I began to get the gentle emails about a week ago. “I couldn’t help but noticing,” a reader said, “that I haven’t seen your blog lately …” And: “Is 52 Views moribund? Or has WordPress dumped me?” And the most excruciating: “It really is OK if you don’t do your blog,” wrote a friend. “But … are you OK?”
I have nothing dramatic to tell. (Lord knows I wish I did.) I could blame the lack of childcare we’ve had lately. Or The Tour of California, the viewing of which occupied a fair amount of time. Or watching the Giro d’Italia. Or the 350-mile bike ride I did last month in four days. Or the finale of “24.” Or the purchase of my new bike, replacing my 7-year-old Trek. Or, or, or.
The truth of the matter is I very well may become one of these people, but boy, I hope not. Maybe this blog will be re-titled “40 Views.” Suffice to say that I am back, and I hope for back for good in a weekly basis, but the Tour de France is starting soon so I’m not entirely hopeful. (Also, thank you, everyone, for checking in – this is definitely my Sally Field moment.)
Onwards! I read Noah’s Compass a few weeks ago, and truth be told, I’d taken it on my bike trip more than a month ago, fully intending to breeze through it. I didn’t even crack the spine. Part of it is the cover, and part of it is there is just no surprise left with Tyler. Don’t get me wrong: I still consider myself a die-hard Anne Tyler fan; in graduate school, my friends and I parsed that Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece “Breathing Lessons,” trying to figure out how she managed to describe in exquisite detail the intricacies of a decades-old marriage in a single day. She is the master of domestic description, encapsulating a character in a single sentence, simply by the clothes he wears or the verbal tics he has. She is usually funny and heartbreaking all at once, with her suburban Baltimoreans struggling through their family crises; usually, there is no cataclysmic denouement, and if there is, it gets turned into a movie.
If you like Anne Tyler, you don’t mind the same characters turning up again and again — the ditzy but well-meaning housewife, the cranky, intelligent father figure/husband, the smart-mouthed but warm-hearted children. If you don’t like her, you probably stopped reading her a long time ago and you should stop reading this blog now and tune in next week. The gift, or the problem, depending upon which side of the fence you’re on, of the Anne Tyler novel is that you know exactly what you’re getting. Lovers may say her consistency is admirable, expert, insightful. Haters might say she is the McDonald’s of literary fiction. By now you know I usually lie in the former camp, but even I was really disappointed by this latest novel, which goes absolutely nowhere and is god-awfully depressing.
Liam Pennywell is a sixty-one-year-old school teacher who has recently been fired. He takes this sacking as an opportunity to clean out what little he has left of his life, and moves into a sad little bachelor apartment with as little furniture and mementos as he can. A veteran of two failed marriages, he is the Anne Tyler character who accepts his fate in life without much questioning, much to the anger and chagrin of his three adult daughters. The first night he moves in, he is bopped on the head by an intruder and ends up in the hospital, slightly worse for wear but more to the point, completely unclear as to what has happened to him. He remembers everything up to the assault, but not the assault itself.
Lest you think Tyler has suddenly morphed into Richard Price, I am here to assure you that no, she has not. I wish she had, because Noah’s Compass would have been a lot more interesting and insightful if she’d delved into the reasons of the assault, and possibly the life of the assailant. But no, the burglary is simply a hook on which to hang all her Tyler-isms on the nature of relationships and fate.
In fact, as the novel wears on, the burglary/assault really means nothing at all. Liam, for reasons that are unclear apart from perhaps his sheer lack of anything better to do, becomes obsessed with finding his memory of the night in question. In trying to understand his amnesia, he meets Eunice, a stock Tyler character: the zany female whose natural — some would say base — intentions are meant to shake the male from his suburban slumber. Eunice is a minder for an elderly wealthy gentleman afflicted with Alzheimer’s; her job is to function as a human datebook, an “external hard drive,” prodding him quietly with names and dates and comments so he may appear as a functioning senior citizen. Liam decides she may be the one to help him with his amnesia, and thus embarks on a relationship that seems doomed from the outset (unless this is The Accidental Tourist II, which it certainly is not).
Tyler is an exceptional writer, no doubt about it; her descriptions of people and familial relationships are so spot on it’s scary. As in most Tyler novels, the people in the periphery are the ones with the real insights; in this case, when Liam’s daughters lay into him for all his character flaws, you know they speak the truth. They describe him as emotionless, out-of-touch, with a pathological fear of confrontation. He, in turn, says his divorce was due to his being “not forthcoming,” and is puzzled why his daughters are “always mad about something.”
The problem with Noah’s Compass is that nobody really changes. Liam is no wiser at the conclusion about his failed marriages than he was at the beginning. His daughters seem no less fed up. His love interest fades away, another victim of Liam’s inability to connect. It is all very depressing and opaque, and if Tyler hadn’t imparted such a positive, hopeful message in her previous novel, Digging to America (about adoption, blood ties and loyalty) then I really would throw in the towel on her.
Readers, please don’t throw in the towel on “52 Views.” (Look at the subtitle: it reads “an attempt.” An attempt!) I may not be precisely on track, but I’m optimistic that June will be a much more fruitful month.