Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Noah's Compass

Yesterday after meeting my class I went to a shopping center in the big city near the college I commute to because I'd seen a beautiful peacock scarf there this past weekend and had finally come up with a good rationalization for why it had to be mine. (Now it is; see my new profile photo.) And I can't go to a shopping center without visiting the bookstore, and of course can't leave the bookstore empty-handed, so I came home with the new Anne Tyler novel, Noah's Compass, and finished it before I went to bed last night.

I think Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is Anne Tyler's masterpiece, and that the one right after it and the four right before it are almost as good. I didn't like the last seven or the first four novels nearly as much, so I wasn't expecting a lot from this new one. I thought maybe I just wasn't old enough yet to sympathize with her older characters. (Here's a list of Anne Tyler's novels in case you don't have the order memorized!)

But then I met Liam Pennywell, and he's a lot like me, even though he is older. Here's how we're introduced to him:
In the sixty-first year of his life, Liam Pennywell lost his job. It wasn't such a good job, anyhow. He'd been teaching fifth grade in a second-rated private boys' school. Fifth grade wasn't even what he'd been trained for. Teaching wasn't what he'd been trained for. His degree was in philosophy. Oh, don't ask."
I know so many people lately who feel a bit like that--"oh, don't ask." One of them has a PhD in philosophy and has been laid off from her job as a young adult librarian since last summer. Three of them have been looking for work for over a year. Another, of course, is me. I have part-time jobs, but none of them are what I was "trained" to do or how I thought I was going to make my mark on the world. What Liam is facing-- like the rest of us--is the distinct possibility that he's never going to make any kind of mark.

Liam is having issues with memory after a knock on the head, and at one point wonders why his sister can remember more than he can about their childhood. He wants a "rememberer," someone who can remind him of things. I actually have rememberers; I have Iris for high school memories, Miriam for college memories, and recently I've started calling on Laura for graduate school memories.

Also Liam's reaction to one of his daughter's attempts to share her religion with him is similar to my reaction in a similar situation:
"He refrained from telling her that even talking about religion made him wince with embarrassment. Even hearing about it embarrassed him--hearing those toe-curling terms that believers employed like share, in fact, and my faith."

Occasionally Liam makes a grand gesture, like telling the woman he loves that he can't live without her, but he doesn't follow up on that gesture and lets her go. I don't identify with him there at all; in fact, his rigidness and passivity irritate me. Later he does make a grand gesture with one of his daughters, though:
"In desperation, he pushed his chair back and slid forward until he was kneeling on the patio. He could feel the unevenness of the flagstones through the fabric of his trousers; he could feel the ache of misery filling his throat. Xanthe froze, gaping at him, still holding her dishes. 'Please,' he said, clasping his hands in front of him. 'I can't bear to know I made such a bad mistake. I can't endure it. I'm begging you, Xanthe.'"
The gesture is just what was needed. The theatricality of it reminds me of the time my parents were sitting in a booth in a restaurant and my mother pushed my father's shoulder away in annoyance; he made himself fall out of the booth and onto the floor, just to exaggerate how hard she'd pushed.

Noah's Compass is a quiet and occasionally bleak story, but the undercurrents seem to me to bring it closer to the magic of those novels from Tyler's middle period. Liam thinks "we live such tangled, fraught lives...." and who can't identify with that? Every morning and evening I'm holding my breath while my 16-year-old continues learning to drive in the snow that keeps falling every night. Fraught, yes, and in a year or so I probably won't remember it. But that doesn't mean it doesn't push at my life in a certain direction.

Are you one of those lucky people who had a plan for what you were going to do when you grew up and got to follow it? Or are you like Liam and me, who got knocked off course and ended up in places we never expected to go?


Lori L said...

Great review! I pre-ordered Noah's Compass and it should be arriving today. I totally agree with you about her middle period books, although I really have liked all her books. But I LOVE Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and it is my favorite Anne Tyler novel too.

Harriet said...

I am very much an off-course sort of girl. I just read another review of this and I think I might try it. I overdid it on Anne Tyler for a while and had to back away slowly.

kittiesx3 said...

I love the phrase, "Oh don't ask." I might appropriate it for myself. No, I'm not where I thought I would be, not in any way, shape or form. I would never have guessed that marriage could be so wonderful and I would never have thought that moving away from a more stable work environment to Boston on account of that marriage would absolutely be the right decision for me.

Do you remember Jeanne Hirsch? She had her life planned out to the nth degree, and I know at least one part of it didn't work out as she'd planned (divorce does that sometimes). I sometimes wonder, although not a lot, if she is happy or better if she's content.

FreshHell said...

I don't know if I ever had much of a plan. I thought I did and it went wrong so I stumbled into something better.

I love Anne Tyler. I've read all her books. Look forward to this one.

readersguide said...

Off course, of course.

I loved Homesick Restaurant, too. Okay. this goes on the list.

PAJ said...

You have only to check for my name in your address book to get an answer to the question of whether I've "ended up in places we never expected to go." Not that I ever had a great plan for my life, but I could never have predicted how things have turned out so far. When you start to question your "mark" in the world, remember that even those with great plans need a fair degree of good luck to have things go as planned. Future spouses, jobs, firings, pregnancies, divorces: a short list of things that show up/happen with no regard to master plans.

Anonymous said...

I keep bashing you over the head (with pillows, of course) that teaching is immortality. Fortunately, your teaching is good teaching, so you will be immortal rather than infamous.

My personal life is very much where I hoped it would be, which may be my mark on the world. Little else has worked out as I'd hoped, but it's not over yet.

Never read any Anne Tyler.


CSchum said...

I did end up exactly where I planned and expected. But I also think that the proverbial "mark" is way over-rated. I keep thinking that I want to leave my graffiti on the world.

Amanda said...

I've actually never even heard of Anne Tyler.

Betty said...

I ended up listening to the audiobook "Digging to America" a few months ago and really enjoyed it. Haven't read any of the others, but I think I'll have to start checking them out...starting with Homesick Restaurant. :-)

Jodie said...

The plan has never really been there for me, but I really wish I'd worked hareder at creating one when I was younger because my friends with plans now seem to be on the good track. However maybe it's all an illussion and their plans formed over time through circumstances, it's just that mine is taking longer? I did not hear great things about this novel in print reviews, but when you decsribe it it sounds good. I don't know where Digging to America fits with your like and dislike of Tyler's work but if you've read and could let me know what you think and I might get a better idea if Noah's Compass is also the Tyler for me :)

Care said...

Oh, your last question! I never had a plan - or had a backup plan which has failed so now I'm curious "what AM I supposed to be doing?" And then recognizing that it is somewhat from a place of arrogance and privilege that I can even ask the question (and take years to attempt to figure it out.) Altho... on the love front, I'm very happy and will hang on to this wonderful part of my life. How DO you write such lovely posts full of things to think about?
Fraught is such a cool word - hope you don't need to worry too much and all is well. and that scarf sounds lovely! and I'm trying to remember which books I've read by AT.

bermudaonion said...

I think I'm one of those people who just let the current take me where it would.

I love Anne Tyler's work and need to get a copy of this book. Thanks for the great review!

Anonymous said...
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Jeanne said...

Elizabeth, I sort of remember Jeanne. She had a good name, was moderately tall, and was smart, although a bit conformist for my taste.

Lemming, thanks for the continued bashing. It hurts so good.

Amanda, read Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant as soon as you can!

Jodie, I sent you gmail.

Everybody, thanks for the sense of how many of us feel like we knew what we were going to do when we grew up! Now I'm contemplating the issues of arrogance and privilege that CSchu brings up implicitly and Care explicitly.

I deleted a comment written in characters. I'm sorry if it's a real comment and not sorry if it's spam, which is what I suspect.