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.
Like The Accidental Tourist and A Patchwork Planet (among others), Redhead by the Side of the Road features a disconsolate, angst-ridden male. Micah Mortimer, aka the ‘tech hermit’, fixes computers for a living. He is a ‘tall, bony man in his early forties with not-so-good posture – head lunging slightly forward, shoulders slightly hunched’. He has ‘jet-black hair … his whiskers have started coming in gray’. Every morning at 7.15 Micah goes for a run, then he ‘slaps the magnetic TECH HERMIT sign onto the roof of his Kia’ and goes off to deal with his clients, a dreamlike array of people he barely notices, bleating about printers. After this he cleans his apartment over and over again and frets about small things. Then, ‘at ten pm or so the three squinty windows behind the foundation plantings go dark’.
The novel revolves around the question raised by the opening line: ‘You have to wonder what goes through the mind of a man like Micah Mortimer.’ It turns out: lots. Micah thinks about the speed limit as he drives: ‘If thirty-five miles per hour really meant thirty-eight, they ought to go ahead and say thirty-eight.’ He thinks about his ‘woman friend’, Cass, who is often angry with him: ‘Since when had she cared if it was his night to set the garbage bins out?’ He thinks (a lot) about garbage. Malcolm Bradbury once pointed out that Woolf’s characters always think about eternity while dishing out potatoes, but in real life sometimes we just think about potatoes while dishing out potatoes, and that is OK too. Micah always thinks about potatoes while dishing out potatoes, and about driving while driving, and about recycling while recycling, and so on. Then a young man arrives, claiming that Micah is his father. Shortly afterwards, Cass announces she is leaving him. These revelations are played for dark comedy, as is Micah’s reaction. His interest in recycling becomes increasingly manic: ‘Micah laid the first carton down on its side and stamped on it. He didn’t open the end flaps first; he just stamped on it till it collapsed. Stamp, stamp, stamp.’
It takes a lot of sangfroid for an author to portray the inner thoughts of a man who refuses, in one sense, to think. Micah actively doesn’t want to think about eternity; he actively wants to think about potatoes instead. He keeps trying to limit his thoughts to concerns about his jacket or how best to cross the road, but eventually they run wild anyway:
Imagine if some cataclysm had hit the city overnight. Maybe one of those neutron bombs they used to talk about that wiped out all of humanity but left the buildings intact. How long would it take him to realize something had happened?
For a while Micah thinks of nothing but the apocalypse, and then the scene changes and normality resumes. Yet it feels like a dream: ‘there were suddenly swarms of people. There were men with briefcases, children with giant backpacks and cardboard dioramas and rolled-up tubes of posters. There were cars and buses and school buses, and a garbage truck with two garbage men hanging off the rear.’ Towards the end, Tyler circles back to the opening: ‘You have to wonder what goes through the mind of such a man. Such a narrow and limited man; so closed off.’ Micah is closed off; he wants to close himself off because reality is ‘unspeakably sad’. He dreams of escape and longs to inhabit other lives. But no one releases him, apart from Tyler, who supplies him with a tenuously happy ending. This is a relief. In our troubling times, now that reality has been hacked by a dystopian novelist, what could be nicer than sifting through novels by Anne Tyler? This isn’t her greatest novel, but it’s still a pleasure to read. It’s fractured, sad, strange and beautiful at the same time – like unreal real life.