Archive for February, 2010

Anne Tyler (2010) – Noah’s Compass

Friday, February 5th, 2010

As I recall, Anne Tyler’s 2002 The Accidental Tourist is the story of what happens when change forces itself on a man who hates change in his life, a writer of travel books who advises staying in your hotel and pretending you are still back home.  Her 2009 Noah’s Compass, too, explores what happens when involvement happens to an underinvolved man.  Here, Tyler’s protagonist, Liam, is a man whose world has been progressively shrinking.  His resume makes more sense read in reverse.  He has just been fired, at the age of 61, from a job, teaching fifth graders, which was preceded by a job teaching history to high school students, in turn preceded by graduate study in philosophy.  He downsizes his life, discarding most of his possessions; and, as the book opens, moving from a large apartment into a small one-bedroom apartment.


Liam’s plan for the future is apparently to do nothing in particular, and do it very well—rather like the House of Peers in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Iolanthe.”  The extent of his ambition, if such it may be called, is to toy with the idea of becoming a “zayda”, a teacher’s aide in a nearby pre-school.  But the world intervenes, and Liam, struck on the head under circumstances he cannot recall and determined to recover the memories he lost as a result, sets himself on a rather odd path involving a woman more than twenty years his junior, whose job is to be the “rememberer” for a well-to-do businessman with incipient Alzheimer’s.


Although the plot takes satisfyingly surprising twists and turns, this is a gentle, domestic novel that slowly expands to bring in three generations of Liam’s families—in a world in which marriages end or dissolve with such inevitability, how else can one designate the collection of individuals to whom one is or has been related?  His sister, his ex-wife, his children with her, his grandchild.  The grown child of his deceased first wife.  His father and the woman he left Liam’s mother for.  But it doesn’t feel overwhelming or confusing: they all have distinctive qualities that make it possible to keep them separate in the reader’s mind.


In the end, Liam does not exactly kick over the traces and run away into a new life, but he does become more engaged.  Whether the choices Liam makes on the way are optimal is not obvious.  Some seem overly rash; others seem to close off possibilities unnecessarily; others are, well, just decisions we have to make and hope we get them right.  There is food for thought here.  At first I was disappointed, but on reflection I see the denouement as plausible for Liam—true to his nature and life-affirming in its way.


Noah’s Compass is a Bildungsroman about the personal growth of a 61 year old man—nice that the author thinks it is possible.  It reminds me of Robert Hellenga’s 2006 Philosophy Made Simple—about the man who retires to Texas and acquires an elephant named Norma Jean—but a little less over the top.  It is not a novel filled with rhetorical pyrotechnics like Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs; but I did find a nice turn of a phrase here and there.  In fact, I noticed the same three or four that reviewers called out.  But the style is eminently readable and every time I had to set the book aside I looked forward to returning to the story.


It’s particularly difficult to write about Noah’s Compass without spoiling the surprises Tyler creates for her characters and the reader.  So be warned.  There are spoilers in what follows. 


First surprise: the first night Liam is in his new apartment, he goes to bed, and an intruder apparently breaks in and knocks him unconscious.  He wakes up in the hospital with no memory of anything after getting into bed. 


Second surprise: In the course of trying to regain his memory, he becomes fixated on Eunice, the “rememberer” he saw in the neurologist’s office.  His muddle-headed conviction that she will be able to help him remember ends up with the two of them falling (in very slow motion) in love.  She is 38, he is 61.  They decide that’s not a problem.  Their love is real to them, but they act like pre-adolescents in love.  There’s talking and kissing and hugging, but no serious action.  “Come on, Liam!” you want to say, but you don’t know whether that’s because you want him to make her his, or to stop being stupid and find someone more his own age.


Then comes the biggest surprise: Liam (and the unsuspecting reader) learn that Eunice is married.  I say it’s unexpected, and it was on first reading, but on a second reading, I noticed what Eunice says when she has dinner with Liam and his friend Bundy.  Eunice is blathering about her earrings while Bundy is relating how he found out that his girlfriend done him wrong (pp. 173‑4).   


“Are you listening to this, or not?”  Bundy asked Eunice.  “I’m telling you how my heart was ripped out.”


… [Eunice listens “obediently, like a child in a classroom.”  Bundy finishes his tale, presumably expecting sympathy.]


“Maybe you’re well rid of her,” Eunice told him.”


“Say what?”


“Why do you even care?  You want to watch TV, she wants to do something else; let her do it!  Let her go off with her beautician!”


“He’s not her beautician.”


“Let her go off with whoever!  Maybe every day she’s been thinking, What are we together for?  Don’t I deserve something better than this?  Someone who understands me?  And meanwhile you could be with some woman who enjoys watching sports on TV.”


“Huh,” Bundy said.  He rocked back in his seat.


Eunice projects her own situation (which we don’t yet know anything about) onto Bundy’s ex-girlfriend and ends up sounding perspicacious instead of unsympathetic.  I didn’t remember this exchange from my first reading, even though in the very next scene (pp. 177-8) Liam meets Eunice’s mother and the cat jumps out of the bag.  It’s nice that Tyler knew her character well enough to put this in even if her readers may miss it.


Other surprises:  Kitty wants to live her senior year with Liam, and Liam says she can.  When Xanthe finds out, she explodes at Liam because he never let her live with him, but rather abandoned her to Barbara when he and Barbara divorced.  Liam, devastated, gets on his knees and begs her forgiveness.  Structurally, this is nicely done.  Early in the novel, when Kitty first comes to stay the summer with Liam, she goes down on her knees to plead melodramatically with him to talk Barbara into allowing it.  When Kitty insists on Liam going immediately to ask Barbara in person to agree to Kitty’s senior year plans, Liam expects her to take to her knees again…  But she doesn’t.  That sets up the situation where it’s Liam (presumably having learned from Kitty) who is begging from his knees.    


And Liam turns out to be a good zayda.  The first time that possibility was raised, it looked like Liam was grasping at straws to find something to tell Louise he could do with his life in retirement.  He uses it the same way when he tries to get Eunice off the conviction that he is looking for a job with Cope Industries (Cope!).  But as we see, the prospect had its real appeal, and Liam followed up.


At the end, we’ve seen that Liam is not a total nothing.  Sometimes he takes a little prodding, but as Freud said, all behavior is overdetermined, so who’s to say how much of the prodding was really necessary?  Everyone feels they have had a part in what eventually happens.  That’s called consensus.

Richard Powers (2009) – Generosity: An Enhancement

Monday, February 1st, 2010

I always wonder when I find myself enjoying a book—devouring it with gusto, putting tasks on hold in favor of reading what happens next—whether my enjoyment is idiosyncratic or universal; whether if I recommend the book to friends they will experience the same pleasure or wonder what ever was it that made me think the thing was worth spending time on.  I wonder this particularly when I recognize particular narrative devices or subjects that I know I am a pushover for.


So it is with Generosity.  Ever since the protagonist of Miguel de Unamuno’s (1914) book Niebla went to visit the author himself and complain about the way his life was being written, I have been a sucker for narratives in which the author brings himself into the story itself, which creates at the same time a sense of intimacy (You are right here while I write, I want to share the experience with you) and distance (These aren’t real people, I’m just making them up as I go along, you know) while actually moving the story along. 


Although Generosity has long sections of familiar omniscient third-person narration, the author at times takes us behind the writing and shares some of his compositional musings.  Here are the first three paragraphs of the book (somewhat compressed) to give the flavor:


A man rides backward in a packed subway car….  I picture him … tunneling beneath … the world’s twenty-fifth largest city….


He’s just thirty-two….  I can’t see him well,  … but that’s my fault, not his.


Look again: … The blank page is patient, and meaning can wait.  I watch until he solidifies.


Several reviewers have complained that such interventions by the author character are distracting and/or Just Too Cute.  I find it fun.  Bottom line: this is not a book for those who like to suspend their disbelief at page one and leave it suspended all the way to the end.


I also like stories that tackle big life issues.  What is happiness?  How does one obtain it? These questions are at the center of Generosity.  The author shows (through the characters and their situations) and tells (through the characters’ internal and external musings).  There are as many points of view as there are major characters, plus a few more brought in by minor characters.  Sometimes, the treatment totters on heavy-handed, but for the most part manages to avoid unintentional parody.  Intentional parody there is (notably, a thinly-veiled simulacrum of the Oprah Winfrey TV show), and reasonably deftly handled with a light seasoning of satire, but I did not feel it got out of hand.  The author has a good ear.


The key character in the book is a young, Berber woman named Thassadit Amzwar (Thassa) born and raised during the Algerian civil war, the “Time of Horrors”, who would seem to be the perfect candidate for post-traumatic stress syndrome, serious depression and unhappiness, but who is invariably up-beat and enthusiastic.  She takes  everything life has thrown at her in stride and brings a wry, but genuine, happiness to everyone she touches.  One would think this is a tough character to make believable, but by golly Powers succeeds.  Yes, a willing suspension of disbelief is needed, but that only to accept that the impact of her charm on the other characters is as thoroughgoing as the author tells us it is.  She is rather delightful.


The book is about Thassa, although you wouldn’t call her the protagonist.  She’s actually a sort of “fifth business”, the catalyst that makes everything else of importance happen around her.  Thassa is “discovered” to be genetically hyperthymic, a term that etymologically at least, means something like too happy, and as used here preternaturally happy or unnaturally happy.  Note the ambiguity.  If her happiness is real, maybe it’s genetic.  That would be a Major Scientific Discovery and then maybe (big leap) people could be bred or genetically modified to be happy.  Another possibility—that she has discovered the bluebird of happiness, or somehow discovered its philosophical equivalent—is not seriously explored.  This is a novel of biological determinism as far as happiness is concerned.  Thassa becomes an overnight sensation.  If her happiness is not real and she’s just neurotically well-defended against negative feelings, then she is in for some totally misguided attention from people who (desperately want to) believe it is real.


Two other major characters show up: Tonia Schiff, a television personality who has made a name for herself doing popularized science documentaries, and Thomas Kurton, a high-profile, gung-ho, genetic biologist who believes (and wants YOU to believe) the destiny of the human race is to create itself in the future through designer genetic manipulations.  After all, who would choose not to have smarter, better-looking, happier offspring?  Who, indeed?


What is happiness?  The author, to his credit, leaves the issue unresolved.  In the end, happiness (unless you believe the Thomas Kurton scientist character that it’s all in the genes) remains comfortingly elusive.  The book offers a thought-provoking exploration, but as with pornography, one can’t define happiness, but one can reliably recognize it.  Ultimately, as human potential guru Stewart Emory is fond of saying, “It’s all in how you hold it.”  You, and not your genes, are determinative.


Some complaints about the characters, though.  Russell Stone, the protagonist (most of the time, anyway) is a rather depressing figure.  He spends most of the book in a marginally sub-clinical depression and is single-mindedly negative about himself in a way that puts Woody Allen’s stock depressives to shame.  I understand that this is a book about happiness or the absence thereof, but Russell seems to be a bit of overkill.  The bizarre back-story the author invents to account for Russell’s state of mind—Russell wrote some semi-documentary pieces about some down-and-out people he met and he was subsequently hounded and even threatened by friends and relatives of his subjects who objected to his violation of the subjects’ privacy and his distortions of some of the attendant facts—is arguably plausible, but seems strained.  Whatever.  The author has Russell sworn off fact-based reportage and even sworn off putting any of himself in anything he writes.  He now edits other people’s submissions to a new-age self-help publication.  As the novel opens, Russell has taken a job as the last-minute replacement teacher for a minor college’s “Creative Nonfiction” documentary writing course.  This is a tad ironic given Russell’s life decision to refrain from such writing.


Russell is, in short, unhappy, and rather determinedly so.  It takes him a long time to find the love of a good woman and work his way out of the depressing hole he seems to be hell bent on staying in.


The good woman I just alluded to is Candace Weld, who is a psychotherapist in the college’s student counseling center.  (I seem to be reading a lot of books with psychotherapists as characters.  I just finished Irvin Yalom’s The Schopenhauer Cure and Jonathan Tropper’s This Is Where I Leave You.  Must be some sort of Zeitgeist.)  Candace finds herself with problems centering on the rules and regulations governing the behavior of college psychotherapists.  Powers conjures up a milieu in which a combination of fear of lawsuits and knee-jerk ethical constraints conspire to make it impossible for a therapist to have friends.  It’s a problem.  What is or should be the role of psychotherapy?  How does one—how can one—draw the line between a therapeutic relation and friendship? For a long time psychotherapists got away with a lot of inappropriate behavior towards their clients, justifying it as part of the therapeutic process.  Now the pendulum seems to have swung to the opposite extreme: just about nothing is appropriate, regardless of the human issues involved.  When Candace tries to do what seems to be the right thing with respect to Thassa and with respect to Russell, no good deed goes unpunished.  Go figure.


There are some characters that it takes the author a long time to see into.  I know that’s perhaps an odd way to put it, but Tonia Shiff, the self-impressed television documentary journalist, and Thomas Kurton, the scientist consumed by dreams of making permanent upgrades to human nature, seem at first to have been picked from the Stock Characters bin and do nothing but Stock Character Things for three quarters or more of the novel.  Eventually, however, the author after long acquaintance seems to find some real characters to put behind their stock roles and they become more fully elaborated and at least comprehensible, if still not sympathetic.  By that time, I didn’t really care.


I enjoyed the good parts of the book so much—the Russell-Thassa-Candace parts—that it is only now, two weeks after finishing reading, that I realize that there is a lot of it that I read as fast as I could in order to get past it and back to the good stuff.  It does feel odd to be recommending a book much of which I found myself fast forwarding through.  On reconsideration, then, Generosity is a good book, but not a great book.