a gash on her forehead. She's gotten it, her three friends explain, from leaping too exuberantly into a street celebration for the local boys going off to war. Michael Anton, the son of the store's owner, dresses Pauline's cut quietly, and the neighborhood watches as he runs back out to the street with her and enlists on an impulse. It is unlike him; he does it for Pauline who was so impressed by the other boys. Both are just out of high school, both good-looking, and they fall hard and a little enigmatically for each other, with the war as their romantic backdrop. The moment when Pauline runs to catch Michael as he is about to board his bus for boot camp, her red coat visible from a long ways away, her breathless apology in his ear when she gets there, is heartbreakingly real, and written without a scrim of later knowing in front of the words.
Years later, long since married to Michael, bored and contemplating an affair, Pauline remembers the intensity of those moments. Joining her life with Michael's felt so inevitable at the time, and the neighborhood seemed to agree, chattering about his impulsive act, her coat, and his later return with a cane and a limp. In retrospect, though, it seems to Pauline that all those events were less inevitable than accidental-a windblown seed that bore the fruit of a marriage, a move to the suburbs, three children, and, Pauline now thinks ruefully, the beginnings of jowliness in her face. "In that first feverish rush after Pearl Harbor," she reflects, "she saw couples embracing everywhere she looked, boys standing outside recruitment offices with girls clinging proudly, bravely, to their arms, but Pauline was all by herself." She goes on, "Was that the whole explanation? That she had just wanted a boy of her own to send off to war?"
The gap between the two events-the first electric one of falling, fueled by passion and romance, and the more sober second one years later-shows an authorial patience and prowess that readers of Anne Tyler's fiction have come to cherish, and to regard as her essential genius. Tyler lacks the high-wire talent for sentence-making that distinguishes other celebrated writers of her generation, but she knows how to reproduce the small frictions in life against the larger trajectories of fate and free will. As such, these two scenes, which rub and twist together without conclusion, reveal Tyler's strengths in following and rendering the oddball curves of human lives. Pauline's later, unromantic view of her youthful experience is not necessarily truer just because she is older and her coat less blown by the breeze of love. It is left for the reader to discern the difference.
In fact, The Amateur Marriage is driven by the attempt to unravel this mystery of the effects of time that cause events to change in retrospect, and then to change again and again. As the 1950s give way to the 60s and the 60s drift into the 80s and 90s, Michael and Pauline discover over and over that these early events-accident, fate, fact-reconfigure into nubs and knots that can't be smoothed out. The epiphanies they experience, like the epiphanies of characters in Joyce's early fiction, suggest a self-knowledge that is no less compromised despite coming later with the advantage of hindsight.
Chapters unfold as episodes in the life of this marriage-one is told from Michael's point of view followed by another from Pauline's-and Tyler gets nicely at the way conflicts begin and never quite end in relationships. She also deftly suggests the passage of time via small changes in speech, items of clothing, the incrementally acquired shifts in faces, the repetition of unhappy patterns. The giddiness of the war years gives way to the reproaches of the 50s and the disorientation of the 60s when Michael and Pauline have to fly-for the first time-out to San Francisco in search of their oldest, Lindy, who has disappeared on the coast. They are told that their daughter has "freaked out" while on drugs and they have to learn to cope both with the unsettling fact of her habit and the unnerving new language of her peers on Haight street.
As the children grow and develop their own personalities, and as business decisions get made, social gatherings attended, and as internal worries and wounded feelings slide over each other, the novel shows us how phantom-like each experience is-how impermanent are the doings of each decade. Hedged solutions to emotional issues stack and loom: Pauline's attraction to shrill household drama is a counterpoint to Michael's hunched repose; her cheery openness contrasts with his reticence. By the book's middle we begin to see the same clouds of fog forming in their marriage that we might see in our own lives: why is all of this not producing more meaning, more contact, Pauline and Michael seem to ask, separately.
Thanks to Pauline's push, they move out of the old Polish neighborhood for the suburbs, and we see that the decision probably saves them a life of struggling to make ends meet on Michael's income from the family grocery store. Michael's limp feels more and more like an internal injury. And even as he opens a bigger store in the suburbs he never quite warms up to it. He becomes remote, a thoughtful introvert and something of a boor. Pauline, left to raise three kids on her own, becomes "a frantic, impossible woman, even in good moods, with her excellent voice and glittery eyes, her dangerous excitement." Indeed, it is these middle years, when the children are beginning to see them as repressed, dithering and self-absorbed, that Michael has the insight that gives the book its title:

"He believed that all of them, all those young marrieds of the war years, had started out in equal ignorance. He pictured them marching down a city street, as people had on the day he enlisted. Then two by two they fell away, having grown wise and seasoned and comfortable in their roles, until only he and Pauline remained, as inexperienced as ever-the last couple left in the amateurs' parade."

Michael supposes here that everyone else must have figured out happiness through careful party planning, the bagging of leaves, the purchase of linens, the organizing of screws. Neither he nor Pauline ever grasp that they are not unique in their familial unhappiness, but rather very much like others.
Tyler may never attract the sort of close classroom scrutiny that Toni Morrison's, Don DeLillo's or Robertson Davies's books do, with their neon sentences and crush of learning, yet her writing has a movement that merits our following. In recent books such as Breathing Lessons, Back When We Were Grownups, and Saint Maybe she has kept her attention on how people stumble around in the everydayness of their lives, how they fail to see each other clearly, get the wrong impressions and then, comically or tragically, hold onto these forever. Her storytelling gifts are large ones. She introduces Michael and Pauline's children and their children's children, dresses them, brushes their teeth and sets them in utterly believable places with small, telling strokes. And yet, in The Amateur Marriage she shows a power for something slightly different: Story-that crystal ball through which all the characters, all the comings and goings, all the tectonic shifts between Michael, Pauline, their friends and family get seen. It is a remarkable thing to find a story that works, especially one that works by ultimately releasing unforeseen things. In this novel's case that has to do with the way lives wind and unwind. With Michael finally out of her life in the 1970s, Pauline takes stabs at starting anew, but without much luck: Michael has been the centre of her life for too long. By the 1980s, though that connection is gone, more or less like smoke, and though Pauline understands what's troubling her, she cannot reacquire her sense of coherence and direction. Tyler accepts that Pauline can't outlive her past with Michael, and her readers get the bittersweet pleasure of noting the difference between author and character. Some lives just end earlier-due to a failure to cohere, or to failure in general, Tyler's story seems to be showing us. We are lucky to have a novel that tracks that failure, and not because it is tragic so much as because it is so absorbingly real. The Amateur Marriage sees a couple through the fog of time, and conveys a certain deep strangeness about kinship, bringing it into a sharp, mysterious and rather loving focus.

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