Sunday, June 20, 2021

The Clock Winder (1972)

I want to call Anne Tyler's fourth novel a gothic. There's an unkempt mansion, deaths and suicide, mental illness, and generally some sharp edges. It's her first to use Baltimore as a key setting, though it's not the only setting here. Tyler's college town of Raleigh, North Carolina, is important too. It might be the first actual Anne Tyler novel, the end of a long four-novel formative period—she sounds a little embarrassed by the early ones now. The Clock Winder is uneven and has some gaps arguably, but I like the grotesque Emerson family. The novel's main character is Elizabeth, the handyman to whom the Emersons offer a home. She is competent where they are not, and a certain type of hippie lost soul. The family matriarch, Mrs. Emerson, is the other important character here, a woman capable of deep commitment to her shallowness. She can't understand why her seven children have turned out the way they have (eight if you count an early death). As the novel begins Mrs. Emerson has recently become a widow. Elizabeth walks by and offers to help her move some furniture she is struggling with, and just like that, Anne Tyler style, they fall together. Elizabeth moves in as the house handyman and though she is disaffected and remote she soon enough bears emotional responsibility for these oddballs. In a way I like these earlier grotesques from Tyler, before she learned to sand off some of the edges for warmer, more quirky characters. I like how you can see her feeling her way toward that even as her sense of the world is more stark. Some of the Emersons are better than others, and the worst can be very bad, positively dangerous. They're not really such harmless kooks—I like that. I like Elizabeth a lot too, the daughter of a Baptist preacher and a shallow wife. Elizabeth is a reflexive truth seeker. She connects and disconnects very easily. She's super-competent in a low-key way in the context of the Emersons, but believes she is otherwise a perennial screw-up, awkwardly wrecking everything she touches. The feeling of competence the Emersons give her is what attracts Elizabeth to them. I can understand calling The Clock Winder flawed, but I also thought it was interesting and unpredictable all the way through. Tyler is obviously a good storyteller before she is anything else. And I like her own fondness for grotesques, who try her patience as much as they charm her. They are an essential part of life to her.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

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