A few years back I read a rare interview with Anne Tyler in which she described getting together with her lady friends of a certain age to watch The Wire and experience how some other Baltimore residents live. The gangs-and-drugs world of The Wire, of course, could hardly be more different from the safe semi-suburban spaces Tyler’s characters inhabit.
However, if you’ve heard one thing about Tyler’s new novel, Clock Dance, her twenty-second, I expect it’s that a character gets shot. Finally, a realistic look at the condition of Baltimore, I thought! To my frustration, though, Tyler does just what she did in her previous novel, the Booker-shortlisted A Spool of Blue Thread, and immediately defuses what could have been a hot-button issue. Sure, her characters have dysfunctional family problems aplenty, but nothing ever gets too out of hand. So in Spool son Denny’s confession that he thinks he’s gay is never given serious consideration, and in Clock Dance the Chekhovian gun we (perhaps) encounter early on in the novel does indeed return to be used in the contemporary-set section, but – and I’m sorry if this strikes you as a spoiler – it’s only a shot in the leg, the result of some kids playing around with a gun, and the unwitting victim is fine.
Essentially Clock Dance is three stories followed by a short novel: glimpses into four periods of Willa Drake’s life. In 1967 she’s 11 and her angry mother Alice, who’s reminiscent of Pearl Tull from Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, gets fed up and leaves – but soon comes back. (You see what I mean about dangling life-changing traumas in front of us but then instantly neutralizing them?) In 1977 Willa is a college junior and flies home over spring break to introduce her boyfriend to her parents. He wants her to give up her linguistic studies and join him in California, where he has a job. On to 1997, when Willa suddenly becomes a widow and has to learn to survive one day at a time. Fast forward to 2017, when the remarried Willa, now based in Arizona, gets a call informing her that her son’s ex-girlfriend has been shot and she needs to come look after her and her daughter and dog in Baltimore.
It’s somewhat ironic that I just read Breathing Lessons earlier in the summer: Clock Dance is awfully similar to Tyler’s 1988 Pulitzer winner in that both protagonists are trying to make things right with their daughter-in-law and granddaughter figures. In Willa’s case, her son never married Denise and isn’t the father of nine-year-old Cheryl, but Willa still feels a grandmotherly concern and, as she seems to be the only person the neighbor knew to call in an emergency, she agrees to fly out with her second husband, a humourless retired lawyer and golfer named Peter. They will stay in Denise’s home on Dorcas Road in Baltimore for as long as she is in the hospital. Peter is impatient with the situation, but Willa feels purposeful for the first time in years, and before long she’s starting to think about Dorcas Road, with its lovably quirky set of neighbors, as home. Could she make her own useful life here?
Tyler is surprisingly good on modern children and technology, and there are some terrific individual scenes, like the fairly awkward dinner Willa has with her elder son, Sean, and Elissa, the woman he left Denise for. But at times the dialogue didn’t ring true for me, with some 1950s vocabulary like darn, gosh, pussyfoot, hoodlum, and jeepers, plus (I checked this in the Kindle book) a whopping 188 sentences start with some variation on “Well, …” That works out to more than once every other page, a tic Tyler’s editor should have ironed out.
The U.S. edition of Clock Dance, which features a cactus on the cover, tries to make more of the partial Arizona setting, though most of the book is set in Tyler’s familiar small-town Pennsylvania and Baltimore. Willa admires saguaro cacti – “She loved their dignity, their endurance” – and Peter also buys one from the hospital gift shop, as a sort of symbol of resilience and adaptation to one’s surroundings. The U.K. cover, by contrast, goes for nostalgic Americana and reminded me of this passage from Breathing Lessons:
(An early Tyler novel is called The Clock Winder, but I imagine the similarity in the titles is just incidental.)
The story behind the title: Cheryl and friends perform what they call a “clock dance,” wherein two girls stand behind a third and they all move their arms in rhythmic jerks like a clock face. Willa imagines her own ‘clock dance’ would be a mad whirl from stage left to right: a race against time. Her efforts to redirect her life before it’s too late are heartening, but overall I didn’t sense strong enough themes in this novel; in particular, I would have preferred if Tyler had been consistent in checking in with Willa every decade and making each vignette truly count.
Of the eight Tyler novels I’ve read so far, here’s how I’d rank them (from best to least good). You’ll see that this latest one falls somewhere in the middle.
Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant
The Accidental Tourist
Back When We Were Grown-ups
A Blue Spool of Thread
The Beginner’s Goodbye
Clock Dance is released in the UK today, July 12th, by Chatto & Windus and came out on the 10th from Knopf Doubleday in the USA. My thanks to the publisher for a free copy for review.