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The 15-Minute Pulitzer: The impact of small things

by Craig B | Dec 14, 2018

Book Review: Anne Tyler's winner of the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Breathing Lessons

cover for Anne Tyler's novel, Breathing LessonsThere’s this extended scene in the middle of Anne Tyler’s 1989 Pulitzer win, Breathing Lessons, that at first blush seems a bit out of place.  Ira and Maggie Moran have been to a funeral (they’ve also been unceremoniously asked to leave) and then get entangled with another motorist on their way back to Baltimore.  This is not the central plot, just an extended scene that I found quite compelling on a variety of levels.  Yet the scene does seem a bit out of keeping with the rest of the novel, a bit of an unsupported narrative jaunt, though I suppose it could be focusing on character development or something, etc.  Anyway, that was my first musing, but then reading a bit more about Anne Tyler and her Quaker childhood of no public schooling or telephone use, I began to wonder if this almost-too-cutesy novel is channeling a bit more of (do I want to make this comparison) the metafictional force that seems to make Paul Thomas Anderson tick than I would initially have given it credit for.  (For those who wonder what the heck I’m talking about, as an example, Anderson’s movie The Master barely hangs together plot-wise and yet the scenes and characters achieve a synergy that keep it going and round it out while also making viewers go, or at least some of them, that’s so meta …).  It’s possible, when one squints hard enough, that Tyler's motorist scene is tuned in to a recurring theme of hers where, as Joyce Carol Oates put it  “time itself … constitutes plot.”  This seeming dedication to bringing to life the “impact of small things” and the constant ticking our internal clocks all emit made me appreciate the authorial courage of asking one’s readers to draw back and think, “Why is this here?”  I guess that’s the best possible spin one can put on a moment of which one’s readers might also be pulling back and asking, “Why did they bother?”  Though, in Tyler’s defense, she does have a strong case to make because it does seem to me if not for the actual impact of small things that we at least subconsciously pick up on and value, none of us actually would … bother, that is.

Craig B author Craig B is a thirty-something lover of books, movies, and rock and roll whose grandmother still worries that he might not be eating enough. (Love you, Grandma!) He lives with his charming wife in the small town of Berne, IN (in sight of the clock tower) where he busies himself keeping the Roses of Sharon in check and training his chinchilla in the ancient arts of the Ninja. Craig’s current favorite book is Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann.
  • Craig B is a thirty-something lover of books, movies, and rock and roll whose grandmother still worries that he might not be eating enough. (Love you, Grandma!) A favorite book of Craig’s is Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann.
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