About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Monday, May 3, 2010

#32 - Noah's Compass

It's been a busy weekend, both book- and otherwise. Stay tuned for a blogolanche, starting with Noah's Compass, by Anne Tyler (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009).

Jacket summary: "Liam Pennywell, who set out to be a philosopher and ended up teaching fifth grade, never much liked the job at that run-down private school, so early retirement doesn't bother him. But he is troubled by his inability to remember anything about the first night that he moved into his new, spare, and efficient condominium on the outskirts of Baltimore. All he knows when he wakes up the next day in the hospital is that his head is sore and bandaged.

"His effort to recover the moments of his life that have been stolen from him leads him on an unexpected detour. What he needs is someone who can do the remembering for him. What he gets is -- well, something quite different."

Opening line: "In the sixty-first year of his life, Liam Pennywell lost his job."

My take: A gentle book, rather than a life-changing one, but I enjoyed it all the same. Something about it evokes Tyler's The Accidental Tourist, though I haven't read that one in years; perhaps it's that Liam's personality has shades of AT's Macon Leary, or that the quirky and vaguely pathetic Eunice reminds me of AT's dog trainer/ love interest Muriel Pritchett. If you can't get this from the text itself, the title suggests what it is Tyler's asking us to consider: How do we navigate through our lives when all the familiar landmarks are gone?

For Liam, the answers are none too quick in coming. Even before he is injured, the beginning of the story finds himself "interested" in the prospect of downsizing and economizing, but it's a muted enthusiasm at best. As he settles into bed on his first night in his new condo, he muses:
"Most probably ... this would be the final dwelling place of his life. What reason would he have to move again? No new prospects were likely for him. He had accomplished all the conventional tasks -- grown up, found work, gotten married, had children -- and now he was winding down.

"This is it, he thought. The very end of the line. And he felt a mild stirring of curiosity."
Once he awakes in the hospital, though, with a concussed head and a bitten, bandaged hand, he becomes desperate to reconstruct what happened. His family, such as it is, offers little help. Ex-wife Barbara is too busy ranting about Liam's choice of apartment, and eldest daughter Xanthe is convinced the culprit is Damian, her younger sister's boyfriend, who helped Liam move. Middle daughter Louise, a fundamentalist Christian stay-at-home mom pregnant with her second child, seems wrapped up in other things, while youngest daughter Kitty sees this mainly as an opportunity to move in with Liam and away from her constant squabbles with Barbara.

Undeterred, Liam seeks the help of Dr. Morrow, an acclaimed neurologist whose son he'd tutored many years back. While the doctor himself offers little practical assistance for Liam's condition, Liam encounters Ishmael Cope, a venerable and wealthy local businessman, in Morrow's office. Upon learning that Cope has a "professional rememberer" -- a hired staffer whose job is to attend him, take notes, and do whatever else she can to supplement Cope's failing memory -- Liam is intrigued. His curiosity and confusion lead him to track down Cope's rememberer (or "social facilitator," as she calls herself), Eunice, and an odd, almost-but-not-quite romance develops between the two.

Noah's Compass, however, is not primarily a love story, at least not the way the phrase is usually meant. Liam's relationship with Eunice never progresses beyond kisses, and frankly, always just seems Off (as it's probably meant to). No, the book is primarily about connectedness and isolation (no surprise for Tyler fans); we see Liam's tentative but growing relationships with the typically self-centered Kitty, his young grandson Joshua, and even his no-nonsense sister Julia. The conclusion is satisfying, and passes my "not too tidy" test. Definitely a good one to come back to and chew over.

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