Anne Tyler's Compass: A Review

“In the sixty-first year of his life, Liam Pennywell lost his job.” For most of us, such an experience would turn our lives on end. But Liam, the protagonist in Anne Tyler’s seventeenth novel, Noah’s Compass, looking on the bright side of things, observes: “It wasn’t such a good job, anyhow.” Trained in philosophy, he’d been teaching fifth grade “in a second-rate private boys’ school.” Indeed, it might even be “just the nudge he needed to push him on to the next stage… where he sat in his rocking chair and reflected on what it all meant, in the end”.*

The tectonic life changes that often provide the punctuation mark to what the Hindus call the Householder stage of life — retirement (voluntary or compulsory), the empty nest experience, or a life-threatening medical event — are indeed often the nudge to enter a next stage of life. Those who, like Liam, have “accomplished all the conventional tasks — grown up, found work, gotten married, had children” [12] — then move on to the Forest Dweller stage where they throw off the encumbrances of their accumulated possessions, slim down, and begin to live more simply.

Liam thinks he’s ready for this — in spades. He’d “tossed out bales of old magazines and manila folders stuffed with letters and three shoe boxes of index cards from the dissertation that he had never gotten around to writing.” He’d palmed off much of his extra furniture on his three daughters and paid “1-800-GOT-JUNK to truck away” the rest” [4]. Now, when we meet him, it’s moving day; and he is taking possession of a smaller apartment where he plans to live modestly and within his reduced means.

No pain; no gain.

The transition proves anything but smooth. At the end of Chapter 1, Liam falls asleep in his new apartment feeling “a mild stirring of curiosity” about what this next phase of life — his “winding down” stage — will be like. At the beginning of Chapter 2, he wakes up in a hospital bed with no recollection of how he got there — no memory of scuffling with a supposed intruder and suffering the severe blow to his head that has caused the amnesia. The memory is simply gone; it has, in the words of Billy Collins’ wonderful poem, “Forgetfulness”:

decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Liam fixates on this missing fragment of his life. “The distressing thing about losing a memory… was that it felt like losing control. Something had happened, something significant, and he couldn’t say how he’d comported himself” [26]. “I feel like I’ve lost something,” he tells the neurologist. “A part of my life has been stolen from me. I don’t care if it was unpleasant; I need to know what it was” [62-63]. To his youngest daughter, Kitty, who stays with him his first night home from the hospital, he says: “You can’t imagine how it feels to know you’ve been through something so catastrophic and yet there’s no trace of it in your mind” [48]. No, she can’t imagine how it feels: nor can Louise, her older sister; nor Barbara, his ex-wife; nor Xanthe, his daughter by his first wife Millie; nor Julia, his sister. Among this large cast of boisterous and assertive women, only mousey Eunice, the “professional rememberer,” with whom he begins a very unconventional courtship, seems to understand:

“I guess I should be glad,” he told her. “I’m better off forgetting, right? But that’s not how I feel about it.”

“Well, of course it’s not,” she said. “You want to know what happened.”

“Yes, but there’s more to it than that. Even if someone could tell me what happened — even if they told me every detail — I would still feel…I don’t know…”

“You would still feel something was missing,” Eunice said.


“Something you yourself have lived through, and it ought to belong to you now, not just to someone who tells you about it” [109].

“I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”
— Mary Oliver

Near the end of the book, Liam recalls a “running joke” from The Dean Martin Show:

… about his drinking, remember? Always going on about his drunken binges. And so one night one of the guests was reminiscing about a party they’d been to and Dean Martin asked, “Did I have a good time?” [263]

Through the course of the novel, Liam comes to realize that he “had experienced only the most glancing relationship with his own life” [241]. Did he have a good time? He can’t answer the question. Something catastrophic happened to him (something I will leave undisclosed): “His true self had gone away from him and had a crucial experience without him and failed to come back afterward” [49]. Liam learns how heavy a price we pay when we bury painful memories: “The trouble with discarding bad memories was that evidently the good ones went with them” [275]. And so, by the end of the novel, the lost memory of his attack has become emblematic of his unlived life:

If the memory … were handed to him today, he would just ask, Is that it? Where’s the rest? Where’s everything else I’ve forgotten: my childhood and my youth, my first marriage and my second marriage and the growing up of my daughters? Why, he’d had amnesia all along” [241].

Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.
After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.
                                                    — Zen proverb

Becoming old is not the same thing as becoming an elder. We do the first just by putting in our time; like Liam, we march — or trudge — through life ticking off “all the conventional tasks” of growing up and making our way in the world and, at the end, arrive at our “winding down stage.” Coming to wisdom is a much more mysterious process that involves both life review — for Liam, a radical recovery of his own life — and forgiveness work.

Lives that have come to wisdom may — on the surface — look to some imagined objective observer unchanged from what went before. When Liam reenters the labor force at the end of the novel — this time to work as a “zayda,” a teacher’s aide in a nearby Jewish pre-school (Zayda in Hebrew means grandfather) — it may seem that the downward spiral that has become his “professional career” has simply reached a new low. But such measures no longer pertain. The Liam who settles into his favorite armchair, content to spend Christmas Day by himself, is not the same man we met at the beginning of the book. What he says is true: he “really wanted nothing. He had an okay place to live, a good enough job. A book to read. A chicken in the oven. He was solvent, if not rich, and healthy. Remarkably healthy” [276-77].

What more could he possibly desire?

          *           Anne Tyler, Noah's Compass (New York: Afred A. Knopf, 2009), p. 3. The page reference of subsequent citation are given in brackets and refer to the same hardcover edition of the book.