Whether it’s fact or fiction, nothing makes a story more appealing to me than the characters. I like to know how other people see the world. How other people see them. What motivates them. What they expect from life, and how they react to its joys and disappointments. Even such despicables as Adolph Hitler have powers to fascinate. Thankfully, Hitlers are rare and few.
Novelist Anne Tyler is a master of memorable characters. Through more than twenty novels she has minimized plot and focused her attention on people. I personally find Jeremy Pauling, the reclusive artist in Celestial Navigation, her most well-developed creation.
“Jeremy Pauling saw life in a series of flashes,” Tyler writes, “moments so brief that they could arrest a motion in mid-air … Between flashes, he sank into darkness.”
Though in his late thirties, Jeremy still lives in his mother’s crumbling Baltimore boarding house. Pampered, dreamy and agoraphobic, he drifts between bouts of lethargy and compulsion to create strange art collages from whatever he finds lying around the house – Dixie cups, copper wire, shoelaces, bits of clothing, children’s toys. The results, combined with his uncanny talent for winning magazine contests, are compelling enough to earn him a modest living, though his art might never have seen the light of day without the help of his agent. For Jeremy is incapable of facing responsibility.
“These are some of the things that Jeremy Pauling dreaded: using the telephone, answering the doorbell, opening mail, leaving his house, making purchases. Also wearing new clothes, standing in open spaces, meeting the eyes of a stranger, eating in the presence of others, turning on electrical appliances. Some days he woke to find the weather sunny and his health adequate and his work progressing beautifully; yet there would be a nagging hole of uneasiness deep inside him, some flaw in the center of his well-being, steadily corroding around the edges and widening until he could not manage to lift his head from the pillow.”
His two sisters fail in their efforts to improve him. When dragged from the house to the funeral home where his mother awaits burial, Jeremy collapses to the sidewalk, trembling – not from grief, but inertia, finally led back home and bedded down like a patient.
The boarders who share his mother’s house accept Jeremy’s peculiarities. They feed him when he forgets to eat and try to forge a relationship with him, though his mind always seems to be elsewhere. His work seems corrosive, rather than fulfilling. As one character puts it, “Sometimes it seemed to me that Jeremy got up looking like other men and then faded away as he worked, as if art erased him somehow.” The house itself “seemed like an old person, all rattling bones and coughs and stale breaths.”
Yet not even Jeremy is immune to the charms of a new boarder who comes to live with her young daughter. That development becomes an important crossroads on his aimless path.
Celestial Navigation is the darkest of Anne Tyler’s works. Even so, she manages to draw you effortlessly into worlds whose characters linger in memory well beyond the final page. Like his collages, Jeremy Pauling is a fascinating, if doomed, work of art.