I trust Anne Tyler’s novels to offer me a quietly bracing, gently satirical, mostly forgiving picture of ordinary people muddling along in their lives. By ‘ordinary’ I don’t mean dull or predictable, as all of us ordinary people have our quirks, eccentricities, and perversities, and these are exactly what Tyler seems to enjoy. Though there are a few of her books that I have reread a few times (Breathing Lessons, The Accidental Tourist, A Patchwork Planet, Back When We Were Grownups), my favorite, for whatever combination of sentiment and neurosis, is Ladder of Years. There’s just something satisfying to me about Delia’s decision to walk away, about the little room and the library books and the new job and the new love, but then also about the return home and the readjustment. That return home, which is typical (either literally or in spirit) of the endings Tyler doles out, has a conservative aspect to it, a chastening implication that you probably oughtn’t to have gone so far astray in the first place, or that where you already are is probably better than you think. Or in some cases, the acceptance comes not from staying put, but from letting someone else in, allowing your definition of home to expand or soften.
Noah’s Compass is vintage Tyler, in these respects, except that its ending strikes me as a bit less consoling than usual. It’s interesting, so soon after reading Eat, Pray, Love–which celebrates the quest for self-fulfilment and doesn’t wrestle with possibilities by which it comes at someone else’s expense–to read a book in which the right to happiness is raised but not, ultimately, endorsed as a guiding principle. Tyler raises our hopes (and her characters’ hopes!) about a happy ending, but complicates things by acknowledging another value that may compete with happiness–or that, if denied, may fatally undermine that happiness. “Don’t you think you deserve to spend [your life] with the person you love?” someone demands near the end. The question is deceptively simple but all too often made to seem sufficient to justify all manner of compromises, betrayals, and abandonments. Tyler doesn’t forget that you have to live with yourself after you answer it.
I enjoyed the book very much. Tyler writes with a clarity that was a relief, frankly, after The Transit of Venus, but while she’s more direct than elliptical (again, a relief!) she lets the significance of little moments linger in her readers’ mind rather than beating out the details. Here’s a little exchange between Liam, the divorced, recently burglarized-and-assaulted protagonist, who has just learned something unsettling about his new girlfriend, and his grandson Jonah, who has taken a dislike to his Bible stories coloring book because he’s mad at Noah for leaving so many animals to drown–”He only took two of things,” after all.
“Where’d he buy gas?” Jonah asked.
“Where’d he buy gas for his boat if he was the only guy in the world?”
“He didn’t need gas,” Liam said. “It wasn’t that kind of boat.”
“Was it a sailboat, then?”
“Why, yes, I guess it was,” Liam said. Although he had never noticed sails in the pictures, come to think of it. “Actually,” he said, “I guess he didn’t need sails either, because he wasn’t going anywhere.”
“Not going anywhere?”
“There was nowhere 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.”
“Huh,” Jonah said. He seemed to have lost interest.
A lot of nice little questions lurk in that moment. Is Liam like Noah? Should Liam / Noah be just trying to say afloat, or ought he to be steering, and if so, where and by what guidance? Does it make a difference? Are thinks in life murky, opaque, underwater, or is it a question of looking below the surface? By the end of the novel, where has Liam gone, and what is his compass? It’s no surprise, in a Tyler novel, that it was right there all the time.
Noah’s Compass wins the prize for the worst included discussion questions I’ve seen in a while. Most of them are of the same painfully literal or solipsistic kind I’ve protested about here before (“Do you like Liam Pennywell as a character? Do you identify with him as a character?”; “Liam is comforted by this thought; do you feel this way, or do you find this viewpoint depressing?”). There is one about the compass bit I’ve just quoted (“How do you think this story relates to Liam’s own life?”), so fair enough, but this one is a doozy: “Did you like the ending of the novel? Did you feel that it satisfactorily answered everything?” Well, maybe not everything . . .