‘Noah’s Compass’ by Anne Tyler
“Face it: we forget things every day of our lives. You’re missing lots of chunks! But you don’t dwell on those, now, do you?”
So says the doctor to Liam Pennywell, the 60-year-old protagonist of Anne Tyler’s new novel, “Noah’s Compass” -- ostensibly to make him feel better. Liam cannot remember what happened to him. Someone broke into his apartment in the middle of the night, fought with him and hit him on the head, but all he recalls is going to bed and then waking up in the hospital with a concussion.
It is not the crime that obsesses him, that gives him the shivers when he returns home, but that he has no memory of it. “His mind was a blank,” Tyler writes. “He had heard that expression a thousand times, mind was a blank, but only now did he understand that a mind really could be as blank and white and textureless as a sheet of unused paper.”
Liam goes in search of a “rememberer” named Eunice. He saw her in the doctor’s office, helping an old man by whispering the nurse’s forgotten name into his ear. Liam thinks she might have answers for him, tricks to help him recall what happened that night.
Eunice is one of those wonderful Tyler women characters: anachronistic, unkempt, clumsy and astute. Her glasses are smudged and her thought processes oddly circuitous, but she knows just what Liam is talking about.
And he needs her. He is a frustrating, inept, clueless man, but Tyler makes us ache for him. He has spent his 60 years of life floating past events, never really participating, keeping his emotions separate and dismissed, even from himself. He has been widowed once and divorced once and is the very absent father of three daughters.
Liam’s first wife committed suicide, leaving him with a baby to raise alone. When people asked how he was, he always replied, “I’m doing fine!” To be fair, he really thought so, if he thought about it at all. “He did love his daughter,” Tyler explains; “or he felt attached to her, at least; or at least he felt deeply concerned for her welfare.”
But the truth is that Liam has no idea what love really is. He does not want to know. He does not want to feel anything, and without feeling, he can’t create a past. It is not Liam’s mind that is blank; it’s his entire life.
Had Tyler written only her first 10 novels, a run that includes “Celestial Navigation” and “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant” and culminates with “The Accidental Tourist,” it would have been an amazing career.
Then in 1989, she won a much deserved Pulitzer Prize for her 11th novel, “Breathing Lessons.” In the two decades since, she has published seven more books.
Tyler is not flashy or tricky. We are not asked to switch to the dog’s point of view or to follow some winding stream-of-consciousness or to read with a dictionary in our laps. Her stories are about marriage, divorce, children, unsavory boyfriends, families of all kinds.
Her characters eat cereal, make bad clothing choices, go to ordinary jobs and are rarely famous or wealthy or particularly successful. They speak well or badly but as recognizably as a co-worker or the clerk at the grocery store. Her touch is delicate and detailed, each neighborhood corner made so concrete that we fall naturally into her world.
It might seem easy to dismiss her stories as minor domestic travails, but what theme is greater than the navigation of a human life?
“Noah’s Compass” is the perfect example: a seemingly small tale of a man trying to remember one night that grows larger and larger until it encompasses the memories we have all lost.
“Noah’s Compass” is a sad and wistful book. Liam’s every breath is audible. He, his ex-wife, his daughters -- every character is humanly perplexed and messy. No one seems to have gotten where he or she wanted to go.
Again and again there are references to remembering and its opposite. Kitty, Liam’s youngest daughter, forgets his birthday. Jonah, his 4-year-old grandson, has forgotten the last page he colored.
Liam sits in his rocking chair and waits to remember something. “He had read somewhere that old people could sit in their chairs and watch their memories roll past like movies,” Tyler tells us, “endlessly entertaining; but so far that hadn’t happened to him. He was beginning to think it never would.”
In the end, Tyler makes it profoundly clear that we remember only what is important to us. And what Liam finally remembers is not what anyone expected.
For 40 years, Tyler has narrated a certain story of America. From her first novel, “If Morning Ever Comes,” to “Noah’s Compass,” she reveals the beauty to be found in the detritus of daily life.
This is not chick lit -- far from it.
But there is a softness to Tyler’s writing, a friendliness that seems old-fashioned now. We are in strong, warm hands and perhaps we feel a little guilty enjoying them. We have forgotten how good they feel.
Wagman is the author of the novels “Skin Deep,” “Spontaneous” and “Bump.”
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