Monday, July 8, 2013

Celestial Navigation examines lives of quiet desperation

Celestial Navigation, a novel by Anne Tyler
Published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. (1974)

The protagonist of Anne Tyler's Celestial Navigation is Jeremy Pauling, a reclusive and misunderstood artist who rarely ventures outside of his studio. With a less talented writer, Jeremy's character might have remained a cliché, a starving artist who sacrifices friends and family for the higher calling of his art. But Tyler brings a level of nuance and understanding to this flawed individual and presents him as a multi-dimensional human being.

Admittedly, Jeremy is not a likeable character (he's selfish, indulgent, cowardly, uncharitable), but in this novel he becomes fully realized. That's what makes Tyler such a compelling writer: she makes even dull and ordinary characters half interesting, if not intriguing. Readers may be not impressed with Jeremy and the life he's chosen for himself, but one must admire Tyler's ability to bring all aspects of his character to life.

As Celestial Navigation opens, Jeremy's mother has passed away, and when his two sisters appear on the scene they discover that their brother is holed up inside the family home. He has taken no responsibility for his mother's burial (a mother who doted on him her entire life), nor has he made an effort to pay his final respects at the funeral home. My first impression is that Jeremy either suffers from a mental illness or has been involved in a debilitating accident.

As the story progresses, however, the real story about Jeremy unfolds through his interactions with several other characters (and respective points of view), including his sisters and his boarders -- in particular a boarder named Mary who will eventually become Jeremy's love interest. One of the pleasures of an Anne Tyler novel is not so much the intricacies of plot and fireworks, but the richness of detail and subtly that she works into her narrative, like a brilliant painter introducing shades of colour and light that have never been imagined before.

The characters in Celestial Navigation (as in other Tyler novels) are unremarkable. They aren't cheerleaders or football stars. They lead lives of quiet desperation and live in the shadows. But these lives, as desperate as they, are not without purpose or nobility. With a continuous layering upon of details, and an ability to enter the minds of her characters and to reveal their innermost thoughts, Tyler portrays them with an astonishing degree of clarity and accuracy.

After reading Celestial Navigation, my opinion of Jeremy Pauling didn't change much, but I did walk away with a deeper appreciation for what makes him tick. He is an artist who spends the majority of his life working inside a studio and has barely any involvement with the outside world. To be sure, he marches to the beat of a different drummer and seems entirely okay with that. In this novel, Tyler pretty much nails him, for better or worse.


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