We meet sixty-years-old Liam Pennywell in Noah’s Compass is divorced and recently laid off from a job of irritations and offenses…poor grammar, dusty scuffed corridors, interminable after-school meetings, emails, and endless paperwork (Wey, wey, wey!)—
It was just as well […] things seemed to have taken a downward turn a long, long time ago.
When? Which begs the question—Why or What? But Liam is vague, as though he’d never put these questions to himself. Mr. Pennywell seems to have fallen in a well and is separated from his thoughts.
He consoles himself with the prospect that his job loss will push him to the next stage. Lacking vision, though, Liam sees the next stage as “the summing-up stage”—a dismal time of conclusion, like a day of reckoning or judgment day—when “he’ll sit in his rocker reflecting on what, in the end, it all means”.
Liam explains to his grandson that—
Noah didn’t need a compass, or a rudder, or a sextant. He didn’t need sails on his ark, either, because the whole world was underwater. There’s no place to go in a drowned world.
And neither does Liam need such an instrument, as Liam, bobbing up and down, is merely trying to stay afloat.
This is the story of his navigation from no place in a drowned world, one for which a device as primitive as a compass could not align its points without a north star—his past, his when, why, and what—to guide the passage from inertia to a future horizon.
Liam is alone. Kitty’s boyfriend Damien and Bundy, his one pal from work, help Liam move from his large, dignified apartment, leaving before the traditional end-of-moving-day pizza. Settling into the beige-carpeted, cinderblock box on the outskirts of the city, Liam concedes to nest on the outskirts of life.
And while experiencing life as if it were an unexpected wave breaking over his heads, leaving him defeated and bewildered, Liam maintains his melancholy denial of loss, claiming that "he’d accumulated far too many encumbrances". And indeed, one suspects a slew of such denials to have dammed up his hope and confidence, his memory, like a cerebral blockage.
"This will likely be his final dwelling place," Liam reflects on his first night in the new apartment.
How did he end up alone? Liam tallies his achievements—two failed marriages that have peopled his life with a condescending ex-wife, three preoccupied, impatient daughters, and a dismissive sister he seldom speaks to—all of whom consider him so obtuse they call him Mr. Magoo, and all for whom he is torn between a desire to belong and a desire to escape. And from this ambivalence, besides winning a philosophy award in college, Liam has spent his life failing and betraying his promise with a series of low-paying jobs.
How does a series of low-paying jobs equate with betrayal? It doesn’t.
HINT # 1: Securing work at the expense of his pride, rather than feeling the fallout of humbling himself, Liam points a finger in his chest and pronounces him guilty of betraying the women in his life.
On his first night in his “final dwelling place,” a burglar assaults him. Liam awakes in a hospital bed, minus a few hours of his memory gone.
“Fastened down like Gulliver.” Liam compares himself to a character that wakes up in a foreign world, one for which he is miss-sized. On some level, Liam knows he is larger than the world he’s created.
But lacking vision, Liam fails to steer the rudder of his ark, which makes himself easy prey for unsolicited intruders. His sister arrives bearing beef stew, though he doesn’t eat meat. His ex-wife Barbara drops by for a cursory clean-up; his mysteriously aggrieved daughter Xanthe arrives, only to leave in a huff, accusing him of harboring his assailant; his fundamentalist middle daughter Louise drops off Jonah; and his 17-year-old daughter Kitty takes it upon herself to move in for the summer.
HINT #2: A person without the ability to police his boundaries is a person who has, historically, had his boundaries overruled.
Armed to the tooth with complaints, neither bothers to understand Liam’s fixation with retrieving a presumably traumatic event.
Liam, though, sees it as “his true self had a crucial experience without him—AND—failed to come back afterward.”
HINT #3: We know he came back from this, so what is he actually referring to? Liam doesn’t know.
“A hole, it felt like. A hole in his mind, full of empty blue rushing air.” And accurately so, as he is defined by absences: a widower and divorcee with three daughters who roll their eyes at his shortcomings.
HINT #4: It occurred prior to these absences.
To address what feels to him like a serious affliction, Liam sees a neurologist.
“I’m missing a piece of my life,” he says. The neurologist replies, telling him, “You’re missing lots of chunks …but you don’t dwell on those, now, do you?”
HINT #5: The statement suggests that perhaps he should.
Liam hones in on Eunice, a “rememberer” who works for Ishmael Cope, a silent character “who doesn’t know him”.
HINT #6: Ishmael Cope embodies Liam’s plight, as he is and has been coping with being an Ishmael, a boy who was ostracized by his parents and exiled to a foreign land to begin anew and alone.
Perhaps, like Ishmael Cope, Liam, too, is rich and has developed much. But, cut off from his past, he is unable to remember and to keep his future appointments. Liam is in need of a “social facilitator”.
Losing his memory "was that it felt like losing control. Something had happened, something significant, and he couldn’t say how he’d comported himself."—which Liam wants to know even more than who had attacked him.
HINT #7: Liam is all about proper behavior, about observing the rules, which alludes to a fatal flaw, that Liam sees himself as a transgressor. In other words, when Liam allows himself to live, he does so at the expense of others.
In the character of Jonah, we see a portrait of Liam as a man swallowed by a whale. As well, we learn that Liam, cringing at his grandson’s drawing, becomes anxious when one paints outside the intended lines.
Fixating on the inappropriately young Eunice as a talisman who might provide the key that unlocks his memory is a significant departure for Liam. As she is clearly “outside the lines”, Liam actually empowers her to free him of his amnesiac ways. Taking him to a cafe, Liam’s unsettled by the mismatched chairs (heck, he’s unsettled by her name, which sounds like urine… something unclean.) His chair is a classroom model—a barebones, unadorned seat for a barebones, unadorned man with a barebones, unadorned life. And Eunice, of course, chooses a tacky, yellow vinyl piece from a dinette set. This aberration of a woman is about to break Liam’s habit of sitting upright with his hands loosely resting on his knees… a rather lifeless image.
We meet Liam’s PARENTS: “That hurts my feelings” was Liam’s mother’s most characteristic saying, that and pushing her plate away, insinuating that her son caused her to lose her appetite.
Visiting his father—who wasn’t the type to dress casually even to mow the lawn—Liam hopes to learn about himself. Instead, he sits before a facade who has nothing to say to him. “We’re doing fine, not bad at all.” What, then, can Liam say when asked, “How are the girls?” Naturally, “Everyone’s fine.” The two men had nothing between them. “Why did Liam have to learn this over and over on each visit?”
Ester, “your step-mother,” was too sexy for a teenage boy to physically approach. At the time his father became her husband, something as benign as a greeting felt taboo to the hormone-possessed male. Liam saw his responsible as keeping an appropriate distance. The cost of this responsibility? If he wasn’t at liberty to engage his father’s wife, then his father’s wife becomes a mote, walling off his father.
Ester reads his palm, finding that “his past is obscured by a scar”, and tells him that you can’t know the future without knowing the past. “They’re intermingled, play off each other. Your future depends on your past. It keeps shifting about, it’s not carved in stone. It keeps bouncing off what happened earlier. Those who forget the past regret the future.”
HINT # 8: It’s not carved in stone… there’s hope for Liam.
His father and Ester argue, and Liam, who came for insight, is made to feels like a begging child. “It wasn’t his fault,” he tells himself. Why? Because he feels like it is his fault. He is to blame for the dissolution of his parent’s marriage.
CHARACTER ARC. The suspicious noises Liam had always covered up, he now actively pursues. He tries to explain to Barbara, saying—
"All along, it seemed, he had experienced only the most glancing relationship with life. It’s as if I’ve never been entirely present in my own life.”
When Kitty enters, Barbara paraphrases Liam’s candid disclosure by saying, “Oh, we were just talking about Dean Martin.”
He’s so changed that he’s now more in touch with the human condition than the women in his life. It takes a crack on the head for him to make the connection, but he does, and his interest in recovering his memories of the assault fades as the enormity of his real loss confronts him.
At the onset of Liam’s story he says of his lonely existence—"It was just as well… things seemed to have taken a downward turn a long, long time ago.” But with his returning memory comes his emotions. You can hear now how it’s no longer okay when he reflects on the loss of Eunice—
“He had lost his last chance at love—he knew that. He was nearly 61-years-old… And he looked around at his current life… and knew this is how it would be all the way to the end. King John was not a good man, he had his subtle ways, and sometimes no one spoke to him for days and days and days.”
His remorse is inextricable to his criminal self. Liam is not a good man, according to him.
At Christmas, he gets Jonah a giraffe because he has become aware of Jonah’s fondness for giraffes. When Jonah says he likes elephants, too, Liam hears this and has an emotional response that ensures he will not forget this new tidbit. In the gift exchange, we see that Liam now knows others and is, in return, known. In essence, Liam is born again, as to know and be known lies at the heart of the human condition.
When downplaying Kitty’s whereabouts, he’s perceived as confirming their hunches that he doesn’t know where she is. They don’t see that Liam is changing. Liam, for once, not only knows where his daughter is, but when to expect her return, as well as the assurance that Kitty will return promptly, following through on her word.
He tries to interact with Damon, but finds it difficult. Liam has an opinion.
Liam remembers how Barbara once gave away their Christmas tree. He laughs, as the memory came back in vivid detail, ushering the original emotional response, whether or not he had it at the time. Kitty experiences neither the memory or the response.
“The trouble with discarding bad memories was that the good ones went with them.”
Liam experiences a sense of contentment with the resurgence of his memories. Rather than defeated self-pity, he is okay with spending Christmas alone. While driving back to his apartment, he thinks—
“If only the roads could be as empty everyday as they are today… a smooth ride with no lights.”
To translate the metaphor—
How nice for life to be unobstructed, to be able to proceed from intersection to intersection without being made to stop by one’s “red lights” …without being overwhelmed, without being unable to process events and creating traffic jam that paralyzes him. (…as compared to outset of storyà"he’d accumulated far too many encumbrances" that had dammed up his memory like a cerebral blockage.)
Suddenly Liam is aware that the rocker he’d envisioned himself seated in through his later years does not fit his body.
Returning to the classroom, teaching three-year-olds, is rather sublime. Newly reborn, Liam goes back to the beginning.
Tidwell claims to have Liam’s cure-all, that if he hears her son out, he’ll regain his memory. But Liam’s moved beyond the incident and is now wondering—
“Where’s everything else I’ve forgotten? My childhood, my youth, my first and second marriage, the growing up of my daughters?”
REVELATION (chpt 12): Why, he had amnesia all along.
And here comes the memories. Tidwell’s manipulation brings his mother to mind. Regarding Liam going away to school, she says, “How could you?” In other words—
Liam’s autonomy is not virtuous, nor is living his life a free and benign right. For Liam, living his life is tantamount to parental abandonment, to neglecting the needs of others—the inordinate, excessive, unreasonable, fallacious needs of the central woman in his life.
From this emotional scar, his mother has created a trigger. Her intrusiveness has caused Liam to have inordinate fear of being intruded upon, of having his boundaries violated, of being swallowed up by need (hence, he has been a “Jonah”). This is paralyzing because Liam’s been made to feel responsible. On the one hand, his mother gave him a savior complex, saddling him with liabilities vastly exceeding the powers of a child, young man, and adult son. On the other hand, she’s made him need-phobic.
His mother’s boxed him in a lose-lose double bind. He cannot meet her needs, to which there is no end.
Had his mother nurtured Liam’s needs, there’d be no story. Had she created a Disillusioned Superhero, one who spent his childhood attempting to fulfill his mother’s needs, he’d have been an angry overachiever. Instead, she’d produced an Unwilling Savior. Needs lead to failure, triggering Liam to shut down.
The memory brings back the apathetic voice we heard when we met Liam. He summates the event with all those like it, including those he’s perceived as such. A lesson learned—
“Somebody would always be saying something disapproving. No point in letting it get to him.” (Hence, amnesia.)
“Life is heartbreaking,” Liam says, as, in truth, Liam feels deeply. He’s not heartless in his prolonged exile. Life simply hurt too much to remain present. One is not grown into a persona marked by disillusion or unwillingness apart from a fiery core of pain, as both are coping responses.
Millie had been like a water fairy. She seemed to flow when he met her. Ah, to flow! How alluring to one who is dammed up. Liam’s paralysis was a prison he longed to break free from.
But Millie wasn’t as free as he thought (how like the wounded psyche to make a glimmer of light into a blazing sun) and succumbing to postnatal depression, Liam sunk into his swamp.
Liam refers back to his mother, how he’d seen the complex nature of emotions as she was dying. Then he continues reflecting on Millie’s decline. He’d thought, “Oh, just go ahead and die” and wonders if this indicates he’d known that she was suicidal. Logically, he says no, but we’ve seen his trigger and his habitual reflex. Contrary to Liam’s denial, once again he succumbs to a numbed haze. How tragic—Liam translates his frustration—a normal, human emotion—into evidence convicting him of blame. Liam failed to save her.
On another level, Liam blamed her for her unhappiness. He felt superior and wondered why she didn’t just pull herself together—
If only others could shut down like he can.
How true of life. We look at the immunities acquired by our emotional scars and recognize them as strengths, failing to see their darker flip side. Strengths that arise from learning to survive the system are born of fear and come at the expense of something intrinsically human. Fear and love are diametrically opposed and as such, our defenses diminish the panorama of beauty and truth. By limiting our recognition of our strengths, we limit our recognition of our world. Engaging it with limitations intact is like choosing to forget the bad memories while hoping to retain the good ones.
Crisis inflames Liam’s aversion to need. To the women attempting to help him after Millie’s death, he says, “He’s not angry, he’s brisk and efficient.” And yet, he fantasizes about being alone, undisturbed, and unneeded by a single human being.
Though only a baby, for Liam, a woman in despair is his failure. Xanthe’s needs overwhelm him. Shutting down inwardly, it’s only a matter of time before Liam’s care of Xanthe begins to erode.
The stress of being needed at work and at home, the ancient double-bind, Liam begins resenting holidays. To worsen matters, he needs to rely on his mother to take care of Xanthe. Imagine. He must send his kid off to the slaughter, to be subjected to his lot. The shutting down, shutting Xanthe out, becomes more complete.
And then comes Barbara—she needed nothing. So what if she didn’t flow like Millie. He didn’t want to feel acutely attached anyway. He wouldn’t make a big to-do this time.
Barbara must have wanted so much underneath, but he had failed to give it. If only he had, he’d have saved their world from imploding.
Liam actually, knowingly failed to uphold his responsibilities. Liam became the culprit his mother made him out to be.
ENTER EUNICE. She woke him up. Liam feels emotion. And he loses her. Liam feels emotion.
MAJOR PIVOT POINT. Kitty comes asking for a favor, presenting Liam with need. He’s only just climbing from his well… awaking from his “coma” …when she asks if she can stay the school year.
Liam thinks, “So much noise all of a sudden (feeling overwhelmed). He felt in a haze (classic response).
Anyone want breakfast? He asks.
Breakfast! It’s 11:00.
I got a late start, says Liam. (metaphorically speaking)
I’ll say you did.
It’s the weekend, Liam says. (metaphorically)
You look like a homeless person, Kitty says. (A man without a life is as homeless as it gets.)
It’s the weekend, Liam says again.
If life is a day, Liam is getting a late start. But, for once, he’s willing, wanting, to start. And if life were a week, what’s left of his will be the weekend.
THE TRANSFORMATION BEGINS
Liam has a new state of mind, a weekend state of mind or lens through which he sees his world. It’s no longer about jobs and prestigious positions (which was one of the ways he failed the women), it’s about the moment and engaging/ enjoying the people in his world.
BUT HERE COMES THE TEST
Liam is presented with Kitty’s request—with NEED, his arch nemesis. On one hand, he had his privacy and comfortable solitude. On one the other, he felt an “odd sense of relief.”
Attempting to postpone the decision, Kitty reminds him of the time. School begins in two weeks. Implied is, Hello, this is your late breakfast, remember? This is your weekend life? “I’ll have to think,” he says, stalling for time.
Kitty drops into her “prayerful pose”… becoming the Unwilling Savior’s savior. She persists. “It’s not fair. I’ve never lived with you. In my whole, entire life, all I’ve had is this little bit of summer.”
She again shows him the time. “After this, I’ll be in college. You’ll never have another chance at me.” Interestingly, she doesn’t say, I’ll never have another chance.
Ironically, Kitty plays the role of the savior, not by denying her needs or conceded her life to an unreasonable parent, but by standing up for herself and fighting for what is rightfully hers.
Liam is at the threshold. Saying yes to Kitty, they will visit Barbara. Kitty says, “I hope you’ll shave, change your clothes”… dress for life. Come on, dad, cross over. Make a commitment, look the part. In my whole, entire life, I’ve only had this... so I need you to make a whole, entire commitment.
The savior requires total reentry.
Liam’s response—“he can do it, once he’s had his breakfast.” In other words, Liam is now an emotional human. Let me catch up with my decision and take the last emotional steps to cross over.
RECOVERY: En route to Barbara’s, they will drop Damien off. The author gives yet another metaphor. First, exiting the car, Damien waves, without turning to look back. Second, despite his cast, which is gray with dirt and scribbled over with graffiti, Damien makes a one-handed catch of the football. The point? Though on the mend, Liam is still equipped to enjoy life. And his cast will be shortened on Tuesday, giving him the use of his elbow, which will allow him to drive. The point? Very soon, Liam will proficient with the basics.
Recovery is coming. It will be incremental. Don’t expect an overnight reversal of fortune. Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t do it all immediately.
Driving into his old neighborhood, replete with life everywhere he looks, Liam enters responsibly, driving slowly, breaking to defer to children. He recalls the precautions he took with his young daughters at the duck pond. Fearing she’d fall in, Liam grabbed hold of Louise, but Xanthe once fell through the cracks and landed in the pond. In failing to protect her, both Xanthe and Louise ended up in tears.
HINT #9: The next threshold to cross—if you fail to protect one child, you’ve lost credibility and have alienated all. But fear not, recovery is coming.
Liam is glad Barbara remained in the old neighborhood. Though he couldn’t handle her needs, he still wanted to envision her life.
Kitty points out that Xanthe is at the house. Liam doesn’t know this because he doesn’t know what car Xanthe drives. He’s shocked to learn she’s traded in her previous vehicle. From his vantage, it’s as if she’s suddenly, and without cause, moved on.
Not a word of psycho babble. Liam, I am. Pennywell, a well of thoughts.
L – i – am
Penny for your thoughts (penny = thoughts)
A lesser novelist would have been heavy-handed, overtly demonstrating how Liam found his compass in a tromp through his memories. Tyler avoids clichéd resolution. Her observation of everyday detail is so unassuming, so exact in the placement of each word, that it is easy to let it glide over you like an overheard conversation, failing to realize quite brilliantly she finessed this work. She focuses on the mundane, on the tiny details of ordered lives lived on the brink of disruption, on the tensions between what is said and what is meant. She chooses subtlety over grandeur; she thinks in minuscule rather than capital letters.
The dignity of this novel owes a lot to the power of omission. Absence permeates the novel and is a major theme– the writing style is minimalist and Liam has lost his job, his memory and has little connection with family and friends. Ms. Tyler has done a wonderful job of capturing the emptiness and barely concealed despair of many modern day lives without creating a depressing read. This is a touching, gently humorous and ultimately optimistic book.
The action in Noah’s Compass is as muted as its hero, but make no mistake. Though very little in Liam’s life has changed, he is completely transformed. "I’ll be fine," Liam says near the end, "and he meant it."
“So tiring sometimes, this business of engaging with other human beings," he muses.
Liam’s first wife, whom he’d “pursued single-mindedly,” killed herself and left him with a toddler. Unable to respond to the magnitude of his loss, Liam abandoned his job as a university instructor and moved back to Baltimore to be near his mother and sister. He began teaching high school history and married a cheerful, self-reliant woman with whom he had two more daughters, and who divorced him when she could no longer stand his “glancing relationship with his own life.”