Sunday, January 08, 2012

Digging to America (2006)

On balance this is a pretty good one, with an interesting combination of Anne Tyler's by-the-numbers themes and a whole new wrinkle that makes sense in terms of her biography. By-the-numbers first: the familiar collision and results ensue between a fussy controlling person and a more freewheeling vibrant disorganized personality is well-known territory. Here the usual gender roles are switched (not for the first time either, as in A Patchwork Planet): the controlling person is Maryam Yazdu, an Iranian immigrant, and Dave Dickinson, a Baltimore native and recent widow, is the one who embraces life willy-nilly yet always with exuberance. What I thought was particularly interesting and fresh here is Tyler's takes on immigration experiences, as the Yazdus and their clan all have significant roots in Iran. That's a fascinating choice of itself; it makes sense that Tyler's husband (who died in the late '90s) was himself Iranian-American, and first or second generation at that, a reasonably recent transplant. It makes sense all kinds of ways—both because she (Tyler) lived a lifetime with exposure to the customs and ways of Iranian immigrants, and also as a solace to remember her husband and her life with him. It's a huge twist compared to other Tyler but there's also no mistaking it for anything but. The usual heartaches are all over it, the sad and lonely people failing to connect even as they yearn on their deepest levels for exactly that. The characters are vivid and feel like people I've known. A small point: Something about the title seems off to me. It's connected in the book to the way children all talk about digging holes to China—I know I did it myself, and it feels universal—with even a funny child-like cast to it, and in an interview Tyler talks about how she intends it almost inversely, as digging through facades that people erect for themselves, made doubly difficult for immigrants with the additional cultural (and political, she might have added) overlays. Still, something about the title doesn't work for me. Paradoxically, it reminds me both of an Albert Brooks movie and of deadly earnest documentaries, which was a little distracting. This is good enough that it deserves an audience with nothing standing in its way.

In case it's not at the library.

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