Anne Tyler is another writer who was on the Man Booker International shortlist. She is an American, but that must be about the only thing she has in common with the winner, Philip Roth. Her books deal with the personal and the domestic, rather than the broad themes of American experience – though arguably the domestic is important in the American experience, whatever critics think. Her main characters often find themselves at odds with their role in life, needing to come to terms with themselves in some new way. This is certainly true for Liam Pennywell, the protagonist of Noah’s Compass (2009),Tyler’s eighteenth book.
Liam is sixty, widowed, then divorced from his second wife, with three daughters. He has just been ‘downsized’ from his job teaching grade five students at a private school. Seeking to economise, he moves to a cheaper apartment, where on the first night, he is assaulted, and wakes up in hospital with no memory of what took place. He is distressed by his amnesia, and wants to find out what happened.
Liam is not an assertive man. If his back is agonizingly sore, he will tell the doctor he is ‘experiencing some discomfort’. Nor is he confident and successful. “But face it:” he says, “I haven’t exactly covered myself in glory. I just … don’t seem to have the hang of things somehow. It’s as if I’ve never been entirely present in my own life.” He has lived, it seems, on the margins of his family’s lives. Will this experience jolt him into a new direction? But as he tells his grandson Jonah, a compass for finding direction wouldn’t have been of any use to Noah; he wasn’t going anywhere, he was just trying to stay afloat on the flood.
A major theme in the story is memories – lost and found. ‘The trouble with discarding bad memories’, Liam thinks, ‘was that evidently the good ones went with them’. Offered the chance to confront his attacker, he wonders how important the memory, if it returned, would seem in comparison with other things he has forgotten. ‘Where’s the rest? Where’s everything else I’ve forgotten: my childhood, and my youth, my first marriage and the growing up of my daughters?’ he asks himself. ‘Why, he’d had amnesia all along.’ But the story is also about contentment, and while this is a less passionate state than happiness, Liam’s pleasure in his quiet, sparse life is one of the joys of the book, as he thinks to himself of what Socrates said about ‘the fewer his wants, the closer he was to the gods.’
I hope I haven’t made the book sound depressing, because it isn’t. Tylerwrites with quiet amusement about her characters and their various foibles. Some of the humour is achieved through the use of parenthesis, as in: ‘To be honest, Liam thought, the Pennywells were a rather homely family. (Himself included.)’, or ‘“You’re dismissive and sarcastic and contemptuous,”’ Louise – his daughter – says. ‘(Anger seemed to broaden her vocabulary – a trait Liam had noticed in her mother as well.)’ But everyone has their good side, even if they can appear inept or comical. There is no malice in the humour.
Tyler’s work attracts rather conflicting responses. Some admire her unassuming prose and empathy with marginal people. ‘She chooses subtlety over grandeur; she thinks in minuscule rather than capital letters’, says one critic. But others (perhaps including the Man Booker International judges) consider her bland and unchallenging: ‘our foremost NutraSweet novelist’, as one critic apparently called her. I don’t think memory loss is a bland topic. And I detect a bit of sexism here: if it is domestic, it can’t be important. But perhaps I’m over sensitive. And she has won a Pulitzer Prize – for Breathing Lessons, in 1989.
You can read more about Anne Tyler here.