Something very strange takes place early in Anne Tyler’s new novel, “Clock Dance.” A college student named Willa is flying home with her boyfriend when suddenly the man sitting on the other side of her whispers, “This is a gun, and it’s loaded. Move and I shoot.”
If former president Bill Clinton can write a thriller, why can’t Anne Tyler? Just imagine it: The Bard of Baltimore at 76 leaving behind all those quirky family meals and taking to the skies with a white-knuckle adventure full of gore and derring-do.
But no, that’s not where “Clock Dance” is going. Willa freezes for a few minutes before her oblivious boyfriend asks to switch seats. “She clutched her purse and sat forward,” Tyler writes, “wincing as she braced for the slam of the bullet. Nothing happened.”
And nothing keeps happening — which is genuinely odd. The gunman never speaks again. When the plane lands, he’s the first one out, and only then does Willa mention the incident to her boyfriend, who brushes it off as a joke. “It was the weirdest thing,” Willa tells her parents when they arrive at the airport. “The whole situation just seemed to get . . . swept under the rug.”
The surreal nature of that incident offers an airplane-size window on the compliant protagonist of Tyler’s 22nd novel. While Willa may crave danger on some level, she always does what she’s told, always shifts the attention away from herself. Raised by a moody, histrionic mother, she coped by becoming exceedingly responsible at a young age. She takes after her father, a man “so mild-mannered that he thought it was impolite to pick up a telephone in mid-ring.” A peacekeeping jedi, Willa detects and soothes the first flutter of anyone’s irritation or disappointment. Even during the safety instructions on the plane, “Willa made sure to keep a rapt expression on her face so the stewardess wouldn’t feel ignored.”
Unfortunately, Tyler doesn’t supply many incidents as unsettling as that encounter with the real or imagined hijacker. Instead, the first half of “Clock Dance” skates through the decades of Willa’s life, from childhood to motherhood to widowhood. Characters are introduced and cast off the way one might rifle through old clothes in the attic — with the same amused sense of familiarity. If these chapters aren’t wholly engaging, at least they’re great for Anne Tyler Bingo Night:
B3: Errant Mother in “Ladder of Years”!
G47: Long-Suffering Boy in “Saint Maybe”!
Even as the story moves into the 21st century, it still feels fusty, like an antique speculation about how people might live in the year 2017. We’re asked to accept a world in which family and neighbors gather together to watch TV; where modern-day teens upbraid each other for revealing their secrets by saying, “Jeepers, why not put an ad in the newspaper?”
Still, despite those sepia tones, “Clock Dance” finally starts to work in its second half when all its largely superfluous foundation-setting is mercifully finished. Willa, now 61 and remarried to another bossy man, is comfortably idle in Tucson. A stranger calls from Baltimore to say that Willa’s little granddaughter needs someone to look after her while her mother is in the hospital. The only complication is that this concerned stranger on the phone is mistaken: Willa doesn’t actually have a granddaughter. But pointing that out feels somehow rude, and besides, as Willa tells her husband, “I haven’t felt useful in . . . forever.”
So, she flies to Baltimore to help out however she can.
That’s a delightfully zany premise, and Tyler quickly sketches out Willa’s new “family” with an eccentric ecosystem of relatives and neighbors, including her ersatz daughter-in-law who shows no reluctance to presume on Willa’s generosity. Most charming of all is Cheryl, the hilariously precocious 9-year-old who wears majorette boots and announces, “I’m more a preteen than a child. Come January I’ll have two digits. Plus also, I’m not dependent.” Cheryl may not be a blood relation to Willa, but she clearly shares those Anne Tyler genes: She owns “a dedicated Tupperware cookie bin,” and she wants to start a pet library when she grows up.
The bond that develops between this lonely child and this obliging woman forms the emotional heart of “Clock Dance,” radiating what Tyler calls a “sweetly heavy, enjoyable kind of ache.” But there’s a steelier theme here, too, an existential sorrow cloaked by the embroidery of Willa’s grandmotherly demeanor. “Sometimes Willa felt she’d spent half her life apologizing,” Tyler writes. “More than half her life, actually.” She knows that the world, which has largely ignored her, expects her now to coast along that deferential rut into oblivion.
Tyler’s novels may feel too conciliatory toward the strictures of domestic life, too free of erotic energy to be feminist works, but her stories are often concerned with the central challenge of the feminist movement: How to imagine and then inhabit possibilities beyond those circumscribed by convention? As one of Willa’s elderly neighbors tells her, “Figuring out what to live for. That’s the great problem at my age.”
At any age, really. And that’s the great problem Anne Tyler has been considering in one tender novel after another since she was 22.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post, where he hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
By Anne Tyler
Knopf. 292 pp. $26.95