Monday, October 1, 2007
Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler
Anne Tyler’s Breathing Lessons is a giant of a book, a giant because of the way in which it gently wraps you into its characters’ world and allows you to feel their lives being lived. It’s a giant of a book in a very small world, a world inhabited by Maggie and her husband, Ira, and, it seems, by precious little else. They are long married, happy, perhaps without really knowing it, and replete with generally unacknowledged failure.
Breathing Lessons starts with Maggie picking up the family car after its repair job and spruce up. She immediately runs into a truck and doesn’t stop. She and Ira then head off on a long drive to a funeral of a long lost friend. Memories revisit high school and adolescence as the widow attempts to recreate her wedding service to bid farewell to her husband. The songs her friends originally sang turn out to be highly inappropriate, depending on your point of view, and some don’t want to try to recreate their youth and so become dignified spoilsports. Some old scores are retallied, none settled, of course.
Then Ira and Maggie set off home and decide to call in on their son’s estranged wife and their granddaughter, a girl of seven, it turns out, they haven’t seen since she was an infant. On the way there is a strange encounter with a fellow traveller. Maggie invents a story, for some reason, which he believes. She pursues the scam, is as duplicitous as hell and carries the whole thing off as if it had been gospel from the start. A strange episode.
Maggie is surprised that she does not recognise her granddaughter. Perhaps Anne Tyler is suggesting that the only really important things for Maggie are those she keeps within the confines of her head. Fiona, the estranged daughter-in-law, seems surprisingly accommodating, even more so when details emerge of how poorly treated she has been by Maggie and her son, Jesse. Maggie and Ira clearly weren’t too good at being parents, or grandparents, either.
Maggie convinces herself that she can get the separated couple back together and cajoles her daughter-in-law and granddaughter to motor back to Baltimore with them. She phones her son and arranges for him to call round later that day, after the travellers have reached the family home. It seems that everyone except Maggie is both indifferent and sceptical, but, for some reason, everyone goes along with her suggestions. And, of course, it all goes nowhere. None of these folk, by the way, could be described as intellectual. Not one of them seems to have read a book or, indeed, ever suffered the trauma of a moment of self-reflection since birth. All anyone ever does is react, and then usually wrongly.
Maggie is the book’s central and essential character. Ira, her husband, for the most part busies himself driving, playing solitaire or teaching Frisbee. But basically he seems to hover around the edge of Maggie’s universe, occasionally putting his foot in it by pointing out the odd reality here and there, realities that Maggie expends massive resources trying to ignore or deny. She makes mistakes. She crashes the car every time she drives (two out of two in the book). She constantly imagines herself as God’s gift, a sort of Mrs Fix-It for everyone else’s problems. But she is singularly unable to organise her own existence. She is overweight and yet overeats. She is full of self-justification, almost invariably based on obviously false premises. And she seems to have developed absolutely no powers of self-analysis or reflection, even when reality occasionally forces its way into her existence to contradict her assumptions and undermine her intentions.
I have to admit that I tried to start the book at least three times without success. For me, Maggie’s character was just not quite credible and, if it were credible, I could find no reason why I would want to read about such a person. I persevered this time, however, and the result was a rewarding insight into an uncultured and eventually valueless approach to life that, I suspect, Anne Tyler suspects may be widespread, though I feel that she would not be as judgmental about it as myself.
In the end, all of the characters in Breathing Lessons are failures, who consistently render their own lives a chaotic mess, both inside and outside their heads. They are surrounded by their own mistakes and missed opportunities. These are people who really work at their incompetence and succeed brilliantly. I can’t help feeling that at least one of them, in the normal run of things, would display an intellect superior to a demented parrot and a facility for self-reflection greater than a sooty fireback. But no one ever does. Perhaps that’s the point.