Morgan’s Passing by Anne Tyler. Knopf, 311 pp. $9.95.


Characters in the novels of Anne Tyler are imprisoned by people, places, things, by the whole fabric of their past lives, but they dream — some of them — of escaping. Their means of escape is through other people. They envision in the other a life more like the one they want to lead, and their decisions to change are sudden. (The sudden decision to marry is becoming an Anne Tyler trademark.) What they discover is that they escape only into themselves, that they have woven the fabric of their lives out of their own personalities and will proceed to weave it again. Our lives don’t have some separate existence; we are our lives. Thus, in Earthly Possessions a woman who longs to escape the household where she is a kind of mother hen is rescued by a convict who takes her hostage in a bank holdup, but soon enough she finds herself taking care of him as a mother would.

In Morgan Gower, Tyler has created her most successful and beguiling escape artist. He does not sit around plotting the Great Escape, but escapes every day, in the images he forms in his mind of other people and in the images he presents to the world. His wardrobe is a collection of stage props that he has acquired through the years; he wakes up in the morning, lights the ever-present cigarette, and snatching a hat from the closet, starts to define the character he will work at creating all day. He is the original existentialist, who does not live out some pre-defined existence but defines himself moment by moment. If there is a call for a doctor in the house he is a doctor; if the man on the other end of the phone has dialed a wrong number he takes the call and improvises as best he can; and in his neighborhood he has a whole series of roles, as the street priest of Baltimore, a heartbroken immigrant, a glassblower, tugboat captain, Mohawk Indian high rise worker. . . .

Morgan lives in a ramshackle colonial house with a wife and seven daughters, and the most incredible collection of things that Tyler has ever stuffed a novel with. Also living with him are his mother and sister, two characters whose lives in some ways mirror his. Some time in the vague past Morgan’s father committed suicide, an event which haunts the son because he has no idea why it happened. Did the man simply give up on life, he wonders — a possibility that someone like Morgan could hardly understand, yet one wonders also if Morgan’s frantic eccentricity isn’t perhaps a flight from just such a question. His mother avoids any mention of the father, persistently drifts to other subjects if Morgan brings him up; there is something almost cagy in her senility, her confusion of people and periods of time. Morgan’s sister, on the other hand, seems to have given up; after a failed marriage and an unsuccessful love affair, she has moved into Morgan’s house to lead a slug’s existence, passing the time with jigsaw puzzles and solitaire. But she is not uninterested in events around her, and is fascinated with the details of her own past. A household of lunatics is the way Morgan eventually describes these women, yet their avoidance of reality, their absorption in trivial pursuits, their willful acceptance of confusion, are not unlike his own.

Morgan’s Passing is largely the story of Morgan’s involvement with another couple, Emily and Leon Meredith. Like the small-time rock musician in A Slipping-Down Life, and the maker of collages in Celestial Navigation, the Merediths are two more in Tyler’s line of marginal artists. Though Leon started as an actor, they are now giving puppet shows, Emily making the puppets and performing with her husband. Their artistic existence is a kind of metaphor for their marriage: they both had to compromise to become puppeteers together in the first place, and though in many ways they were originally attracted by their differences, the problems in their marriage come about because they fail to understand and appreciate the talents of the other. Leon, in particular, will not acknowledge that his wife’s creation of the puppets might be as valid an artistic enterprise as his performing with them.

Morgan is drawn to these people because of the image they present to him. Overwhelmed by the crushing domesticity of his life, he sees theirs as a far more simple existence, free of possessions and encumbrances. It is the same way that Emily was drawn to Leon; raised in a drab Quaker setting that left her almost without personality, she was compelled by the strength of the projections in his acting, as if he — like Morgan — had any number of personalities. The fact is, of course, that Morgan’s image of the Merediths is not particularly true; it is as much an invention as the characters he creates out of himself every day. With a man of many faces at its center, Morgan’s Passing is largely about images — those we hold up for other people and those we impose on them — and the way the images fail to meet reality.

Ultimately in Anne Tyler’s work I am left with a sense of elusiveness, of paradox: characters make a dramatic escape from their old lives and somehow wind up in the same old lives again; they go through immense and painful stages of growth only to find themselves once again where they started. Just when I think I have a character pinned down he does something that totally surprises me, that seems very much in character but at the same time inexplicable, and the longer I contemplate her characters the more elusive they seem. With Morgan, I know that he uses his many roles to escape reality, that the images he imposes on people don’t do justice to the people they really are, and I can’t help feeling he needs to begin living in the present moment, in the world that is, rather than the one he would like it to be. At his “passing” at the end of the novel — as if he has played so many roles he no longer exists — I had the feeling for a moment that the novelist agreed with me. But then a woman takes him for a postman, he accepts the letters she gives him, and decides he just might take a peek at those that look more interesting, and a day that a moment before had been dreary seems suddenly bright and rife with possibilities. We all have our ways of getting along, and Morgan’s seems as successful as anyone’s. His father has died, but he lives on. The proof of a sage, as the saying goes, is to have survived.