Sunday, August 15, 2010

Noah's Compass

In Noah's Compass, Anne Tyler delivers (in her eighteenth novel) a quiet, subtle story with a main character whose interior life runs deep. Liam Pennywell is a man in his sixties who has aspired to much more than life has delivered.

When the private school where Liam had been teaching fifth graders "downsizes" him out of job, Liam moves in to a smaller and cheaper apartment. The first night in his new digs, Liam wakes to find himself in the hospital. He doesn't recollect how or why he got there. But we learn, as the story unfolds, that an intruder broke into Liam's apartment and assaulted him.

"The distressing thing about losing a memory was that it felt like losing control," Liam tells us. The trauma of the whole incident rocks the boat of Liam's mundane, unfulfilled existence. In trying to solve (and sometimes even obsessing over) the mystery of what happened at his apartment that night, Liam is ultimately forced to confront the larger issue of who he is, what his life really means, his mortality, and why he feels so disconnected from his quirky family. This includes an ex-wife, three daughters, a sister and even his aging parents.

In the hope that a medical doctor might help him regain his memory of the incident, Liam decides to consult with a neurologist. While in the waiting room, Liam is drawn to a local business tycoon, apparently in the early stages of Alzheimer's. The man is being assisted by a younger woman whose gentle devotion in helping the tycoon to remember things strikes a chord in Liam that encourages him to seek out her help.  After the appointment, Liam tracks the woman (Eunice) down under the pretense of looking for a job at the tycoon's company. Liam's relationship with Eunice forces him to delve more deeply into the meaning of life.

Toward the end of the book, there is a very touching scene between Liam and his grandson where they share a conversation about the Biblical story of Noah and the Ark that addresses the underlying themes of this gracefully written and profound novel:

"There was nowhere (for Noah) to go. He was just trying to stay afloat. He was just bobbing up and down, so he didn't need a compass, or a rudder, or a sextant..."
"What's a sextant?"
"I believe it's something that figures out directions by the stars. But Noah didn't need to figure out directions, because the whole world was underwater and so it made no difference."

Liam Pennywell emerges from this story as if he, himself, has voyaged though life like Noah. While his nagging sense of isolation and a lack of direction seem to embody the universality of man, it is Liam's journey that ultimately propels him to a place of greater awareness and peace.