NOAH’S COMPASS by Anne Tyler

Book Quote:

“ All along, it seemed, he had experienced only the most glancing relationship with his own life. He had dodged the tough issues, avoided the conflicts, gracefully skirted adventure.”

Book Review:

Review by Doug Bruns (JAN 5, 2010)

Reading an Anne Tyler novel is like listening to a gentle friend tell you a story, a friend you trust, someone who practices yoga or meditates and is unflappable as a result. This friend has a knack for knowing people, but isn’t a know-it-all. And most of all she has a sense of caring, and exhibits compassion toward the people in her stories. She is a good friend, indeed. And a wonderful story teller.

I used to tell my kids, as they were growing up, that there are three types of people in the world. There are people who make things happen, people who watch things happen, and people who wonder what happened. This is a story about a person of the last tier, a person who spends his life wondering what has happened, a person to whom the world appears as a mysterious force with which there is no reckoning. His name is Liam Pennywell, a would-be philosopher who happened to end up teaching history at a run-down private school in Baltimore, Maryland. That is the typical experience of Liam. Things happen to him. He happened to have a job, then lost it. Happened to be married, then happened to be divorced. Happened to have kids, and so forth. If he had been a philosopher, he no doubt would have been a Stoic.

Let me give you an example. Liam was once married to Millie, together they had a daughter, Xanthe. Upon Xanthe’s birth he collected “Millie and the newborn Xanthe from the hospital and [he remembered] marveling at how only two of them had walked in but three of them were leaving.” It is just this sort of subtlety, the clueless marveling at such an event, that time and again renders Liam as hapless. Indeed, a few sentences later he reflects: “We live such tangled, fraught lives, he thought, but in the end we die like all the other animals and we’re buried in the ground and after a few more years we might as well not have existed.” Then finally, “This should have depressed him, but instead it made him feel better. The light turned green and he started driving again.” Life goes on.

The novel begins as Liam, aged sixty, loses his teaching position to a younger peer when the school trims its budget. He accepts this event, like everything else, without protest or challenge. He moves to a smaller apartment, to save costs, where he figures he will spend his days catching up on the reading and thinking which have alluded him for years. Instead, his first night in his new place, the apartment is broken into and he is attacked. He awakes in the hospital with no recollection of the event, no ability to reconstruct the break-in and attack, nothing to show but a contusion on his head and a wound on his hand. He obviously put up a struggle of some sort, as the hand wound is the result of being bitten. But like so much of his life, he cannot account for it and cannot explain it. As the adage goes, just realizing the problem is a start. With the attack and it’s consequences, Liam realizes there is a problem. To wit: “I just don’t seem to have the hang of things, somehow. It’s as if I’ve never been entirely present in my own life.”

The attack is presented as the only thing to which Liam responds. He musters a modicum of energy trying to get his memory of the attack to return. The consequences of his effort take up the bulk of the book, and this is where Tyler excels. She is masterful at the set up and then elegantly tracing the fallout. The story unfolds, one slim layer at a time. Liam’s family, his sister, his three daughters and ex-wife, a grand child, descend on him and he modestly accepts their attentions. They obviously love him, as does the reader. One of Tyler’s wonderful gifts is to render her character’s shortcomings with so much compassion and wisdom that we can’t help but want them to succeed in spite of themselves. We want to help them. In this instance, poor Liam wants–finally–to help himself as well.

He is so deeply troubled by his inability to recall the attack that he seeks out help. It is a tentative effort at best. He ventures into the office of a neurologist, the doctor father of a former student. He explains, “I was hit and knocked unconscious, and I don’t remember anything more till I woke up in a hospital bed.” The doctor asks why he would even want to remember such an event. “I feel I’ve lost something,” Liam responds. “I need to know what it was. I want it back. I’d give anything to get it back!”

It is at the doctor’s office Liam observes a woman, Eunice, the assistant of an elderly patient. She stands at the side of her employer-charge and helps him remember. That is what Liam needs, a rememberer. He coyly and with unusual earnestness pursues her, and, in the process, falls for her and she for him. But things are not what they seem. I will not be a spoiler, but remember this is an Anne Tyler novel. Things are never what they seem, the surface belies great depth and occasional tumult.

This is a short novel and has less than a dozen characters in it. But as the zen master says, the universe is contained in the atom. There is a bit of Liam in all of us. “Where’s the rest?” he asks himself. “Where’s everything else I’ve forgotten: my childhood and my youth, my first marriage and my second marriage and the growing up of my daughters?” Are you paying attention? Tyler implores. Isn’t that what good books do, nudge us as well as tell us a good story?

One more observation, in the context of telling us a good story. Anne Tyler is no practitioner of post-modern technical gyrations. She is, as inferred at the outset, a straight-forward story teller, a master of her craft. This story–her entire oeuvre, for that matter–stands on the foundation of thoughtful, beautiful even, prose. For instance, after the unsettling revelation about Eunice, Liam, deeply distraught, drives home and puts “the milk in the refrigerator and folded the grocery bag neatly and stowed it in the cabinet. He sat down in the rocking chair with his hands cupping his knees. In a minute he would phone her. But not yet.” Next to this passage I made the comment perfect pitch in the margin. Or this gem-like sentence: “She collected and polished resentments as if it were some sort of hobby.” It is wonderful to sit at the feet of such a master.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-5from 137 readers
PUBLISHER: Knopf; 1 edition (January 5, 2010)
REVIEWER: Doug Bruns
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Anne Tyler
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
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January 5, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Contemporary, End-of-Life, Reading Guide, US Mid-Atlantic, y Award Winning Author

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