The Beginner’s Goodbye
We walked into a bookstore in Columbus one Saturday and there was a new novel by Anne Tyler–The Beginner’s Goodbye–on one of the tables! That doesn’t happen often anymore! So of course I bought it and when I sat down to read it, it took me about an hour. Now when I think about what I most want to tell anybody about it, I keep coming back to this: Luke Tull is in it. You know, Luke–the son of the guy from Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant who stole his brother’s life and tried to live in it even though it didn’t fit him very well.
He seems happy in this novel, solving crises at the restaurant and consoling a friend whose wife has just died. This friend, Aaron, is the main character of The Beginner’s Goodbye. His wife Dorothy has died, and the novel opens with his perception that she has made a “return from the dead” and other people can see her. Why he thinks this is never clear. Her ghost becomes kind of a straw man for his unresolved issues, and once he resolves them, she disappears.
The title refers to what Aaron is doing throughout, both in terms of learning to say goodbye to his dead wife and his issues, and in terms of what he does for a living—he edits a series of self-published books titled The Beginner’s Guides. They are small and simple, and the message of the title seems to be that it’s both ridiculous and helpful to have a guide to what comes next in life. While the editorial staff laughs at the idea of packaging their entire Beginner’s series as a boxed set with “instructions for every conceivable eventuality,” Aaron finds himself paging through one of the series as a marginally useful guide to dealing with a situation he never knew he would find himself in, despite his opinion that “those books are not meant to be used….they’re more like…gestures.” Aaron was evidently introduced to Luke in the process of publishing a guide entitled The Beginner’s Book of Dining Out.
Aaron is full of repressed emotion. As a child, he says, he could “become quite violent, throwing things and breaking things. When I cast my mind back to those scenes, I saw myself from outside: my spiky, flailing figure, my hair sticking out in all directions….where had all that passion gone?” He finds out that it hasn’t gone, of course. He discovers the answer to his own question: “why was it that so many men viewed their military service as the defining event of their lives?” The events of his own life, quiet and small, show that the moments of passion are what we remember. No matter how quiet a life seems, or even how ridiculous, like the ruffled outfits of the publishing house secretary, everyone has something they feel deeply about.
In the process of mourning Dorothy, Aaron discovers that gestures can matter, a very middle-aged rediscovery for most of us. He starts noticing and then appreciating gestures of love, watching his sister’s courtship and wanting to talk to one of the people he works with when she asks how he is feeling, although what he tells her is “it’s like the grief has been covered over with some kind of blanket. It’s still there, but the sharpest edges are…muffled, sort of.” Aaron already knows, even as other people his age are picking out wedding rings for the first time, that “no couple buying wedding rings wants to be reminded that someday one of them will have to accept the other one’s ring from a nurse or an undertaker.”
Luke gets nearly the last word in the novel, when he answers Aaron’s question about whether Dorothy could have really been visiting him: “’I’ve decided,’ he said, ‘that they don’t visit. But I think if you knew them well enough, if you’d listened to them closely enough while they were still alive, you might be able to imagine what they would tell you even now.” Before Luke even says that, however, Aaron has already reconciled his younger self, who “used to toy with the notion that when we die we find out what our lives have amounted to, finally” and his older self, who knows now that “we could find that out when somebody else dies.”
This is a small novel full of ordinary stuff happening. If it’s an instruction manual, it’s telling us to keep noticing other people, to continue finding “another thing to savor.” Try it–find something, maybe just a small thing, to like about someone else today. Tell me what it is in the comments. After that, start keeping a list.
Especially if you’re like me–and Aaron–you don’t follow those kinds of instructions when you read a manual. But this one might be for folks who don’t like to follow the directions, who think they’re too ironic and free-spirited and busy.