Surrogate memory

In typical lovely form, Ann Tyler takes a twisting approach to an arresting premise

(Ellen Weinstein)
By Margot Livesey
Globe Correspondent / January 3, 2010

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In several of her previous novels, perhaps most memorably in “The Accidental Tourist,’’ Anne Tyler has written about thoughtful, reticent, sexually reserved men who lack what are often deemed traditional male ambitions with respect to either love or work. Now, in “Noah’s Compass,’’ her 18th novel, she returns to this territory with the character of Liam Pennywell, who, after losing his teaching job at the age of 60, is convinced that he has reached “the final stage, the summing-up stage. The stage where he sat in his rocking chair and reflected on what it all meant, in the end.’’

The novel - set like much of Tyler’s work in her adopted hometown of Baltimore - opens with the once widowed, once divorced Liam happily embracing the economies occasioned by losing his job. As a former philosophy major and a longtime history teacher, he feels ready to get rid of many of his possessions - “Simplify, simplify!’’ - and on a bright June day he moves to a smaller apartment near the Baltimore Beltway. He unpacks, has vegetable soup for supper, goes to bed (the top sheet tucked in tightly, just the way he likes it), and wakes in a hospital room. He has no memory of the events that brought him there but soon learns that he was injured fighting off an intruder; his neighbors heard the commotion and called the police.

Liam’s accident summons the five main women in his life - his sister, his ex-wife, his daughter from his first marriage, and his two daughters from his second marriage - but for various reasons none of them is especially close to him. Although his doctor says someone must stay with him for the next 48 hours, Liam finds himself back in his new apartment, alone. What troubles him, however, even more than his solitude, is the hole in his memory. He cannot bear that a piece of his life, even an unpleasant piece, is missing.

This is an arresting premise and it pays off in unexpected ways. Liam’s dismay propels him to visit a neurologist. In the waiting room, he sees a couple whom he takes to be father and daughter. When he learns that the young woman is in fact an employee, that she functions as the older man’s memory, he is fascinated. If he can’t have his own memory back - and concussion does, the neurologist tells him, often lead to amnesia - the idea of a “hired rememberer’’ strikes Liam as the next best thing. Through a series of surprisingly determined lies and maneuvers, he manages to meet the rememberer. Eunice responds warmly to his overtures. The man she works for is a wealthy businessman and, on the pretext that she may be able to help Liam get a job at his company, the two become friends.

Eunice is a vivid and appealing character. She is untidy, charmingly unconcerned about domestic matters, non-judgmental, typically late. Her skin is creamy and her glasses, often smudged, are too large. Although she seems young to Liam, both in appearance and in manner, she turns out to be 38. So unused is he to such situations, and so hidden from him are his own feelings, that it takes his youngest daughter, the 17-year-old Kitty, to point out that Eunice has a “big huge crush’’ on him.

Gradually, despite the many interruptions created by his daughters’ comings and goings, including Kitty deciding to move in with him, the lovely metamorphosis of affection occurs. Liam, the man who tells Eunice that his life is “like one of those mouse carcasses you find beneath a radiator,’’ finds that he laughs a lot these days. In her company, his preoccupation with his missing memory recedes, and when the two of them go out to dinner with his friend, Bundy, we are told that Liam “saw the same woman Bundy must see: plump and frizzy-haired and bespectacled, dumpily dressed, bizarrely jeweled, too young for him and too earnest. But all these qualities he found loveable. And he pitied poor Bundy, who would have to go home alone.’’ Still one can’t help noticing that, after his initial flurry of activity, he mostly allows events, and Eunice, to come to him. Then one day while out grocery shopping he runs into Eunice’s mother. The narrative takes another, unexpected, swerve.

All of this is most engaging but increasingly Liam begins to display the qualities that made his second wife call him unforthcoming (and which perhaps contributed to his first wife committing suicide, an event Tyler touches on only briefly). The novel gives us due warning of this tendency in a discussion Liam has with his grandson. The 4-year-old Jonah has become skeptical about Noah: Noah, he claims, “made about a hundred animals die.’’ Then he asks, “Where’d he buy gas for his boat?’’ Liam struggles to explain. The ark didn’t need an engine or sails because Noah wasn’t going anywhere. “There was nowhere to go. He was just trying to stay afloat.’’

In the pages that follow, these words apply all too aptly to Liam, becalmed in his new apartment. Tyler’s writing is as lovely and transparent as ever - she has said that she never wants to get between her readers and her characters - but I wouldn’t have minded her intervening a little. Like the other women in Liam’s life, I began to lose patience with him and I was not entirely convinced that a few years of studying philosophy, several decades ago, explained his choices. But surely it is one of the best compliments I can pay “Noah’s Compass’’ that I longed to drag Liam out of his armchair and into the noisy world.

Margot Livesey’s most recent novel is “The House on Fortune Street.’’ She is a distinguished writer in residence at Emerson College.

By Anne Tyler
Knopf, 288 pp., $25.95

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