Withdrawals and Returns in a Page of Anne Tyler (Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, pp. 270-272): Embers Glowing Under the Ashes(*).
THE PASSAGE UNDER CONSIDERATION COMES FROM the penultimate chapter (ch. 9) of Anne Tyler's Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982), which I had read cursorily--the easy readability of Tyler's writing, makes this only too possible--and which returned to me a few years later. It is this return I wish to analyze here. The potentially polysemic "withdrawal" seemed apt to render part of the attraction this somewhat grey, ashen text can produce on the reader. But, as will be seen, although it is in all evidence placed under the sign of withdrawal, from a diegetic, thematic, thymic, aesthetic and cognitive point of view, this page acquires a heightened resonance if only the reader allows him/herself to go in the direction that the text itself subtly indicates, and gives the language, the signifier and the syntax, their head. In truth, the demure, well-ordered allure of this text with its seemingly strong antinomies quickly puts in doubt the dualities it constructs, albeit in discreet fashion: we shall see that the demarcation line between insiders and "outsider[s]" (1.7 and 1.76), is unstable;(1) in the title itself the dividing line between nostalgia and disgust wavers: the eponymous "homesick" restaurant is frequented by those who are "sick for" and/or "sick of" home.(2) In varying degrees of explicitness the text invites us to transgress certain semantic and syntactic boundaries.(3)
From a methodological point of view, I shall gradually depart from the Saussurean linguistic tradition to concentrate not only on the story being told, apparently in a simple transparent fashion (as if seen through a window in Tyler's own metaphor),(4) but also on other stories, those recounted not by the speaker but by language itself, on the embers under the ashes, itself a metaphor for adopting Lecercle's theory of the remainder.
He took her by the upper arm and led her back to the living 1 room. (He was conscious, suddenly, of his height and his solid, comfortable weight.) He seated her on the couch and went over to the desk to remove the bottom drawer. This was something he had done many times before. It 5 wasn't, certainly, that the drawer needed cleaning, although to an outsider it might appear disorganized. Cascades of unmounted photos slid about as he walked; others poked from the moldy, crumbling albums stacked to one side. There was a shoe box full of his mother's girlhood diaries; an incomplete baby 10 book for Cody; and a Schrafft's candy box containing old letters, all with the stamps snipped off the envelopes. There was a dim, lavender-colored corsage squashed as stiff and hard as a dried-up mouse carcass; a single kid glove hardened with age; and a musty-smelling report card for Pearl E. Cody, fourth 15 year, 1903, with the grades entered in a script so elegant that someone might have laid A-shaped tendrils of fine brown hair next to every, subject. Ezra was fond of these belongings. He willingly went over them again and again, describing them for his mother. "There's that picture of your Aunt Melinda on her 20 wedding day." "Ah?" "You are standing next to her with a fan made out of feathers." "We'll save it," said his mother. She was still pretending 25 they were merely sorting. But soon enough, she forgot about that and settled back, musing, while he recited what he'd found. "Here is a picture of someone's porch." "Porch? Whose porch?" 30 "I can't tell." "What does it look like?" "Two pillars and a dark floor, clay pot full of geraniums ..." "Am I in it?" "No." 35 "Oh, well," she said, waving a hand, "maybe that was Luna's porch." He had never heard of Luna. To tell the truth, he didn't believe that relatives were what his mother was after. Ladies and gentlemen drifted by in a blur; 40 he did his best to learn their names, but his mother dismissed them airily. It was herself she was hunting, he sensed. "Do you see me, at all? Is that the dinner where I wore the pale blue?" Her single-mindedness sometimes amused him, sometimes annoyed him. There was greed in the forward jutting of her 45 chin as she waited to hear of her whereabouts. "Am I in that group? Was I on that picnic?" He opened a maroon velvet album, each of its pulpy gray pages grown bright yellow as urine around the edges. None of the photos here was properly glued down. A sepia portrait of a 50 bearded man was jammed into the binding alongside a Kodachrome of a pink baby in a flashy vinyl wading pool, with SEPT '63 stamped on the border. His mother poked her face out, expectant. He said, "Here's a man with a beard. I think it's your father." 55 "Possibly," she said, without interest. He turned the page. "Here's a group of ladies underneath a tree." "Ladies?" "None of them look familiar." 60 "What are they wearing?" "Long, baggy dresses," he told her. "Everything seems to be sagging at the waist." "That would be nineteen-ten or so. Maybe Iola's engagement party." 65 "Who was Iola?" "Look for me in a navy stripe," she told him. "There's no stripes here." "Pass on." She had never been the type to gaze backward, had not 70 filled his childhood with "When I was your age," as so many mothers did. And even now, she didn't use these photos as an excuse for reminiscing. She hardly discussed them at all, in fact--even those in which she appeared. Instead, she listened, alert, to any details he could give her about her past self. Was it 75 that she wanted an outsider's view of her? Or did she hope to solve some mystery? "Am I smiling, or am I frowning? Would you say that I seemed happy?"(5)
Withdrawal of the signifier and narrative technique
In this passage, the signifier "works," but not primarily on its own behalf: it "works" as a self-effacing, seemingly perfect servant. No traumatic violence is apparently inflicted on either lexis or syntax, and the text opens directly onto a story that seems to have had an earlier existence: a son describes objects and photos at the request of his blind, aged mother, who is digging about in the past. The transparency of the signifier is in no way affected by the opacity of the story being told (it is told in the third person, but the narrator delegates the focalization to the son, who does not know what exactly is taking place, and makes no real effort to find out). The referential illusion is heightened by the use of traditional formulaic phrases such as "certainly" (l. 6), or "to tell you the truth" (l. 39).
Besides, the text presents a balanced, classic succession of the different forms of narrative tradition--narrative, description, dialogue, reflexion (ll. 147)--and repeats it in abridged form in the second half (ll. 48-77). It is articulated according to the principle of spatio-temporal contiguity: "belongings" (ll. 1-18) refers to a contigual link between characters and objects ("to belong": to be placed along); objects and photos are an extension of the mother, and perhaps of the son too, as we shall see. The text plays on a sort of stock-taking that goes from seeing to touching to saying; "he went over them" (l. 19) indicates a movement from object to object. This list effect is made explicit in "he recited what he had found" (l. 28; "to recite": O.E.D. v. 4. "to enumerate, give a list of"). And the fictional time proceeds in a linear mode: the dislocation of time--objects and photos are presented without any regard to chronological order--has nothing to do with an avant-garde technique; it refers to the lack of order in which objects and photos are examined by the characters. They are perceived by the reader in the diegetic continuity through the gestures and the attitudes of the characters commenting on them.
In short, we are invited to a dinner in which the food is hardly likely to titillate the blase palate. Tyler's novels, in general, do not pioneer in techniques of experimental fiction.
Withdrawal from the world
From the very first sentence the story is characterised by the figure of spatial withdrawal: mother and son withdraw into a place which is removed from the contact of society, closed to "outsider[s]" (l. 7). Moreover, space is organised around a structure of passage going gradually deeper into successive containers: living room, desk, drawer, albums, photos, boxes full of diaries, envelopes, letters, a glove. Spatial withdrawal is itself a metaphor for another withdrawal, which it prefigures: the retreat into a distant past at the beginning of the century ("nineteen-ten or so" [l. 64], and the scene takes place in 1979).
The insular and abysmal experience the characters embark upon takes place against a background of silence, immobility and darkness. Apart from the dialogic exchange between the characters, no noise is perceptible; obviously photos do not speak, nor are the "cascades" of photos (l. 7) explicitly referred to as audible (we will see later how they may be heard). The movements of the characters are restricted to a few gestures, and the photos sliding about (l.8) is due to inertia rather than to any dynamism; as for the "Ladies and gentlemen" on the photos--still pictures--perceived by the son as "drift(ing) by" (l. 40), his commentary fails to impart any semblance of life to these figures, whom we imagine to be hieratic and static. Finally, the mother is blind: the light started withdrawing from her world in 1975 ("The light was somehow thinning, and retreating" (p. 3, emphasis added). And the son has a far less than perfect vision of the parade of people on the photos, a blurred (l.40) comprehension of his mother's past.
The deep, dark, capacious resonances of "bottom drawer" at the end of the first paragraph (l. 4) suggest in economical fashion a dynamics of withdrawing from the world into spatial, temporal, imaginary depths, like the "armoire de la memoire" in French.
Withdrawal of the world
Searching for her past, mother and son come across bits of it, traces and remnants. The disparate contents of the drawer are linked by metonymy (spatial and temporal) as well as strong analogy. There is little need to underline their semantic homogeneity: the semantic fields of falling, stiffness, chromatic and olfactive variations through time pervade the text. Moreover, because the metonymic logic of the text helps to give birth to a logic based on resemblance, an intense two-way metaphorical relationship is implicitly established between mother and objects, signalled from the very first lines, in which the status of object is conferred on the mother ("he took her," "led her," "he seated her" [ll. 1-3]). An analysis of the semes common to mother and objects would bring into prominence the semantic fields of holding, holding up, containing/incontinence, the failure to retain control over the limits.
It is not merely the effect of time that is spelled out, but also aborted life, death at the start: the photos that have never stuck in the album ("unmounted photos" [l. 8]) and the unfinished album ("an incomplete baby-book" [l.10]) have never really come into being. For the mother, too, the fullness of life has been merely virtual: the A's on her school report (l. 17) denoting excellence are like indications of a future unfulfilled; indeed Pearl, whose very name evokes brilliance and the perfection of the sphere (to her husband, she had been "a Pearl among women" [p. 6]), refused to go to university, as we learn as early as page four of the novel.
While he dreams on these objects, the son, whose interior voice melts with that of the narrator, even to the point of replacing it on occasion, is stirred into explicit metaphoric activity--I include in the metaphorical field all the analogical figures, according to Jakobson's binary conception of the figural, which is based on the metaphor/metonymy pair.(6) The cliche of the fall of time, symbolised by water falling vertically and dying, takes on a revitalised force in the image of the "cascades of photos," in which photos, as material objects, are perceived in the flux of time, before one sees what they represent, that is the photographic images, which are more often than not said to fix for eternity the moment extracted from the passage of time--eternity in this case being strongly marked by relativity, owing to the decay of the material supporting the image: the pages of the album have become yellow with the passage of time (l.49). Another strong figure of the passing of time, unexpected in view of the huge semantic distance between comparer and compared (but more of that later), is the "corsage squashed as stiff and hard as a dried-up mouse carcass" (ll.13-14). The past returns as remains.
We go from a glance that passes over things (ll.5-18 and ll.49-50) to a parade of photographic images (ll. 20-35 and ll. 51-68), four of which mother and son comment upon briefly. Their main concern, as with most people looking at photos, is to re-establish contact with the referent--they at no time engage in an aesthetic or cultural discussion of the photos. But their quest is on the whole unsuccessful. In a general way, photos are no more than images of the past, as opposed, for instance, to the objects in the drawer that are remains of the past, apprehended through the evidence of their being-there: the past tense of "there was" (ll. 9 and 12), which is a marker of free indirect style, imparts the intuition of the being-there of the objects in the drawer, whereas neither the present tense used by the son (e.g. "You're standing" [l.23]), or for that matter by anyone who describes photos, nor the strong euphoric finger he points in the direction of the referent ("Here's a group of ladies" [l.57]), will ever succeed in bringing the latter back. Further, the photographic image fails to restore the profusion of the world, and the representational content of Pearl's photos, what is seen and said of them, is remarkably poor. One has only to contrast the two dense paragraphs (ll. 5-20 and ll. 48-55) in which the objects are described in their sensorial characteristics, with the exceptionally meagre dialogue concerning the photos. Pearl herself appears in only one of the photos, and then as an extra (l. 24) at the wedding of her aunt, a figure withdrawn, a marginal presence, that "[just hung around the fringes" (p. 273), true to her name--a spherical being, bound up in itself; throughout the novel we are constantly reminded of her very limited social existence. Moreover, in two of the photos, she fails to appear: her not being there punctuates each of the two passages written in dialogue form (l. 35 and l. 69). Pearl was absent, at least for the photographer (no story without a narrator, no photo without a photographer). Placed in the context of the novel as a whole, this absence, explicitly stated but left unexplained ("No." [l. 35], "There's no stripes here." [l. 68])--the text withdraws, a period, no more--points toward the past and future absences and departures, all traumatic, that punctuate the novel. It points toward the departure of her husband, never made explicit yet indicated as early as page nine of the novel, toward the departures of the other two children, and also toward physical death (that punctuates existence), specifically Pearl's death, on which the novel opens and closes. Pearl's absence in the photos has the expansive force of metonymy: it expands temporally from the past to the future, and from one character to another.
In short, the figure of the mother through time that this page spells out is marked by the non- or the lesser being: the lesser physical being, the virtual being, the limited social being, the being as a mere extra, the non-being in one photo, the future non-being. More generally, what is drawn and redrawn here with an emphatic pen is the withdrawal of things and beings.
Withdrawal of meaning
Meaning, too, withdraws, as can be seen from the fifteen or so questions that one character asks another or asks himself--direct or indirect, requiring or not requiring an answer, questions that get answers or remain unanswered, one-off or repeated. Some of the questions are presented as having been posed on previous occasions, and yet this occasion has a unique character that separates it from the others. "This was something he had done many times before" (l. 5) explicitly pushes the others back into a previous time, and this uniqueness brings with it a sense of expectation: on this occasion, will Ezra come across a photo that will deliver the long-awaited truth, like Barthes's photo of the Jardin d'Hiver?(7)
Pearl's questioning posture is evoked in striking fashion in the phrase "It was herself she was hunting" (l. 42), where the reflexive form highlights the exteriority of the subject to herself, the elusiveness of the self. A little earlier, the image of the hunt was already present in the phrase "what his mother was after" (l. 40), and more subtly in "musing" (l. 28), whose exact origin is uncertain, but which should perhaps be related to the Italian "musare," used for a hunting-dog that sniffs the air ("to muse," v., O.E.D.). The force of her determination is expressed also in the phrases "the forward jutting of her chin" (ll. 45-46) and she "poked her face out" (l. 53): Pearl strives to discover an ember in the ashes of her past, and the search in which she is actively engaged implies "sorting" (l. 26), eliminating with a gesture ("waving her hand" [l. 36]) or a word ("Pass on" [l. 69]) that which is "without interest" (l. 56).
But the interpretation of her past has become problematical: the description of people and places that are shown in three of the photos is presented in the uncertain mode (see for instance the indefinites: "someone's porch" (l. 29), "a man" (l. 54), and the modal expressions: "I think" (l. 54), "maybe" (l. 36), "possibly" (l. 56), etc. Impossible to identify the verandah, the terrace ("porch" [l. 29]): no one had taken the trouble to write a caption, a "legend," on the photos--what is to be read in them? The two speakers are in the same position, unable to tell ("I can't tell" [l. 31]): the son can see but cannot recognize, while the mother could recognize if she could but see. No interpreter, no meaning. We are confronted with a variant of the fable of the blind man and the lame.
The difficulty of Pearl's search is also due to the evanescent nature of her ultimate goal. On close scrutiny, it appears that her questions are of two types, those that concern her having-been-there (e.g. "Am I in it?" [l. 34]) and those that concern the truth of her past self (e.g. "Am I smiling, or am I frowning?" [l. 77]), the former being necessary preliminaries of the latter. The ultimate question, the one that torments Pearl right up to her death (as we understand at the end of the chapter, pp. 277-278), is the one reported at the very end of this excerpt--"Would you say that I seemed happy?" In this question the abundance of modals and modal expressions highlights the extremely problematical nature of Pearl's search; what she strives to discover is the truth of her past being, which has withdrawn behind appearances, a shadow on a face, by means of a photographic image and the mediation of the other's seeing and telling, perhaps even of his willingness to tell ("would" can be read as having all the original force of "will").
Pearl's quest in its turn is the subject of her son's questioning. He constructs several hypotheses for himself (ll. 75-77), and thus creates a blur in which meaning evaporates. What escapes the son's (and the reader's) grasp is the meaning of meaning--he does not know what it is exactly that she does not know--the answer being delayed to the end of the penultimate chapter in time-honoured fictional strategy. We are here in the presence of a dynamics of withdrawal of meaning on two levels, which appears in the series of uninterrupted questions that end the excerpt (ll. 75-78). As opposed to the mother's questions to the son, reported in quotation marks, the first two questions are addressed by the son to himself: the cognitive vacuum manifested by his questions is not a request for his mother to fill; he never asks her any question, allowing the meaning of her quest to withdraw and escape his grasp. In retrospect, the son's blindness seems total since the question that drives the whole of his mother's quest is among those that he recalls to mind, but nothing indicates that he has understood its importance; he gropes in the dark, even when the truth is staring him in the face.
Similarly, the son's negatives ("he didn't believe" [l. 39], "she had never been the type" [l. 70], "had not filled" [l. 70], "didn't use" [l. 72], semi-negative "hardly" [l. 73) are the linguistic gesture he uses to eliminate what is not germane to his search. As there is no positive to counterbalance this negativity, the negations reinforce the enigma of the motivation for Pearl's gesture.
The text thus opens onto a large choice of meanings made possible by a multiplication of negative and interrogative turns of phrase. The figure of the mother is eventually presented in the enigmatic mode. Whereas at the beginning of the sequence, mother and son belong to the same inside world, as opposed to that of "outsider[s]" (l. 7), by the end of it, the mother is seen through the eyes of the son as an "outsider" (l. 76), a stranger to himself--indeed, one of the major themes of Anne Tyler's novels is the isolation of the individual within the family. In ironic fashion, it was contact with his mother that had seemed to allow him to grasp the truth of his own being in a flash of consciousness ("He was conscious, suddenly, of his height and his solid, comfortable weight" [ll. 2-3]): he felt strong in contact with and in contrast to his weak mother. But the irony is pursued as this flash of intuition is illusory, marked as it is by its relativity: at the beginning of the chapter, we learn that he is ill, perhaps seriously, and he knows it.
In short, the son, who has been elevated to the position of interpreter ("he acted as interpreter" [p. 268]) fails in his task, and this contrary to his name, "Ezra," which he owes to the priest who explicated the biblical texts in his readings to the people, at least basically by the rhythm and the modulation of his voice.
Withdrawal of dysphoric affects
Marshaling the analysis of this page according to the notion of withdrawal (from the world, of the world, and of meaning) contradicts the reader's experience, which is not primarily dysphoric. Dysphoric affects are kept in reserve by the mass of the unsaid that separates Ezra from Pearl. It would be instructive to consider this unsaid in Tyler's ethical framework, which is also that of a number of her characters.(8) This unsaid ought also to be considered in terms of the aesthetics which Tyler has many times discoursed upon, that of setting up and striving to maintain a deliberate distance between herself and her subject.(9) She never prolongs a state of dysphoria. Here the essential reserve of her style is an effective antidote to the romanticism of loss and nostalgia that underlies the text. While the loss of sight is always a source of anguish and compassion, the pathetic nature of a blind person seeking to know what is in the photos is not exploited by Tyler. Pearl herself has always refused to acknowledge she is blind despite medical diagnosis (e.g. p. 3), and the ostensive force of "There's that picture" (l. 20) is one of the many ways (see the whole of chapter 9) in which Ezra keeps up the pretence that she can see. More generally, "pretending" (l. 25) helps Pearl conceal her intimate wounds. Her weakness is never stated explicitly by the narrator; rather it is Ezra's feeling of strength as he makes contact with the other's body that is mentioned: ("He was conscious, suddenly, of his height and his solid, comfortable weight" [ll. 1-2]). Yet the feeling is confined within parentheses, the body of the text shrinks back in modesty, withdraws in an aside of decency. As for the analogical relationship between the worn objects and Pearl, it is never forced into the text but remains implicit.
There is more to it than that. The dynamism of Pearl's quest confers on this occasion a positive thymic charge. Although she is on the point of collapsing, she stands straight as an I, ("I" recurs in her questions [ll. 34, 43, 46, 47]), an upright letter that is a figure for the upright being standing vertical on the edge of its disappearance. It is piquant that the "I," twice italicized (ll. 46 and 47), should at one and the same time convey the declining strength of the speaker (the letter itself is in a slightly sloping position) and her vitality (it is emphasized in oral delivery). The image of an upright figure dominating from a higher level is further conveyed by "alert" (l. 75), derived from the Italian military phrase "stare all'erta," itself from Latin "erigere." Pearl is also dominant in the conversational mode she establishes between Ezra and herself: she evades Ezra's questions, and her own questions ("Ah?" [l. 22], "Porch?" [l. 30], "Ladies?" [l. 59]), violent and truncated, are forcible intrusions into, or military strikes against, her addressee. Far from lingering over the past in a retrospective retreat ("She had never been the type to gaze backward" [l. 70]; "not reminiscing" [l. 73]), she strains toward a future discovery. In passing, it is worth noting that Tyler breathes life again into the cliche of the predatory photographer tracking down images. In the quest she pursues as reader of the photos, Pearl is both prey and tracker ("It was herself she was hunting"), thus creating a topological paradox denoting a "more being"; to use Greimas's terminology, she is both subject- and object-actant. In short, in this hunt for knowledge about her past happiness, which denotes at least a cognitive void, she finds a certain fullness (the mother is seen by the son as listening "expectant" (ll. 53-54).
As for Ezra, what he explicitly affirms is the being-there of the world, not its withdrawal: the "there was" that governs the inventory of objects in the drawer (ll. 9 and 12) is akin to the "there is" of phenomenology; it calmly asserts a perceptive fullness, free from anxiety, and it predicates at one and the same time the being-there of the subject and of the object of perception and discourse. Both subject and object are present, and looking at one another: some of the photos are seen to "poke" (l. 8) by Ezra (in analogous fashion, the blind Pearl is seen to "poke her face out" [l. 53]). The repetition of "there was" actually introduces a sort of order and linkage, that of the observer's look, in this world of dislocation. Similarly, the violence of the metaphorical flashes that are interspersed between the list of objects in the drawer is attenuated by the use of verbal tools of analogical signification (comparative link words: "cascades of photos," or modalisers: "as stiff and hard as a [...] carcass," "yellow as urine"). The world is present, the subject seeing and imagining too, and he remains in control of the metaphorical game. Lastly, the objects are placed under not only the sign of entropy but also that of the renewal of life, albeit in a somewhat muted fashion. It is pointless arguing that etymologically "tendrils" (l. 17) is probably derived from Latin "tendere" (to extend, as the vine extends its tendrils), not from "tener": the word has to be heard as connoting tenderness, that of "tendron"--a young tender shoot, and also, in old-fashioned French, a young innocent girl. In short, the cascades of photos can just as easily call to mind the rushing of living water as the flow and the flux of time. The strongly negative thymic charge carried by the objects in the drawer is contradicted by the unexpected key-signature, or affective tonality, explicitly indicated towards the end of Ezra's reverie: he "was fond of these belongings" (l. 18). The room that contains the remains of the past is a "living room."
The life of instinctual drives returns forcefully in the very depths of this non-life.
What happens mostly takes place in the withdrawal of the unconscious. To start with, these reiterated scenes are analogous to analytical sessions. Ezra, the interpreter, "helps" (p. 268) Pearl interpret her past--"Ezra" means "help" in Hebrew. As she delves into the deepest layers, "the bottom drawer" (l. 4), of her past, she is seated on a "couch" (l. 3). Yet she is a very mediocre analysand: the intentionally selective nature of her quest is out of kilter with the linguistic game invented by psychoanalysis--not to hold back anything, throwing oneself to the wolves. She does not "throw herself" to the other, but is prey to herself.
Be that as it may, these sessions involve the most intimate of desires. They mobilise unconscious resonances of a make-believe world for two, only just two, "he" and "her," of an intimate tete-a-tete in a closed space shut off from the rest of the world. Several competing patterns of interpretation can be played off against each other.
The opening paragraph establishes a process of transgression: Ezra takes Pearl, moves her, places her on a bed, delves into the vagina-drawer--or possibly removes the drawers covering her bottom ("bottom drawer" [l. 4]: the unconscious functions by wordplay) . Or he may be rifling through her "trousseau" ("bottom drawer" in British English, "hope chest" in American English). Whatever the exact nature of this action, the emphasis given to it by syntax ("This was something" [l. 5]), and its ritual character point to its importance. We can give to the physical taking of Pearl by Ezra ("took" [l. 1]) the signification of a strong embrace, that of the syntactic subject and object, heavily underlined by the text ("He took her [...] and led her" [l. 1], "he seated her" [l. 3]). Also, Pearl's insistence in asking her son to look at her: "Do you see me, at all?" (ll. 42-43) is a striking formulation for the reader listening with suspended attention to the text, i.e. not adding "in the picture" to mentally complete the ellipsis. The comma that precedes "at all" gives new impetus to the question and to the desire of the speaker (Pearl, who is blind), her desire to be seen. The son is looking at photos of his mother before her wedding photos that can awaken incestuous desires--without being seen by her. By opening the photo album Ezra reveals something intimate that is soft and reddish ("a maroon velvet album," with "pulpy" pages [l. 48]). Thus the process set in motion has heavy overtones of transgression, while the "fond" (l. 18) feelings of the son for his mother's belongings are not necessarily neutral or banal: one can envisage strong feelings, close to veneration, the cult of Venus ("fond": O.E.D. A 5 a: "over-affectionate, doting"). The recurrence of the phoneme/on/in "fond of these belongings" deepens the resonance of "fond." In fact, the cascades of photos, their falling movement that is repeated in each session, their slipping, may well evoke something pleasurable rather than something catastrophic (otherwise why does not Ezra once and for all eliminate this inconvenience by putting the photos in a bigger box that will hold them?). The flooding liquid is perhaps semen, while the ambiguity of "these" belongings (are they hers or his?) can be read as hinting at fantasized possession of the mother by the son.
The opening paragraph also sets up a process of regression ("led her back" [l. 1]) into a place, the living room, in which the son gives life to the mother. She expects him to feed her: "There was greed in the forward jutting of her chin" (ll. 45-46). The mother-son dyad is here inverted, as in the novel as a whole, which has been constructed around family meals that take place not in the mother's house but in the son's restaurant.(10) Here Ezra appears as a mothering, phoric figure in more than one respect; he displaces Pearl, acts as her sight,(11) her memory and her voice: by giving her his voice, by being a speaking presence for her, he brings her into existence. Already in the opening pages of the novel, as we shall see, voice and breath are specifically mentioned as synonyms for life. What Ezra feels for the things in the drawer is a fetishistic pleasure in terms of the post-Freudian theories of fetishism of Klein, Winnicott, or Lacan--not as something phallic but belonging to the attachment/separation category.(12) The affect slips from the mother on to relics, small objects handled repetitively and seen in an excessively minute way.(13) Yet, even while acting as as a mother to his mother, Ezra remains a child. To his uncomplicated way of thinking, the world is a reservoir of accessible images. It "belongs" (l. 18) to him. His simple-mindedness verges on stupidity ("fond" can be taken to connote idiocy, imbecility; see O.E.D., A 3).(14) Like a child, he repeats ("recite[s]" [l. 28]) what he has understood imperfectly if at all, probably having learned it from his mother on previous occasions. Like the pupil who is a bit simple, he "d[oes] his best" (l. 41) to learn the names of the people in the photos. He has remained a little boy; the "forward jutting of her chin" (l. 45) is recognisable as the displacement of a castration complex, the lack of a penis that is sorely felt. In castration logic terms, in effect, Pearl cuts and interrupts her son, refuses him access to pleasure as she prevents him from lingering over the pictures (ll. 42-43). The loving relationship between mother and son is also inverted at times so as to become a hostile relationship, euphemised as irritation ("sometimes annoyed" [l. 45]). The title of the novel suggests at the outset Ezra's ambivalent relationship with his mother: "homesick" suggests both nostalgia ("sick for") and repulsion ("sick of").
In the scenario being enacted, Ezra is thus a sort of zero being who fills all the roles in the family trinity; he is nothing because he is everything for his mother, as she had once been for him (she had been "everything for him," we are told, three lines before the opening of the sequence; Pearl had earlier told Cody, "I was everything to you" [p. 146]). In brief, there is a total lack of order in this family. Ezra may deny any lack of order in the drawer, yet his logic is that of the denial: "to an outsider it might appear disorganized" (l. 7) has to be construed as "I know some people might say there is a lack of order, but nevertheless it is not the case."(15) The unchanging nature of the ritual established at the start and emphasised by the simple syntax of the first and third sentences brings a false sense of security, that of a well-oiled mechanism; but matter and affects mess up the works. The lack of order in both drawer and family relationships reflects the traumatic experience that marked the family when the father left home--symbolically erased by the children's constant refusal to discuss it with their mother, it nevertheless reappears periodically throughout the novel in varying guises; the father himself becoming "the absent presence" (p. 19), unseen and unspoken of, yet hovering over the lives of mother and children. Landmarks have been deleted: one can surmise that the stamps have been torn off the envelopes in the drawer (l. 12) by the father, a stamp collector, as we are told in the second chapter of the novel (p. 41; see also p. 189). An analogous situation is repeated from one generation to the next: Pearl herself was an orphan (p. 6), and she is not interested in identifying her father's photo (l. 56); instead of taking its rightful place in the album, the latter has been "jammed into the binding" (l. 51). Besides, by not teaching her son the names of the people in their family, the mother wipes out the lineage (ll. 4142). In a parodic inversion of the biblical Ezra who brought the tables of God's Law to the Jewish people, the Ezra of the novel is perceived as having failed to assimilate the Law, the symbolic instance that regulates the subject's relationship with other human beings, imposing limits on his desire.
Another traumatic experience resurfaces, expressed through phonemes and syntax rather than through words. As we have seen, several semantic chains link the metaphorical displacements in Ezra's inner reverie. But if one listens with suspended attention (which does not preclude a certain degree of sharpness) to the sounds that link the words, several associative groups of sounds can be heard: soft, feminine groups marked by the prevalence of /m/ and /b/ in particular and associated with the mother and the feelings of nostalgia and loss of object (e.g [remove], [bottom drawer], [crumbling], [albums], [mother], [baby book]) but also, more to my point here, hard sounds that reverberate in the "cascades" of photos.(16) As we have seen, the formal simplicity of the metaphor does not prevent the latter being subjected to all sorts of semantic "revivifications" in both catastrophic and pleasurable fantasy registers. But in my view its energetic charge resides essentially in the phonic energy of [cascades]; in French, this word has been the subject of the musings of "word-dreamers" like Bachelard and Jean-Pierre Richard.(17) The strength of the phonic figure to be heard in [cascades] lies in the combination of two occlusives, /k/, reduplicated, and /d/, and a sibilant /s/, reduplicated in the plural. It is well-known that the articulation of /k/ and /d/ implies a complete blocking of the phonatory flow, and that /s/, as a fricative consonant, causes the jaws to close as in a feeling of hate. This strong, hard phonic figure is heard again and again in Ezra's inner discourse--the first two paragraphs of the text, essentially: it appears in that order or inversed, with voiceless or voiced variants, in isolated words: [desk], [disorganized], [cascades], [stacked], [squashed], [grades], [script], [next], [subject], [describing], and in several syntagmatic combinations: [conscious suddenly], [solid comfortable weight], [to the desk], [slid about as he walked], [others poked], [stacked to one side], [Schrafft's candy box containing], [lavender-colored corsage squashed as stiff and hard as a dried-up mouse carcass] (the semantic distance between the "corsage" and the "carcass" is inversely proportional to the patent sound affinity between the two words), [single kid glove], [a script so elegant], etc. It appears also in a somewhat truncated form that combines significantly, in my view, the two occlusives /k/ and /d/ or /g/ and /t/, in [walked] and [poked]--a key word if any, in the text, as we have seen (ll. 8 and 53)--,and in [girlhood], [incomplete], [Cody] (l. 11 and l. 15), [candy], [containing], [kid], [card], [grades], [elegant], etc. In the flow of the text, several fundamental notes circulate, and insist on being becoming meaningful through repetition.
Interestingly, Ezra's sister, Jenny, remarks earlier in the novel on the hardness of the English language generally speaking--"so many K's and G's, such a choppy language ... , clumps of consonants ... , like Icelandic, maybe, or Eskimo" (p. 216). My claim is that Ezra's reverie, which comes as a prelude to the linguistic interchange between mother and son, is packed closer with such sounds than, say, the rest of the sequence, as a cursory glance will show--and this should be no matter for surprise: indeed, in the reverie, Ezra's affects circulate freely, untroubled by the fear of censure, whereas in the ensuing dialogue, he keeps a tight rein on his own affects, complying unreservedly with Pearl's desire, and the conversational rules imposed by her.
More precisely, what is embodied in Ezra's inner discourse is the body of the other, Cody, the elder brother, whose name contains the same two occlusives as "cascades," and who has always been his rival for the love of girls at school and their mother at home. Cody the son (l. 11) is named after his mother, Pearl E. Cody (l. 16), herself named after her father in well-documented tradition. Now, one Sunday outing, a long time ago, Cody had blindly fired an arrow at the mother, an arrow that the father had loaded; is Cody a parodic echo of Cupid or of William Cody the buffalo hunter, nicknamed Buffalo Bill? Whatever the case, the father had left home one day, following this incident, which is told and recalled on several occasions in the novel. Significantly too, Cody had married the girl, Ruth, who had been destined to be Ezra's wife (chapter 5). At the time, Ezra apparently accepted in a more or less fatalistic fashion the violence of the mutilation inflicted on him by Cody; but the violence is present in the phonic flow of Ezra's reverie. It also recurs in the diegesis, in the form of a growth, an "eyeball" (p. 266) with evident sexual connotations, that Ezra discovers on his right thigh and fears that it will be fatal. A short time after Cody's unbrotherly act, this violence had already made its reappearance: Ezra stopped playing the recorder (see for instance p. 176) he used to play all the time. It is as if Cody had stopped him breathing. And breathing is living--this obvious truth (central to Breathing Lessons, Tyler's novel published in 1988) is stated as early as the novel's second paragraph, in which Pearl recalls the bout of croup that almost killed Cody when he stopped breathing. It is worth noting in passing that the word "croup" is based on the principle of imitative (dys) harmony: it mimics the sufferer's coarse cough described on the first page of the novel: "the baby's breathing was choked and rough, like something pulled through tightly packed gravel"; the occlusives give voice to Cody's gravelly (choked with gravel) breathing during his bout of croup. In analogous manner, the inner discourse of Ezra is a gravelly, coarse discourse in as much as it is choked by small deposits (/k/ and /d/) that have grown like kysts in his unconscious; coarse too in the sexual meaning, if one considers the slang meaning of "poked": some of the photos "poked" (l. 8), and so does Pearl (l. 53). This obsessive image conveys the fantasy of a rummaging search, that of sexual intercourse. The irony is that Ezra actually owes his existence to the brother, who symbolically put an end to it: it was after Cody's bout of croup that Pearl decided to have more children, just in case.... She had wanted "extra children" (line 6 of the novel), and that was when Ezra was born (line 7 of the novel). The very name of Ezra seems to represent sexual mutilation: the strong, hard phonic figure at the beginning of "extra" (/eks/) is softened and femininised to /ez/. Besides, didn't Barthes see in the graphic representation of the letter Z, its slanting downstroke, a sign of deviance, the wound of castration?(18) Moreover, the ending in -a, which is traditionally feminine, is common to three female characters named in the passage (Melinda, Luna, Iola); it may even be present in the second name of the mother, Pearl E. Cody (l. 15). What permeates and runs through the sounds is the violence of a dreamer's past life and ever-present desire.
The same violence is visible in several syntactic ambiguities. Where does one mark the pause in the expression "incomplete baby book for Cody" (ll. 10-11)? Is it necessarily an "incomplete/baby book," i.e. a book that has never been finished? Isn't it possible to read "incomplete baby/book," i.e. the book of an "unfinished" baby, whose development was blocked at a presymbolic stage, and who caused such a great deal of upset to the family, particularly in Ezra's life? Cody is indeed referred to as "Cody the trouble maker," at the very beginning of the novel (line 8 of the first page). A second point of syntactic hesitation that is re-inforced by a semantic ambivalence is "a single kid glove" (l. 14). This can obviously be read as "a single/kid glove," i.e. an odd glove made from kid leather or, why not, "a single kid['s]/glove" that had belonged to Pearl but has now been appropriated by a single lonely, unique child (whom it fits "like a glove," and a very soft one at that, like a "kid glove"). Of the three children in the family, it is Ezra who has stayed single, close to his mother, after Cody had married. It is not difficult therefore for him to see himself as an only child, the only one that counts for his mother, and Ezra's fantasies accomplish this by means of syntactic manipulation. Ezra's inner discourse follows an instinctual logic that is unhampered by any fear of censure or by strict rules of syntax.
This page, then, echoes with the traumatic experiences that inform the diegesis of the novel. Although Ezra's fetishism is here shown in euphoric form, what is visible in the body of the letter of his fantasy, without ever being explicitly acknowledged, is the admission that his feelings have been permanently wounded. In analogous manner, in Pearl's unquenchable thirst for knowledge, typified by her jutting out chin, is clearly visible a specific pointer to a psychic necessity, the persistence of an ache that is linked to the crucial factor of a loss. A cause-and-effect relation can be seen in the fact that she breaks off her quest as soon as one of her diaries reveals to her that without any doubt in earlier days she enjoyed a moment of happiness. Further, it is more than mere coincidence that Pearl's death is announced at the beginning of the next chapter, which is also the last. Her quest for happiness, albeit in the degraded guise of a knowledge of happiness past, was for her a reason for living and a reason for dying once she had discovered it. That is to say, without actually putting it into words, the value she put on this possession, this elusive property she clings to in exactly the same way that Ezra clings to the objects in the drawer: "I've had this moment," she had written in her diary. "It belongs to me" (p. 287).
As I have demonstrated, Tyler's restrained style of writing opens up a mine of meanings and interpretations.
Although the novel's characters (and Tyler's characters as a rule) have very little awareness of the problems involved in the activity of signifying, Ezra here touches upon the issue of producing meaning, in a rush of seemingly childish ludic fantasizing (ll. 15-17): each A grade entered on Pearl's school report card is so elegant in Ezra's eyes that "someone might have laid A-shaped tendrils of fine brown hair" (ll. 17-18) in its place. The enjoyment of writing is seen here in the swirling movement of the tendrils that stretch out ("tendril" [is less than] "tendere") as the sentence does in length, in contrast to the terseness and brevity that surround it; this enjoyment can be perceived as that of the schoolboy or of the scribe (Ezra, the biblical scribe) whose hand goes over the writing-surface, playing with the body, the "shape" of a letter. One can perceive, too, the enjoyment of writing as an activity that generates meaning: we know from psychoanalysis the very strong involvement of body and matter in writing and language, more precisely its anchoring in the mother, in its dual affective dimension, the love/hate relationship. This is precisely what Ezra's fantasy game consists in: to write and rewrite the letter A opposite every subject, A the letter of the beginning, going over the body of the mother (the report card that had belonged to his mother), appropriating it/her for himself ("these belongings" [l. 18]), removing parts of it (tendrils of hair), i.e. playing with and against it. Indeed, the birth of a text, language and style is achieved at the cost of the life of the mother figure.
Through this page too runs the issue of interpretation and its difficulty, which lies at the heart of the novel: in each of its chapters, a different character gives his/her version of the past, without any explicit definite comment from the narrator to confirm or invalidate it.(19) If the biblical Ezra gave life and meaning to his manuscripts by marking the pauses for breathing, the Ezra of the novel is no more than an ancillary in a rite that he does not understand. Because he has lost his breath in figurative and concrete terms, he can do no more than write, describe, recite, again and again, what has already been written; but he fails to bring any meaning to Pearl's past. Try as he may to interpret the other's past, it is his own past that he is interpreting, in the theatrical or musical sense, that of (re-)playing and performing. The performer's discourse therefore has to be interpreted by the reader.
The subject is thus defined in terms of alterity--not above all as other than the other, like the phonemes and semes of Saussurean linguistic theory, but on the one hand, as governed by that oblique mode of presence toward the other, combining reserve and solidarity, which holds such a favoured place in Tyler's ethical and aesthetic categories; on the other hand, as subject to a dual internal alterity: first, as other than himself in time (the elusiveness, or the withdrawal, of that other is Tyler's obsessional life-long concern, if ever there was one)(20); last but not least, he is that "other than himself' that he cannot elude because he cannot cease carrying it within. The traumatic past keeps returning in his discourse, punctuated as it is by flashes of the unconscious, sparks of live embers; meaning and affects circulate in the letter, which ignores time and never forgets. The subject does not belong to himself but to time, to time passing and time that stands still.
(*) This paper was read in French at a seminar organized by Jean-Jacques Lecercle (Professor of English at the University of Paris, Nanterre), for the S.A.E.S. Conference about Identity (Rennes, 1998). My analysis of a page of Anne Tyler's Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant was specifically conducted as an illustration of Lecercle's "theory of the remainder" expounded in The Violence of Language (Routledge, 1990). In his book, Lecercle argues against the arbitrary character of signs, the core of Saussurean theory as expounded in the Gouts de Linguistique Generale. He deals with the dark side of language, those odd, untidy linguistic phenomena which are left out by linguistic theory and can only be accounted for by the violent constraints social-historical and psychological realities impose on speakers. My approach, which draws to a fairly large extent on psychoanalysis, differs from the discussions of those critics who have adopted a psychoanalytic approach to Tyler's works (See e.g. Joseph B. Wagner, "Beck Tull: "The absent presence" in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant," and Anne Ricketson Zahlan, "Traveling Through the Self: The Psychic Drama of Anne Tyler's The Accidental Tourist," in The Fiction of Anne Tyler, ed. C. Ralph Stephens [Jackson: University Press of Mississipi, 1991], pp. 7383 and pp. 8496 respectively. See also Grace Farrell, "Killing off the Mother: Failed Matricide in Celestial Navigation," in Critical Essays on Anne Tyler, ed. Alice Hall Perry [New York: G. H. Hall, 1992], pp. 221-232.) in that it is a very close, almost microscopic reading of a relatively short portion of Tyler's text--an explication de texte in the French fashion. Only competent writing can of course be successfully subjected to a kind of reading that accounts for every word of a text, down to the semi-colons. It is hoped that this micro-analysis will in a way substantiate Updike's oft-quoted pronouncement: "This writer is not merely good; she is wickedly good" (a pronouncement Updike made in his review of Searching for Caleb, "Family Ways," New Yorker, March 29, 1976, pp. 110-112).
(1) On the blurred boundary between insiders and outsiders in Tyler's novels, see Mary. F. Robertson, "Anne Tyler: Medusa Points and Contact Points" (Petry, p. 184).
(2) See Doris Betts, "The Fiction of Anne Tyler," Southern, Quarterly, 21 (1983), 93-105.
(3) That Tyler's transgression of conceptual boundaries makes her close in spirit to postmodernists has been duly remarked upon by a number of critics (see Robertson, p.192). My contention is that Tyler's text, if looked at closely, invites the reader to pursue the process of transgressing further than has been hitherto acknowledged; also, I hope to show the psychoanalytic implications of the process.
(4) Marguerite. Michaels quotes Tyler in "Anne Tyler, Writer 8:05 to 3:30": "I guess I work from a combination of curiosity and distance. I'm sort of looking from a window ..." (Petry, p. 43).
(5) Anne Tyler, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982; rpt. London: Vintage, 1992), pp. 270-272.
(6) R. Jakobson's essay on "Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasia," in Fundamentals of Language, ed. Roman Jakobson and Morris Halle (La Hague: Mouton, 1956) contributed to the diffusion of the metaphor/metonymy pair.
(7) Roland Barthes, La chambre claire. Note sur la photographie, (Paris: Gallimard, Le Seuil, 1980), pp. 105-106: "J'allais ainsi ... regardant sous la lampe, une a une, ces photos de ma mere, remontant peu a peu le temps avec elle, cherchant la verite du visage que j'avais aime. Et je la decouvris."
(8) In Tyler's own words, what she "most fear[s] in people is intrusion" (Michaels, p.58). As for Jenny, Ezra's sister, she advocates explicitly and practises an oblique presence to the world and to the other: "She was learning how to make it through life on a slant" (pp. 212-213); see also the "slantwise style" (p. 259) practised by Ezra.
(9) In her review of the collected stories of Elizabeth Bowen, Tyler comments on the effectiveness of "the deliberate distance set up by the author" between herself and her subject ("An Art of Distance," New Republic, February 7, 1981, pp. 36-38).
(10) Pearl is explicitly referred to as "a non-feeder" (p. 159), as opposed to Ezra, who was "above all else, ... a feeder" (p. 161).
(11) After Pearl's death, the narrator comments that Ezra "had been his mother's eyes. Lately, he had been her hands and feet as well" (p. 297).
(12) On post-Freudian theories of fetishism, see Paul-Laurent Assoun, Le Fetichisme, Paris, P.U.F, "Que sais-je?," no. 2881, 1994, pp. 114-120.
(13) Tyler's novels are full of objects that are used with varying degrees of success as substitutes for losses, whose paradigm is the maternal object, always-already lost. See Margaret Morganroth Gullette, "The Tears (and Joys) are in the Things," in Safe at Last in the Middle Years: The Invention of the Midlife Progress Novel: Saul Bellow, Margaret Drabble, Anne Tyler, and John Updike (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988, [reprinted in The Fiction of Anne Tyler, ed. C. Ralph Stephens, University Press of Mississippi, 1991]).
(14) Benjamin DeMott in a review of Dinner at The Homesick Restaurant remarks that "there's a touch of Dostoyevsky's `Idiot' in Ezra" (New York Times Book Review, March 14, 1982, pp. 1,14). Reprinted in Petry, "Funny, Wise and True," pp. 111-114.
(15) According to O. Mannoni's formula "Je sais bien, mais quand meme ...," Clefs pour l'maginaire ou L 'Autre Scene (Paris: Seuil, 1969), pp.8-33.
(16) On the relationship between phonemes and instinctual drives see Ivan Fonagy, La Vive voix, Essais de psycho-phonetique (Paris: Payot, 1991 ), pp. 57-210.
(17) See Gaston Bachelard. La Poetique de l'espace (Paris: PUF, 1994 ), p. 164 and La Poetique de la reverie (Paris: PUF, 1993 ), p. 35; Jean-Pierre Richard, Pages Paysages. Microlectures II (Paris: Seuil, 1984), p. 102.
(18) Roland Barthes, S/Z (Paris: Seuil, 1970), pp. 103-104: "Z est la lettre de la mutilation ... a lettre de la deviance."
(19) The "conspiracy" between reader and narrator created by Tyler in her novels through the use of an ironic perspective has been analysed by Bradley R. Bowers in "Anne Tyler's Insiders," Mississippi Quarterly, 42 (Winter 1988-1989), 47-56.
(20) In "Why I Still Treasure The Little House," New York Times Book Review, November 9, 1986, p. 56, Tyler recalls the strong impact Virginia Lee Burton's book (1942) had on her, how it made her palpably aware of life's transience. Her acute awareness of the passage of time has been analysed by a number of critics, among whom Karin Linton, in The Temporal Horizon, A Study of the Theme Of Time in Anne Tyler's Major Novels (Acta: University of Uppsala, 1989).
JAQUELINE PELORSON University of Poitiers
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|Publication:||The Mississippi Quarterly|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1999|
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