Digging to America by Anne Tyler epitomises a certain brand of fiction, the kind usually tagged as 'women's interest', jacketed with a bright human image and possessed of a succinct blurb - 'chicklit' for an older generation. The sort of novel invested in the family - marriage and child-rearing area at its centre - with a little middle-aged romance thrown in. It half-heartedly dresses itself up in a narrative of cultural alienation and immigrant adaptation/integration but is really intent on cute kiddies and loved-up grannies. It is what it is. Or, a spade is a spade is a spade. Personally, I thought it saccarhine and forgettable. Entirely inoffensive, of course, but also devoid of charisma or thematic bite and not the kind of novel I expected to see on the Orange Prize shortlist.
On the 15th August 1997 at 8pm two Korean babies are delivered to their newly adoptive parents at Baltimore airport. Their respective welcomes couldn't be more different. First, Jin-Ho - perhaps five or six months old with a 'cushiony face and a head of amazingly thick black hair, cut straight across her forehead' - arrives into the arms of a middle-aged woman, wearing a huge badge emblazoned with the world 'MUM', and a big jovial man with a 'blond buzz cut' in burmuda shorts (badge = 'DAD'). Their names, fittingly, are Brad and Bitsy Donaldson. They're exuberantly accompanied by their extended families: two sets of grandparents, complete in numbers (all with badges), plus aunts, uncles, cousins and a barrage of balloons proclaiming 'It's a Girl!'. The whole event of their daughter's arrival is captured on video cameras and on voice recorders: she couldn't be more feted.
Next off the plane is Sooki, smaller and 'sallow and pinched, with fragile wisps of black hair trailling down her forehead.' Her new family are huddled at the back of the Donaldson party, a sparse group of three - Sami and Ziba Yazdan, a second generation Iranian-American couple, and Sami's mother, Maryam - and they come forward tentatively as though they haven't fully adjusted to the idea of themselves as parents. They are completely seperate from the Donaldson's brash All-American pantomime of family; and Tyler is on cue to mark out their cultural and personal otherness. They're self-effacing, quiet, undemonstrative and, most importantly, private - the antithesis of their counterparts.
Nevertheless, the two couples are brought into regular and friendly contact over the course of their daughters' childhoods. Characteristically, Bitsy considers it important that they bond over their shared heritage and the book is framed by their coming together, year after year, to celebrate 'Arrival Day' on August 15th. Each family hosts the gathering in alternate years, competing to have the best spread of food and entertainments - the Donaldsons excel at grand gestures; the Yazdans at yummable buffets - while the girls increasingly grow to resent the fuss.
The family's parental trajectories, like their attitudes to the original 'arrival', are very different. Bitsy is determined to be the saintly super-mum, staying at home with her hard-won baby and giving up her autonomy (and glamour) to devote herself to the grind of washable nappies and organic vegetarian mush-meals. Her patter is straight from the liberal mummy manual: lactose intolerance, mother-baby yoga and home-made clothes. Plus, she insists on maintaining Jin-Ho's Korean cultural inheritance, dressing her in a traditional sagusam and keeping her hair in a straight-straight bowl cut, reading her Korean fairytales and haranging her with native music. Brad, meanwhile, looms buffoonishly and does what manly American dads do, like, erm, DIY and leaf-sweeping and carrying things out to the car.
In comparison, Zibi and Sami are brazen integrationists. From the outset they 'Americanise' Sooki into Susan, dressing their daughter in jeans and t-shirts and letting her hair grow long. Quite clearly, they have more of a sense of how cultural difference stands to alienate a child from their peers and their environment - perpetual 'foreigners' themselves, they're anxious that their daughter should thoroughly belong. Bitsy and Brad have no such awareness; they're so reticently naturalised that difference seems both alluring and exotic. This is despite the fact that they're initially discomforted by Ziba and Sami's Iranian heritage and, later, scornful of their big, middle-eastern feasts and family on Arrival Day. In this they're representative of the liberal white America that Sami loves, perhaps disengenuously, to deride:
'...he would examine their so-called openness. "So instantly chummy they are, so 'Hello, I love you', so 'How do you do let me tell you my marital problems' and yet, have any of them ever really, truly let you into their lives?...They say they're a culture without restrictions. An unconfined culture, a laissez-faire culture, a do-your-own-thing kind of culture. But all that means is, they keep their restrictions a secret."'
In many ways he and Ziba, with their ultra-westernised home and their time-worn fantasies of 'an endless rounds of weenie roasts and backyard football games and apple-bobbing parties', are also invested in this 'confined culture'. But they're too different to really be a part of it, a state of affairs with which they come to terms as the novel progresses.
From the beginning Ziba wants to keep her independence and, although she proves vulnerable to Bitsy's harridan influence in every other regard, continues to works several days a week as an interior designer, leaving Susan in the care of her mother-in-law, Maryam. If parenting and cultural alienation are the novel's overt themes, Maryam and her position as an older, single Iranian woman in America is its leitmotif. Widowed for over a decade and spikily independent, the narrative takes great joy in tracing (or, should I say, forcing) her development from lonely singleton to fully integrated member of an American family. The object of affection that affects this transformation is Dave, Bitsy's recently widowed father (incidentally, his wife Connie's death is the only emotionally involving event in the novel) who proves as demonstrative and hystrionic as his daughter. Admittedly, he is also as well-meaning and, although Maryam is initially embarrassed and offended by his puppyish attentions, she is eventually wooed over in a scene that rounds out the novel.
What becomes clear at the mid-point of all this is that the children, Jin-Ho and Susan both, are a pretense to conceal a (much less saleable) novel about Maryam, who receives the greatest share of Tyler's loving attention. She is by far the most rounded of the characters, providing the point-of-view in a good number of chapters, and inching towards a meaningful personal conflict of alienation and belonging. The relative difference between her position as a woman in contemporary America and in the Iran of her childhood, her semi-arranged marriage, her disaffected relationship with her son and her sense of injustice at not belonging in any single cultural category all proves interesting and could be provocative. It is a shame then that she is often used as a mouthpiece for ham-fisted thematic set-pieces and is misshaped to carry the anguished dialogue about cultural rejection and otherness that Tyler uses to clarify significance to other characters. The natural pathos of her position isn't allowed space to breath and it's sinister potentiality is sweetened up by the relationship with Dave and the always-presence of her family. She is packed away; made to fit. Tyler similarly squanders any thematic potential in anti-Arab feeling post-9/11. Maryam is allowed one bitter diatribe about people edging away from Sami at the airport (on the occasion of the arrival Bitsy and Brad's second adopted daughter from China), but it gets thrown away in ensuing scenes. Like all of the novel's attempts at socio-cultural observation, it shies away from its own implications.
This is largely because Digging to America is a harmless novel, in which characters say and do harmless things. It studiously avoids engaging with long-term anguish, or with the real social implications of immigration and ethnicity, and ultimately deals only in the healing power of human relationships. Which is nice I suppose but not particularly winning or engaging. For me, at least, it needs to feel harder and harsher than Tyler makes it; less on the chubby babies and more on the hard-planned grandmother might have made it. What she ends up writing is a fairy story about alienation and integration, prettily epitomised by her title: at one point Jin-Ho and Susan attempt to 'dig to China' (I think all children attempt this sooner or later) and ask Dave, sweetly, if the children in China are 'digging to America'. Dave replies that they probably are and pictures them meeting somewhere in the middle and, in a fit of harmony, communicating without language through their extroadinary determination to get where they're going.
Which is all very well, but whence the heat, the sweat and the spades? Whence the pain and the failure and the trial? Tyler just ain't got it.