Monday, January 25, 2010

How Would I Describe Anne Tyler's New Novel? Meh.

You all know that I love Anne Tyler and consider her one of the great underappreciated novelist. But I have to admit that I was not so in love with her new book. Noah's Compass, which is Tyler's 17th novel, isn't bad. It just isn't particularly good either. It was one of those books that provided a nice time while I was reading it, but which ultimately frustrated me when I put it down for the last time.

The book has a very Tyler-ian plot. Liam Pennywell, 61, is attacked in his new apartment not long after losing his teaching job. The blow to his head ends up not being particuarly serious, but the fact that he can't remember anything about the attack and its immediate aftermath really bothers him. Meanwhile, Tyler shows his relationships with his ex-wife, daughters, and grandson to be riddled with failures to connect. A new love interest, the goofy Eunice, finally shakes up his boring life a bit. But (SPOIL ALERT) nothing quite works out the way Liam imagined it would. In the end, Noah's Compass is a book about memory and personal failure and how the term "growing old gracefully" is a bunch of crap.

Although she gets lumped in with loads of other women writers who concentrate on domestic life, Tyler has never been as sentimental as many of her peers. She obviously loves her characters and treats them with care, but she isn't afraid to end things on a sour note or leave people feeling lost and unhappy. I've always liked this aspect about Tyler. Her novel Saint Maybe, which is one of my favorite books, just lets its characters be without forcing them into schmaltzy endings or sentimental confrontations. Sometimes, people die still being mad at each other. Sometimes, they remain unaware of their impact on other people for the rest of their days. But for some reason, this exact sense of human honesty that I loved so much in Saint Maybe really turned me off in Noah's Compass.

I think I mostly disliked the book because I didn't really like any of the characters. In fact, now that I'm thinking about it, not a single one of them particularly piqued my interest or compassion. Tyler drew them well enough, without judgment, but I just didn't really care what happened to them by the end. Liam is kind of an asshole, and even though I think we're supposed to find his love interest Eunice charming and quirkly, she mostly got on my last nerve. And then, in the twist about Eunice towards the end, I began to actually hate her, even though I don't think Tyler meant for me to feel that way. It's hard to read a book where you don't want to spend any more time with any of the characters than necessary.

This doesn't mean Tyler has lost her touch, though. In fact, I think if she had pared the book down to a 40-page short story, it would have been quite wonderful (actually, one of my few complaints about Tyler is that she doesn't seem to realize the potential of the short fiction form). Where Saint Maybe was masterful in its use of narration and its handling of time and space, Noah's Compass felt padded and a little too uncontrolled. In fact, about half-way through the book, Tyler makes a mistake in the novel's timing (not matching up character's ages to events that happened to them) that I couldn't believe an editor or proofreader never noticed. This kind of thing always depresses me when I read a book; I really like my authors to have tight reins on what they're doing.

So to conclude, I didn't hate it or love it. It just kind of exists. Although, I have noticed the book is getting good reviews in other places. So maybe it's just me.

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