Book review: Redhead by the Side of the Road, by Anne Tyler

Somerset Maugham once gave a new collection of short stories the title The Mixture As Before. Impossible to say whether the title was intended as warning or enticement. Anne Tyler might use the same words as a subtitle to a new novel. In her case readers would be likely to welcome this as reassurance and a promise of pleasure.
Anne Tyler PIC: Andrew Magnum / NYTAnne Tyler PIC: Andrew Magnum / NYT
Anne Tyler PIC: Andrew Magnum / NYT

She is a remarkable writer. You might say she is like a landscape painter who keeps returning to the same scene in different weathers. He repeats himself and the repetitions are somehow different. Tyler does this. Her novels, all or almost all set in Baltimore where she lived for more than 40 years, are rarely packed with striking incident. The narrative is on the face of it unexciting. Yet her stories hold your interest and please because they are rooted in her curiosity about the way we live, feel and think. She is a masterly examiner of the unexamined life. She wonders about a man like Micah Mortimer, the central figure – if you like, the hero – of her new novel. He has made a tolerable life for himself by excluding much of life. He runs a one-man computer repair business and lives in the basement of an apartment block rent-free because he acts as a sort of janitor. He has let commitment to others slip by him, though he has a tepid relationship with a woman friend. Now, two unexpected encounters, one with a teenager on the run, threaten his self-sufficiency and push him towards engagement at a level deeper than he finds comfortable. It is all done so easily and with such a light but assured touch that you find yourself caring. Tyler believes in kindness, and this is rare in our agitated times.

Sensibly – and indeed good sense is one of her happiest qualities – she has no time for the current nonsense about “cultural appropriation” and sees no reason why she shouldn’t write from a man’s point of view. Micah Mortimer doesn’t exist except as she has imagined him. Fiction is fiction, make-believe and invention. Identity is not private property defended by a notice warning that trespassers will be prosecuted. The only question that matters is whether other lives have been well-imagined, not who they belong to. Tyler imagines them very well; end of subject.

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In her novels there is very little in the way of plot, but there is always a story, and the story is developed in such a way that people are not only revealed in their complexity, but will be changed by events, conversations, shifting relationships with others. As with Jane Austen there is always a learning experience in her novels.Micah by the end of this new one is not quite the solipsistic creature he is at the beginning.

The comparison with Jane Austen is reasonable, but it is another English novelist who comes to mind, very readily in my case because I have been re-reading some of his novels in recent weeks. Stanley Middleton wrote a novel a year for four decades. Almost all were set in Nottingham where he lived. They deal with apparently ordinary middle-class people usually, like Tyler’s characters, leading apparently unremarkable lives. These lives, as they have been and as they are now, are explored in conversation. The dialogue, sufficiently persuasive, is even now quite realistic. Questions are asked which in real life mostly remain unspoken.

Reviewing Middleton in these columns, as I did annually for years, I once quoted what Proust said of Stendhal: “These books reinforce the events of the narrative by giving a corresponding layer of the spirit behind the deed.” That was what Middleton did, time and again. It is what Anne Tyler does. Her novels, which read so easily and pleasantly, delve deep below the surface of experience. She presents us with a figure who seems to have let life slip by him till forced by circumstance to engage more fully with it.

Yes, Redhead is indeed “the mixture as before”, but what a rich and enjoyable mixture it is.

Redhead by the Side of the Road, by Anne Tyler, Chatto & Windus, 192pp, £14.99