#58 – “Breathing Lessons” by Anne Tyler (1989): Stop Me if You Think You’ve Heard This One Before, but nothing says the 80s like Journey, Anne Tyler, and bad marriages

[Editor’s Note: Pulitzer Schmulitzer! is where we count down our favorite Pulitzer Prize winning novels for fiction according to the unpredictable and arbitrary whims of yours truly. To learn how Pulitzer Schmulitzer! started and read about the methodology or complete lack thereof behind the rankings, look no further than right here. If you want to see what we’ve covered so far, here you go. Now, on to the countdown.]

Nothing’s changed
I still love you, oh, I still love you
Only slightly, only slightly less
Than I used to, my love
 

-The Smiths, “Stop Me if You Think You’ve Heard This One Before”

There was article a few weeks back in the “Modern Love” column of the Sunday New York Times called “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This” that seems to have struck a chord with many readers. In the piece, the author talks about going to a bar with a man who would later become her boyfriend and asking each other 36 questions, followed by four minutes of uninterrupted eye contact. According to the Times (and these stats are now a little dated), the article generated more than 5.2 million visits to the website, and over 365,000 shares of Facebook and has even spawned some parodies. Clearly, Tinder hasn’t solved all of our love problems.

The questions, proposed by Dr. Arthur Aron, were originally designed to measure closeness in strangers, but have since been used to try to form romantic bonds between people. They are divided into three sets, with each set intended to be more probing than the previous one. The theory is that mutual vulnerability fosters closeness, and because people have trouble allowing themselves to show vulnerability, this exercise forces the issue.

For example, you start off sharing who you would want as a dinner guest, whether you would like to be famous (and in what way), and when was the last time you sang to yourself or someone else. Then it moves into in more personal territory such as what is you most treasured memory? Your most terrible? It forces you to talk about what roles love and affection play in your life, and your feelings about your relationship with your mother. And woven throughout are maybe the most difficult questions that force you to say things about the other person such as this one: “Tell your partner something that you like about them already.”

What would I have said if I could go back in time and do this with Gigi? I find all 36 questions interesting, and I’m sure I would’ve been fascinated and smitten with Gigi’s childhood memories and simultaneously mortified by her relationship with her mother, but all of that fades away to leave the spotlight on the one question that really matters: What do I like about you? Would I have said I like that she’s obsessed with the Giants or that she can line dance or that she’s really good at word games? And how can I answer that now, knowing that she actually watches or listens to all 162 Giants games every single season, or that she can beat me 47 straight times in Scramble? Maybe we would have connected over music but I would have been disappointed that she hates Tom Waits. How could I have known that despite her hatred, she is open-minded enough to one day add “I Hope that I Don’t Fall in Love with You” to her not-yet-existing Spotify favorites playlist because she decided that one was pretty good, and that I would love that about her. As we stared into each other’s eyes for four minutes, would I have realized that she would become a successful lawyer, would be an even better mother, or that we’ll argue for years over whether Jimi Hendrix was overrated? I have no idea but I wish I had the chance to find out.

And regardless of whether you think asking each other these 36 questions would actually work, you have to agree with me that it certainly isn’t a horrible idea. What percentage of now-divorced couples would have never made it past question 4 (“What would constitute a ‘perfect’ day for you?”) before realizing their nascent relationship was doomed and went their separate ways? Again, I have no idea but I know the percentage is greater than zero.

Speaking of separate ways, immediately after writing that sentence I looked up the video for Journey’s “Separate Ways” and watched it three consecutive times. How could you not? Take arguably the biggest band of 1983 and throw them in an empty shipyard, have them play invisible instruments and lip sync while a hot girl with bad hair in a leather mini-skirt walks around for no reason whatsoever and what do you have? Pure gold (or Solid Gold for those of us that remember the decade). We just had an 80s party for work and the cover band – albeit awesome – inexplicably failed to play this gem. We should have just looped a video of this song all night long.

So while we’re on the subject of couples who could have benefited from asking each other at least 4 of the 36 questions, and the 1980s, we might as well tackle Anne Tyler’s Breathing Lessons, the 1989 Pulitzer winner. Breathing Lessons tells the story of Maggie and Ira, a middle-aged couple who both believe that their lives have failed to live up to their expectations. Maggie, who gave up going to college because she got pregnant, is someone who now doesn’t hesitate to reach across from the passenger seat and honk while her husband is driving. She’s buggy, for sure, but at least she does shit. Or at least tries to.

Ira is the opposite. Uncommunicative to start with, he has reached the point where Maggie can divine his moods only from the pop songs of the 1950’s that he whistles. Besides whistling, his pleasure is playing solitaire. He had dreamed of working on the frontiers of medicine, but after he graduated from high school his father, complaining of a heart problem, dumped the family business on him, as well as the duty of supporting two unmarriageable, unemployable sisters. As Ms. Tyler writes: ”Ira had been noticing the human race’s wastefulness. People were squandering their lives, it seemed to him. They were splurging their energies on petty jealousies or vain ambitions or long-standing, bitter grudges…He was fifty years old and had never accomplished one single act of consequence.” You totally want to hang with this guy.

Their son, Jesse, is a high school dropout that wants to be a rock star to escape the drudging anonymity he sees as his father’s fate. ”I refuse to believe that I will die unknown,” he tells Ira. But like many budding rock stars Jesse made his fair share of mistakes, including knocking up Fiona, a fellow dropout, when she was 17. Those relationships rarely turn out well, and after the inevitable blow up, Fiona moved away to her mother’s and neither Ira nor Maggie have seen her for 7 years.

In contrast to Jesse, their daughter, Daisy, is actually an overachiever. At 13 months she had undertaken her own toilet training and by first grade was setting her alarm an hour early in order to iron and color-coordinate her outfit for school. At this point, Ira and Maggie can only watch as she grows away from them and heads off for college knowing there is nothing they can do to stop it. Not long ago Daisy had said to Maggie, “Mom? Was there a certain conscious point in your life when you decided to settle for being ordinary?”

The book’s principal event is a 90-mile trip that Maggie and Ira make to attend a funeral for the husband of a high school classmate. Serena, the widow, wants the funeral service to be a reenactment of their wedding, which included Maggie and Ira singing ”Love Is a Many Splendored Thing.” For whatever reason, this messed-up situation works Maggie into such a state that she convinces Ira to have sex with her in Serena’s bedroom during the reception, until Serena catches them and kicks them out.

So on the way home, Maggie decides that this would be a good time to go visit Fiona and the granddaughter they haven’t seen in 7 years. Convincing herself that she can get Jesse and Fiona to reconcile, Maggie then persuades Fiona to come back to Baltimore with them. It seems that everyone except Maggie is both indifferent and skeptical about this plan, but, nonetheless, everyone goes along with her suggestions. And, of course, it all goes nowhere.

Ms. Tyler loves writing about marriages and families. But not happy marriages or families or even super unhappy marriages or families. She’s not that interested in divorce or infidelity. Instead, she focuses on people whose dreams and ambitions have vanished to the point where they’ve lost hope but aren’t actually self-aware enough to realize it. Clinging to a low rung of the middle class, these folks have long given up on promotions or success and instead simply try not to slide into bankruptcy, booze or prison. All anyone ever does is react, and then usually wrongly. But mostly they remain totally bewildered by most major ”decisions” in their own lives, particularly by how they came to marry their spouse. They never grasp how a month or two of headlong, blind activity can lead to years and years of inertia. They are desperately in need of the 36 question test.

As a general rule, I like these types of stories and I like Anne Tyler. But Breathing Lessons sits at #55 for two reasons: One, like Fay in The Optimist’s Daughter, Maggie is just not that believable. She’s constantly meddling in everyone else’s problems but is singularly unable to organize her own existence. She’s full of self-justification, but seems to have developed absolutely no powers of self-analysis or reflection. And her horribly inept driving skills border on slapstick.

Two, I liked Breathing Lessons. I just didn’t love it. It’s hard not to like Anne Tyler. Like Journey, she ruled the 80s, with three novels in a row nominated for the Pulitzer Prize: Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1983) and The Accidental Tourist (1985) in addition to Breathing Lessons. And If you’ve read any other Anne Tyler books, I can safely say that Breathing Lessons is a super Anne Tyler-ly Anne Tyler book, but not the best one. If I’d never read any of her other works, I might have rated this one higher. But alas, it wasn’t my first and for me, this book had that “been there done that” feel to it. Giving her the Pulitzer for Breathing Lessons was, to me, a little like giving Martin Scorsese the Best Director nod for The Departed after not giving it to him for Raging Bull or Goodfellas. Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before, but although I love Anne Tyler’s works, I love this one only slightly less than her others. We probably would’ve discovered that by question 4.

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