Anne Tyler’s Noah’s Compass (2009)

It was with the best of intentions that I stood in front of the New Books shelves, doing the mental math that had allowed me to walk out of the public library the past four nights in a row (well, yes, I go almost every night: don’t you?) without borrowing a single book.

I was bolstered by the sober reality that even the books on hold that I was there to pick up might not even be opened before they were due back again (let alone read); I was firm and had a record of four successes in my immediate past.

And then I saw the new Anne Tyler on the seven-day loan shelf.

My Anne Tyler reading extends back to my high school days, beginning with If Morning Never Comes (1964), although there are gaps, and indeed I had missed a couple when I returned to reading her with Digging to America (2006).

It was listed for the Orange Prize though, which always gets my attention, and I borrowed it with determination but without any particular enthusiasm; and, I read along, steadily, but without any particular enthusiasm.

And then, about 3/4 of the way through the novel, I realized that I didn’t want it to end.

Now if you read a lot of contemporary fiction, you probably hear far more commonly, as I do, that interest in book often flags at about the 3/4 mark (readers hypothesize that the writer should have had a tighter edit, or the readers themselves are simply too focussed on the next five books beckoning from the unwieldly TBR pile), that the reader becomes less invested in the read at that point, not more.

Occasionally, that mark even finds them having moved on, mentally at least, to read one of those twenty-five tantalizing TBRs.

But what I realized in reading Digging to America was that I had been being slowly, skillfully pulled in the whole time and only at the 3/4 mark, when it hit home that I was soon to leave these characters behind, did I realize how involved I had become, despite the fifty books on the TBR stack.

So I set aside my library vow in an instant and started reading Noah’s Compass as I walked home from the library. If you’re curious what I found there, spoiler-free, click the continue link.

In many ways, the early pages of Anne Tyler’s eighteenth novel feels familiar: you’re introduced to someone who is recognizable in some ways, someone damaged in everyday ways.

In this novel, Liam has turned sixty, has left his teaching position, and moved into a smaller apartment where he arranges his armchair with an eye to spending an increasing amount of time in it. He is approaching his “summing-up stage” and perhaps it’s partly his years of studying and teaching philosophy that leads him to think he’ll be occupied primarily by reflecting on “what it all meant, in the end”.

“He would automatically settle in that chair from now on, he supposed. He had a fondness for routine.” And, yet, Liam’s first experience in his new apartment is anything but routine.

Although, he cannot remember the details of that experience at all. He wakes up the next morning not with a view of his new bedroom, but a view of a hospital room: he has a concussion and does not remember how he got it.

It’s a very ordinary thing: memory trouble. You don’t have to know someone who knows Oliver Sacks to know that. But it’s not ordinary for Liam: it’s extraordinary.

Of course, as with any book in which the theme of memory plays a major role, there is a heightened danger of spoilers in discussing Noah’s Compass. Part of the pleasure of the novel is in poking at the limits of what is known, with Liam.

The question of consciousness and knowing is raised in the early pages of the novel as Liam approaches unconsciousness, and throughout the novel there are explicit and subtle references to the theme of memory, but not in a W.G. Sebald way, not in a Susan Sontag kind of way, but in an Anne Tyler way: the characters are always in the forefront of  your mind.

Shortly after he first reawakens in the hospital, Liam “closed his eyes and fell off a cliff, into a sleep that felt like drowning in feathers”. It’s a lovely description, don’t you think? Can’t you feel it?

And there’s this one, too: “He reached for sleep as if it were a blanket that he could hide underneath, and finally he managed to catch hold of it.” AT’s language isn’t fancy; she uses the same words we use everyday. And her characters are not larger-than-life: they’re drawn from life, like Liam’s ex-wife, Barbara, who is “a medium sort of woman, medium in every way”.

These are medium people with medium problems, so why are their stories so interesting?

I think I’ve got a clue from this passage: “This was not his true self, he wanted to say. This was not who he really was. His true self had gone away from him and had a crucial experience without him and failed to come back afterward.” And, then, in a new paragraph, Liam says: “He knew he was making too much of this.”

This is not a medium matter, this bit about the true self and grappling with its simultaneous insignificance and overwhelming importance: whether losing it, keeping it, finding it, wanting it, revealing it, or restoring it, it’s the stuff of great fiction, great art.

Not the kind that wears you out at the 3/4 mark, but the kind that coalesces in its “summing-up” stage, reminding you that sometimes where you thought you’d been is not where you’ve ended up, that bits you thought were forgettable were, actually, anything but.