Anne Cassidy worked in a bank for five years and then became a teacher. She has been writing Young Adult Fiction for 15 years. Her best known book is Looking for JJ which was shortlisted for the Carnegie medal and the Whitbread Award. Anne lives in London with her husband and son and has to endure a lot of conversations about West Ham Football team. Here she writes about Anne Tyler's The Accidental Tourist.
Anne Cassidy on The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler
The world Anne Tyler writes about is a small one. Her dramas take place in homes, in cars, at meals and social gatherings. The characters in her novels endure great heartache or emotional disappointments with an understated stoicism. They find happiness in small things. They find reasons to go on. It's this dogged optimism in the face of life's cruelties that makes her books so necessary, so painful and yet so enjoyable.
The Accidental Tourist was the first of Anne Tyler's books I read. A couple are coming home early from a beach holiday and in the midst of an argument we find out that their young son has recently died. Macon, the husband, deals with his son's death in the same way that he deals with all the things in his life. He's an organized man. He creates a world of order around himself to stave off any of life's uncertainties.
His philosophy of life is distilled in the books he writes - The Accidental Tourist in London / Paris / Frankfurt. These books are for businessmen travelling abroad who wish to cocoon themselves in all things American so that their stay in foreign places is not too foreign.
So Macon suggests: 'Always bring a book as a protection against strangers'. He advises:
Bring only what fits in a carry-on bag. Checking your luggage is asking for trouble. Add several travel-size packets of detergent so you won't fall into the hands of foreign laundries.The murder of Macon's twelve-year-old son brings this clinical approach to life into utter disarray. His wife cannot cope with Macon's emotionless response to the loss of his son. She tells him, 'You're not a comfort, Macon... You go on your same old way like before. Your little routines and rituals...'
When his wife leaves him, Macon's small world closes in on him. He takes refuge with his family, two divorced brothers and a single sister. Here he lives safely. This is thrown into chaos with the arrival of Muriel Pritchett, a single parent and dog trainer who has Macon in her sights as husband and stepfather material. Muriel is passionate, chaotic, and tenacious in her hold. It's Macon's worst nightmare and yet it is the thing that sweetens his life and brings some kind of warmth into his emotionally constipated existence.
Muriel is raw emotion. She, like many Anne Tyler heroines, is not given due status by her own family who see her as a hopeless case. Her history is a depressing array of minor heartaches and disappointments which she has overcome with dogged determination. She's warm and loving and fiercely maternal. She sets up her own businesses and scrapes a living. She spends her time in thrift shops and wears bizarre clothes and is playful and childlike. Her own child, a son, is described by Macon: 'this scrawny little waif, this poor excuse of a child who could never hold a candle to the real child'. And yet Macon does develop feelings for him and the reader is always aware that in some way he is swapping his dear, dead son, for this 'waif'.
The murder of Macon's son was in the past and Anne Tyler deals with it in an understated way. There is no drama in the telling of it. The grief it triggers is not of a wailing dramatic kind. It simply soaks through everything that Macon and his wife do and think. His memories are of himself being overprotective to his son, trying to over-plan excursions and never really enjoying his childhood. The irony is that when Macon does let his son go to camp for the first time he is shot by a robber in a fast food place.
In Anne Tyler's world the main characters career off their paths, sometimes like boomerangs, making a break for freedom and yet being mercilessly pulled back into old and safe ways. Sometimes this necessitates a second escape.
Through all the woes and heartbreaks of her characters (across all of her books) one thing is absolutely clear. As Macon says, 'Well you have to carry on. You have to carry on.'
This is what we do. We carry on.
[All the pieces that have appeared to date in this series, with the links to them, are listed here, here and here.]