Sunday, April 01, 2018

Searching for Caleb (1975)

Anne Tyler's sixth novel tells the story of a very familiar family, though her eye and ear have not yet entirely reached the fine tuning to come. The Pecks are from Baltimore, of course, and at the center of the novel (if not the family) is a married couple of first cousins: Justine, a fortune teller, and Duncan, a ne'er-do-well, though obviously gifted, who has gone out of his way to reject the family. He has moved away from Baltimore, and continued moving his family every two or three years, though never far from Baltimore. Justine and Duncan have a 17-year-old daughter and also a grandfather who lives with them. The grandfather is the one searching for Caleb, who is his brother and the true black sheep of the family. Caleb disappeared in 1912 and has never been heard from since. The story takes place in the summer of 1973. Again, nothing is quite as sharp and distinct as Tyler's characters would become, but many of her best aspects are already apparent. The Pecks are a certain familiar type of alienated clan nonetheless clinging to one another. The chief tension is the paradox of rejecting family without rejecting oneself. Duncan and Caleb are working through how it doesn't really work, or what the trade-offs are. The paradox is that self-knowledge of family weaknesses does not get rid of them in you. One person's self-knowledge is another's benighted existence—there's not much difference. Justine is the one character who seems most capable of balancing the competing forces, but it's not clear even she is doing well at it. Which also depends some on the reader's point of view. I had a hard time taking Justine seriously as a fortune teller—much like most of the Peck family, in fact—yet the narrator's view is ambiguous. We might be intended to believe in her psychic powers, though the tone is generally more along the lines of entertainment than insights. She is a kooky sideshow at church bazaars, for example, and though her gift is on the order of seeing the future there aren't many convincing examples of it, if any. Tyler would do much better elsewhere with all the themes found here. If you're on a jag, go ahead and throw this one on the pile too. Otherwise, never mind.

In case it's not at the library.

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