Anne Tyler (2010) – Noah’s Compass

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.

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