By Brooke Allen
NE VERY SELDOM comes away from a novel detached from his three daughters. As for his professional
nowadays wishing that it were longer. The age record, it has been a series of comedowns. First there was his
of the word processor and the eclipse of the failure to complete his doctoral dissertation and his consola-
publisher’s editor has encouraged logorrhea tion post as a classical history teacher at a prep school; then he
and self-indulgence, so most such literary works failed at that job.
exceed their natural length by at least a hundred pages. But Liam has adopted the sort of dumb passivity that grips many
Noah’s Compass (Knopf, 277 pp., $25.95), Anne Tyler’s 18th aging men who lack the courage to look into their own souls.
novel, is a striking exception to the current trend. It is also, I After losing his job, he downsizes by moving into a grim little
think, her best book to date. apartment block opposite a shopping mall and subsisting on
This bare-bones aesthetic is something new for Tyler. Previ- easy, bland fare like canned soup. Even his décor is imperson-
ously she tended to meander and be chatty, reveling in the al, with pictures like “van Gogh prints, French bistro posters,
world’s messy yet life-giving clutter. Noah’s Compass is an ex- whatever he’d chosen haphazardly years and years ago just to
perimental departure for her, an effective attempt to come up save his walls from total blankness.” Liam’s passivity is accen-
with a stylistic counterpart to her protagonist’s mental state: tuated by its contrast with the vitality of the women in his life:
Liam Pennywell is a man who has suppressed so much of his his successful sister, his dominant ex-wife Barbara, and his
emotional life that he hardly has any left. It is not an easy feat to daughters, who treat him with scant respect—not that he de-
make such a negative character carry a whole book, but Tyler serves any. “He knew his daughters thought he was hopeless.
has made it work quite brilliantly. They said he didn’t pay attention. They claimed he was obtuse.
“Sometimes I think my life is just . . . drying up and hard- They rolled their eyes at each other when he made the most in-
ening, like one of those mouse carcasses you find beneath a nocent remark. They called him Mr. Magoo.” Tyler has always
radiator,” Liam remarks. Sixty-one years old, he has recently recognized that America is a matriarchy, and her novels reflect
been laid off from teaching fifth grade at a second-rate boys’ that view; her typical plot contains unemotional or repressed or
private school in Baltimore. He takes the blow philosophical- silent men yoked to more dynamic women who usually func-
ly: “It could be just the nudge he needed to push him onto the tion as a life force. Characteristic examples are Macon and
next stage—the final stage, the summing-up stage.” If this Muriel in The Accidental Tourist, and Ira and Maggie in Breath-
sounds like the rationalization of a depressive, it is; so is his ing Lessons. Noah’s Compass conforms with this pattern, at
statement, later on, that “I am not especially unhappy, but I least at the beginning.
don’t see any particular reason to go on living.” Liam, however, On his first night in his new digs Liam neglects to lock
doesn’t know he is depressed. He simply thinks he is coas