Sunday, October 4, 2009

Steering By Noah's Compass

I've always been a huge Anne Tyler fan. In fact I own most of her eighteen novels. My mother loved Anne Tyler books too, so when I saw there was a new one - Noah's Compass - I had to buy it. I have to admit it made me sad too, to know I'd be reading it alone.

But this time the magic didn't work for me, and I can't decide if it's Tyler who's lost the excitement of invention and is coasting along on auto pilot, or I who've lost my taste for her work because my mother's gone and I can no longer share it with her. Or because I'm getting old and grumpy.

Tyler's prose is just as faultless as ever, so it's not that. The story's interesting enough too, I suppose. Liam Pennywell, aged 60, has just lost his teaching job, and downsized into a small characterless apartment. On his first night in the apartment he's attacked by an intruder and, though he recovers completely, Liam can't remember the attack. In his quest to recall what happened to him that night Liam befriends an eccentric young woman and along the way realises that he can barely remember much of any of his life - that he's barely been present in it.

I don't think I really believed in Liam - or maybe I didn't care about him. Somehow, aged 60, he's managed to acquire (and lose) two wives, three daughters (one of whom is still a teenager) and two teaching jobs (or is it three?) without any of it leaving much of a mark on him at all. And I didn't believe in Liam's sexless 'love affair' with Eunice either.

He has a grandson too with whom he feels no connection. The title of the book comes from a story in the grandson's bible story colouring book. Noah, it seems, didn't need a compass because he wasn't going anywhere. He was - like our Liam - simply trying to stay afloat.

It might just be me, but although I could appreciate Tyler's mastery of craft, mostly what I felt while I was reading Noah's Compass was disappointment. The novel felt too cute to me, too self conscious. 'Oh no, don't go there,' I'd tell myself while I was reading it. But each time she did.


  1. I love your words. Thanks. I read this post a while ago but it came to mind again today when i was browsing the Writer's Almanac ( a site I imagine you would like a great deal.
    Anyway, it tells us that Saturday is ... "the birthday of the novelist Anne Tyler, (books by this author) born in Minneapolis, Minnesota (1941), the author of The Accidental Tourist (1985), Back When We Were Grownups (2001), and Digging to America (2006). Early in her career, she decided she did not want to be a public person, so she stopped giving readings and only does occasional interviews in writing. She said, "Any time I talk in public about writing, I end up not able to do any writing. It's as if some capricious Writing Elf goes into a little sulk whenever I expose him." Ann Tyler also said, "I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances. It's lucky I do it on paper. Probably I would be schizophrenic — and six times divorced — if I weren't writing."

    Glad there are not any capricious elves on the farm.
    Cheers, David

  2. Thanks for your great comment, threewavedave. Thanks too for the tip about The Writers Almanac, which I did like.

    I particularly related to this quote from Doris Lessing, whose 90th birthday it apparently is today: "I had sticking power, which is just as important as literary talent. I just got on with the work. And I think there are such things as writing animals. I simply have to write."

    That applies to me too, I think.
    I hope I can still say it when I'm 90!

    I was also very interested in what Anne Tyler had to say because I'm doing a lot of book interviews right now, and not writing as much as I'd like. It's an odd process. I'll blog about it when I've had some time to think about it some more.
    Thanks again.