Realism is generally regarded as a good thing, in life and in art. People are advised to ‘get real’ or ‘be realistic’ but seldom the opposite, and you will rarely hear a critic recommending a novel on the grounds of its exquisite lack of realism. Yet the kind of realism promulgated by totalitarian regimes – for example, the so-called social realism of Stalin – can be nothing more than dark propagandist fantasy. And, as we’ve seen in recent weeks, reality can shift suddenly and become disconcertingly unreal. For these reasons and perhaps other besides, authors from Woolf to Borges to Coetzee to Vila-Matas have taken up arms against realism, refusing its certainties. Then there are those, like Gogol, who scrutinise reality so minutely that its rules and conventions fall apart – like holding a magnifying mirror up to your face and finding it is unrecognisable.
Enter Anne Tyler. Across her vast oeuvre, she has written about quotidian reality over and over again, magnifying each tiny aspect. In novels such as Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982), The Accidental Tourist (1985) and Digging to America (2006), this technique immerses the reader in the beauty, boredom and terror of ordinary life. In other novels – A Patchwork Planet (1998) and The Amateur Marriage (2004), for example – the effect is like viewing a pointillist painting under heavy magnification: loads of dots but not much else. Her latest, Redhead by the Side of the Road, has moments of beauty and moments of collapsed pointillism, and is slightly disappointing at times and truly brilliant at others.