Thursday, October 8, 2009

Favorite Passages: Saint Maybe, by Anne Tyler

Lately, I've come to really admire a trick many fiction writers use but only a few are true masters of: the trick of using different viewpoints to the best advantage. By this, I mean works of fiction that peel back layers of the story's complexity by only allowing certain things to pass through at certain times. Probably the best example of this is Ian McEwan's fantastic novel (made into just as fantastic a movie) Atonement, which has the narration shift so that the characters are blind to each other's real feelings and motives and experiences, thereby revealing the true heartbreak of life: that we only get glimpses of understanding and never the whole possbility to "get" anyone. But there are other writers who excel at revealing characters through the blinders they wear around each other. Tolstoy is a master at this device, where one character might talk about his best friend in one paragraph, and in the next, allowing that "best friend" to admit he's just using the other guy to get ahead. It's pretty awesome.

One of my favorite books that uses the shifting third-person limited narrative to tell a beautiful, devastating, and complex story is Saint Maybe, by Anne Tyler. I've read this simple and lovely little book at least five times, and it just gets better and better with every read. I think it's a ridiculously under-praised novel, and it's always got a prime spot on my bookshelf. The novel tells the story of the Bedloe family and how they change in the face of tragedy. The protagonist is the youngest son, Ian, who blames himself for his brother's death, then finds a quirky Christian religious outifit and makes penance by raising his brother's three kids (two - and possibly all three - of whom are not Bedloes at all). The narration mainly centers around Ian, but Tyler has several amazing chapters where we shift primarily to the other characters, including those three children as they get older and Ian's shocked and hurting parents. Ian seems to go through life just trying to do what's right, and he often does it without thinking of either the grief or happiness he creates in his wake. These shifting view-point chapters point out the sadness Ian's decisions create in his parents, but they also show how these three poor kids realize the grace that Ian's bestowed upon them, even if he does not realize it himself. It's a haunting and wonderful effect.

So on that note, I've chosen one of my favorite passages from the book, from my favorite chapter (Chapter Four: "Famous Rainbows"), which is in the viewpoint of the middle non-Bedloe child, Thomas. I don't know why, but Thomas is my favorite character in the book. He's so young and trying so hard to be good, and it's just heartbreaking how Tyler infuses him with both a mature ability to attempt reckoning with the world around him and a naive innocence in failing to understand the big picture. In this chapter, Thomas and his sisters are attending a summer day camp run by Ian's church. Here, we see how much Thomas loves the man who's chosen to raise him, even as the little boy deals with his own helplessness in the scheme of things. I hope you enjoy it; this is a book I'd recommend in a heartbeat.

From Saint Maybe, by Anne Tyler

Toweled dry and dressed, their swimsuits hanging on the line outdoors and their hair still damp, they gathered for Devotions. Sister Myra said, "Dear Lord, thank You for this day of fellowship and listen now to our silent prayers," and then she left a long, long space afterward. Silent prayers were sort of like Afternoon Swim; you had the feeling she was too worn out to make the effort anymore. Everyone was worn out. Still, Thomas tried. He bowed his head and closed his eyes and prayed for his mother in heaven. He knew she was up there, watching over him. And he knew his prayers were being heard. Hadn't he prayed for Ian not to go to Vietnam that time? And the draft notice came anyway and Thomas had blamed God, but then the doctors found out Ian had an extra heartbeat that had never been heard before and never given a moment's trouble since, and Thomas knew his prayer had been answered. He'd stood up at Public Amending the following Sunday and confessed how he had doubted, but everyone was so happy about Ian that they just smiled at him while he spoke. He had felt he was surrounded by loving feelings. Afterward, Reverend Emmett said he thought Thomas had not really sinned, just shown his ignorance; and he was confident it would never happen again. And sure enough, it hadn't.

"In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen," Sister Myra said.

They all rustled and jostled and pushed each other, glad to be moving again.

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