Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Noah's Compass (or Anne Tyler's Accuracy)

Take this scenario: two people, having a hesitant, stop-start affair, discovered by the woman’s husband. In a conventional novel we know pretty much how this kind of scene would play out: a big emotional bust-up, revelation, confession, violence. In an Anne Tyler novel, however, no such obvious routes are taken. Instead, Tyler constructs the scene so that the reader undergoes a startling perspective shift and we see the husband not as the insensitive bore the wife has constructed him as but rather as a friendly, human, touchingly oblivious, kind of nice guy. The encounter changes the lovers’ relationship, all right, but not in the way we - or they - would have anticipated. It’s a scene that exemplifies this wonderful writer’s ability to subvert and surprise in the subtlest ways.

Tyler is a rarity among contemporary novelists in that she never allows the reader to form a reductive judgment on her protagonists. No one view of a character is ever sufficient in a Tyler novel, no one perspective on a situation can ever convey its total meaning. Noah’s Compass is another radiant, delightful novel from her. It doesn’t have the blinding emotional punch of her last two books, The Amateur Marriage (2004) and Digging To America (2006): it’s slighter, less expansive, and not so adventurous in structure. But the novel’s depiction of its 60-year-old protagonist Liam’s stumble into and out of love (or something like it) is honest, surprising and compelling.

Despite her reputation for being, in the words of one critic, “nutra-sweet”, there’s a deadly accuracy to Tyler’s work, a sharpness of insight, an emotional intelligence that blows apart that definition. The warmth and humanity, the compassion and humour, of her writing, never entirely negates its melancholy undertow, the sense that, as Liam comes to recognise, “life in general was heartbreaking”. Tyler understands that few people get the lives they want or feel they deserve with the people they want or feel they deserve and she’s interested in how that’s negotiated. The awkwardness of familial and other social interactions is her forte, and few novelists have ever conveyed it better. Reading her, you feel that your perceptions have been sharpened by about 80%.
Of Liam's relationship with his mother, the narrator muses: “Funny, it used to be so simple to sum his mother up, but now that he looked back he seemed to be ambushed by complexities”. To read Tyler is to be ambushed by complexities: the complexity of interacting with other people, of understanding the self and the world. She’s at once the least pretentious and the wisest of contemporary writers, and you dive into her work with gratitude.

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