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The Mysteries of Memory Unraveled


doi: 10.1097/01.NT.0000376083.83103.6c

Dr. McCammon is a voluntary associate clinical professor of neurology at the University of California-San Diego.

Noah's Compass. By Anne Tyler. 277 Pages. Alfred A Knopf 2009

Memory, from neurological to existential, permeates Anne Tyler's latest novel Noah's Compass. At age 61, Liam Pennywell's life is a downward spiral. He has just been fired from his job “teaching fifth grade at a second-rate private boys' school.” He is twice divorced and has little contact with his three daughters. He loves philosophy but never finished his doctoral dissertation. A smaller apartment in the Baltimore suburbs will be his “final dwelling place.” “No new prospects were likely for him,” he figures. “This is it…the very end of the line.”

And then, of course, something happens. An intruder comes in through an unlocked patio door, and Liam awakens in the hospital with a bandaged head and lacerated left hand, recalling nothing of the attack. The description of how he feels after a concussion rings true. But far more than his physical pain, the loss of memory obsesses him. The hospital staff is businesslike and efficient once it is clear that he is out of danger, his daughters berate him for his apparent carelessness, and no one fathoms his distress that “a part of my life has been stolen from me.”



Hoping for answers, Liam consults a neurologist, the father of a pupil he tutored years before and an expert in “insults to the brain.” Dr. Morrow's history and examination are cursory at best, and either he misses Liam's near hysterical concern or he declines to open Pandora's box. Liam wants human, not medical, reassurance that he is not losing his mind. The patients in the waiting room depress him further. Neurology, Liam observes, “is a distressing specialty.” He is particularly struck by an old man with obvious memory problems accompanied by a young woman who acts as his “rememberer,” providing names and other social cues. Liam feels he needs a rememberer himself.

The old man is Ishmael Cope, a billionaire developer, whom Liam essentially stalks, eventually striking up a friendship with Eunice, his caregiver. Liam's lonely life becomes more complicated by his growing infatuation with this rather frumpy, much younger woman and by increasing involvement with his family. He babysits his grandson, argues with his older daughters, and allows his youngest daughter, a rebellious teenager, to move in with him. She manipulates her father to escape her mistrustful mother, Liam's second wife, and their constant arguments.

As the story evolves, memory in all its strangeness becomes a central theme. Liam's older sister describes events of his early childhood that seem unbelievable. A chance remark brings back images from his oldest daughter crying inconsolably in her crib. Free associations lead in unexpected directions and often he finds “something bothering the far corners of his mind, something casting a shadow.”

Gradually family secrets, grudges, and misunderstandings come to light. Everyone is wounded and determined to avoid emotional pain. People look for someone to blame but also desperately demand that others make them happy. They remember selectively and often see what they want to see. To protect a good image of themselves, characters are by turns devious, self-serving, and insensitive to others.

What seems like a promising relationship with Eunice runs into trouble over her honesty, although Liam has not been entirely straightforward either. Liam's father advises him to “grab whatever happiness comes your way,” but our hero lacks the courage. Two-thirds of the way into the novel, the plot seems to stall.

Out of the blue, Liam's assailant, a young man who robbed multiple apartments in the complex, is caught, and in a scene both hilarious and appalling the young man's mother, Bootsie Twill, one of Liam's neighbors, appears at his door. She wants Liam to be a character witness at her son's trial for robbery. He's a good kid, she insists, dyslexic and the product of a broken home, maybe “bipolar or whatchamacallit, ADD.”

“Bootsie, says Liam,” your son assaulted me, did you know that? Yes, she replies, “but he didn't take anything, now, did he?” Liam should meet her son so he could hear his side of the story, and maybe seeing him might “bring it all back to your mind.”

Liam discovers that he no longer cares about remembering the attack. Instead, he wonders, “Where's everything else I've forgotten?” “All along, it seemed, he had experienced only the most glancing relationship with his own life. He had dodged the tough issues, avoided conflicts, gracefully skirted adventure.” For someone who loves philosophy, he has not applied its wisdom to himself.

He recalls all the sad women in his life, beginning with his unhappy mother, abandoned by Liam's father and perpetually disapproving. His first wife, whom he loved at first sight, fell into depression, and committed suicide, leaving him to raise a toddler alone. He never grieves, and the loss derails his live. His easygoing second wife eventually tires of his emotional distance. She still treats him with kindness but finds him hopelessly inept.

Liam takes a job as a “zayda” in a daycare center, a vast improvement over sitting in his chair all day, and is popular with the children, noting with interest their personalities and how they make rules. Life is calm again, he enjoys his solitude. In fact, “He could almost convince himself that he'd never been wounded at all.”

Now, where does the title fit in? Noah didn't need a compass, Liam tells his grandson, because he wasn't going anywhere. He was just trying to stay afloat.

Tyler depicts ordinary people who live constricted but complicated lives. She treats her characters, with all their flaws and blind spots, with gentleness and humor. Her evocation of person or place has a precision and economy that makes one stop, reread and marvel at her skill as a writer. If you haven't sampled any of her previous seventeen novels, Noah's Compass is a good place to begin.

© 2010 American Academy of Neurology