22 thoughts on “Celestial Navigation – Anne Tyler

  1. At the beginning of this book before the novel starts – a laid-back blurb you might read if you pick it up in a bookshop to see if you want to buy it, given the time it might take to read it all, beyond this encapsulation…..

    About the Book
    Jeremy Pauling is a thirty-eight-year-old bachelor who has never left home. He has a passion for making sculptures out of odds and ends and he has a terror of beautiful women. The death of his mother leaves Jeremy in sole charge of her ramshackle old boarding house, and the arrival of a new lodger brings him a challenge he really can’t handle. Her name is Mary Tell.


    1 (Amanda 1960)

    “, a leaning tower of knitting magazines, peacock feathers stuck behind the mirror. Cloudy tumblers half full of stale water, a Scrabble set, a vaporizer, a hairbrush choked with light brown hair, an embroidery hoop, a paperback book on astrology, an egg-stained shawl, doilies on doilies, Sears Roebuck catalogues, ancient quilted photo albums, a glass swan full of dusty colored marbles, plants escaping their pots and sprawling along the windowsill. On the table beside me, a bottle of Jergens lotion and a magnifying glass and a patented news-item clipper. (How…”

    This is amazing material, pulling me along with long paragraphs of hallucinatory inertia and stagnancy, involving human lives and properties gone to seed, boarders in the apartments dragging these houses even further into spiritual as well as structural entropy. Aickman and Pinter, eat your hearts out, as we get to know and almost sympathise with Amanda, a spinster with still a bit of ‘go’ in her, her widowed sister Laura, and then there is their brother Jeremy, lumpish and ever sitting on the stairs in the house he never leaves and the house has just been left to him alone, left by the mother who doted on him and recently died on the stairs on him where he now sits. Nothing is expected of him, except by Amanda… the funeral arrangements and the sisters’ suitcases alike gone astray. The two sisters had come here to Baltimore from a distance away on being told that their mother had thus died. But died of what? Diets askew, too, mother and son. I lost the will to live when trying to remember all of it in this long chapter. But that was intentional on the text’s part, I guess. To make me feel like them and like Jeremy’s obsessive artworks that were probably hopeless but were a fine ‘ology’ loved by his mother who would have loved ANYTHING he created. Yet the ambiance of this book so far swaddles me with a need to read on. I shall eke out this book with a dietary savouring worthy of Laura and Jeremy, to see if I can digest it and make it into the apotheosis of the dulled-down creative paradoxically co-vivid dream for my own lockdown, an enforced lockdown unlike Jeremy’s self-imposed one… an inertia to die for. The prose style, meanwhile, is perfectly Proustian in a deliciously rich dulled-down way, too.

  2. Pingback: Spiritual Stagnancy | The Des Lewis Gestalt Real-Time Reviews

  3. 2 (Spring, 1961: Jeremy)

    “That was the way his vision functioned: only in detail. Piece by piece. He had tried looking at the whole of things but it never worked out.”

    I am not, though, the inverse of Jeremy! My goal of the gestalt is as probably as hopeless as Jeremy’s goals, his indecisions, his brown studies of thoughtless absence, if not his melting into angles and particles of rarifying artworks, the colour purple eschewed by one of his transitory art students, the women he found too beautiful to countenance, beauty being a difficulty in his emotional stakes, until the new boarder arrives with her small daughter, somewhat beauteous Mary Tell in her angles and particles, with an invisible apple on her head, I wonder!
    Memories of his mother’s death on the stairs blurring but focusing more in our own minds as readers, his two sisters now having gone home.
    The characterised sense of each boarder’s traits and habits, the earlier references to ‘coloreds’ in the neighbourhood and here remembering Jeremy’s Dad’s once references to ‘scary black men’, the fried bacon, the tiny 1960s TV set with a cowboy film on it, reference to the tea-and-toast syndrome, the competition coupons Jeremy collected as well as the ready-mades of art he found all over the house, the equally tactile and non-tactile synaesthesia that he suffers or enjoys while being fazed by it without reconciling what he really thought about it, if he was aware of it at all!
    All these things, piece by piece, quilting my own gestalt, if not his. THIS IS A MAJOR WORK DISCOVERED FOR ME, I AM BEGINNING TO THINK. (Thanks to the above person who recommended it out of the blue. I had never heard of Anne Tyler till then, shamed to say.)

  4. Again, I am so pleased about this! Sadly I have only enjoyed one other book by her, Patchwork Planet, but struggled a little with others. I sometimes think writers are at their best early. She thinks this one was the best she wrote. It hugely affected me, too.

  5. 3 (Spring and Summer, 1961: Mary)

    “We have a downstairs room. I know every crack and cranny of that room by now, the stains on the wallpaper and the old-lady smell and the roses worn to strings on the carpet.”

    Through a power of writing that creates a new narrator as Mary, her backstory somehow thus evolving, a simple woman with a six year old daughter Darcy, one man her husband, Guy Tell, and now a new man friend, John, with a camera, who enjoys taking photos of Darcy, and we learn about these people in a painless, if uninspiring, way … and Mary is now in the seedy boarding house where we readers all live now. She sees Jeremy, as a slug, but she can trust him with Darcy, his helping her play at art…
    The only real people are the sad ones?

    “I open library books that I can’t pin my mind to”

  6. 4 (Summer and Fall, 1961: Jeremy)

    “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.”

    Without exaggeration, I find this substantive chapter potentially one of the most expressive portraits of a certain individual in all literature. Made true and real, ironically through the power of fiction, a power that truth or reality arguably cannot manage. The music of well-positioned words.
    Expressionist, as well as expressive, too, beyond painting and those painters he has library books about, Klee, Braque, Miró, even the fat ladies in Rubens. Beyond his own once methodical, now ‘impatient’ collages of bric à brac, items of controlled ‘found art’ that can be related, inter alia, to Ouija boards. “He pictured irregular cones,…”

    His self-imposed hurdles. His conscientious and anxious rules of engagement when faced with ‘loving’ Mary Tell. His ploy, as just one example, in taking coffee to her (“‘I just made some coffee I wondered if you’d like some,’ he said all in a rush.”) reminding me amazingly of something I read earlier today by synchronicity in ‘The Secret in Their Eyes’ HERE, a sense of submission and awe when facing a woman one feels one loves but who is far beyond what one thinks one can attain.
    “How even to meet her eyes meant a suicidal leap into unknown waters?”
    Yes, the secret in the eyes, but he cannot look people in the eye, I recall, so he must, I guess, look just above her head?
    “‘Or wait. Is apple juice what I want?’ She turned toward Jeremy as if she expected him to answer, but Jeremy was looking at Mary.”

    The way he painstakingly and agonisingly works towards a marriage proposal and is finally misunderstood as propositioning her for failure to pay the rent as his boarder. Does she have devious motives, I ask myself?

    The way he slays dragons for her by going further afield from the house to accompany her and Darcy to a shop, and he becomes ill as a result. (His being phoned by his two sisters. I had forgotten about them!)

    The way he remembers the myrtle tree as a personal metaphor.

    “Could he ever feel as much at rest as he did sitting in this triangle of muted gray voices?”

    The way he listens to the cranking of Mary’s knitting-machine, out of which she can hardly make her living. (Cf yesterday’s contraption cranking into Mills of Silence, by chance, HERE.)
    A noise that haunts our co-vivid dreams, as it seems to do to his dreams.

    Then the most hilarious scenes where, when collapsed, he makes the most important proposal he had failed to do when standing…
    At least PRETEND to be married he hopes! And now he can actually look into her eyes?…
    “…her face appeared in his mind as it had looked at the moment of his turning—the smile fading, the eyes suddenly darker and more thoughtful.”

    “He pictured irregular cones,…” again, I wonder?

    [My own Celestial Navigation, meanwhile…is represented by my personal Natal Chart of Planetary Patterns that I posted to Instagram earlier this morning.]

  7. I have to say I have never identified with a character as much as Jeremy. It made me feel in touch with Tyler. Noticed. Even if… I won’t say.


    5 (Fall, 1968: Miss Vinton)

    “I took to sleeping in tomorrow’s underwear.”

    A most poignant portrait of Mary and Jeremy, and, by unconscious revelation, herself as a narrator and spinster who came to this boarding house when J’s mother was still alive, the lockdown that J maintains, in tension with his rare difficult venturing into the outside world for M and their children…

    “Someday, I believe, Jeremy is going to be a very famous man, but it is possible that no one will be allowed to see his work at all by then, not even strangers in museums.”

    “Some people take a terribly long time learning things.”

    “Sitting alone in a room reading a book, with no one to interrupt me. That is all I ever consciously wanted out of life.”

    “It’s strange how over the years Jeremy’s pieces have grown up. I mean physically, literally. They have doubled in size, and they are so deeply textured that they are almost sculptures. Ordinary objects are crowded into them—Dixie cups and bus tickets and his children’s plaid shoelaces, still recognizable—and his subjects are ordinary too, the smallest and most unnoticed scenes on earth. I found a man with a rake, a woman ironing a shirt, a child strapping on a roller skate. Their features were gone and they were bare of detail; they were layered over with the Dixie cups and the bus tickets. They made me sad.”

    …as this book’s mistressly Objective-Correlatives galore.

    I also sail by celestial navigation, I now realise or at least hope, when considering J and his collages, his life with M and their children, and when reading and reviewing my books in real-time as well as in my own version of that tension with being pulled outside from my almost welcome lockdown….one that applied even before Covid.

    This chapter deals with the birth of their first baby boy, Edward.

    ”The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.”
    T.S. Eliot

  9. 6 (Spring, 1971: Jeremy)

    “It seemed to him that all of his children were miniature Marys. He could find no physical resemblance to himself. He thought that was natural, for Mary’s pregnancies appeared to be entirely her own undertakings.”

    This book is becoming more and more a watershed reading moment for me. The characterisation and its correlative or collateral artefacts echoing each other.
    Collateral creativity as well as collateral damage.

    Collage ingredients Fridges galore as competition prizes Name identity
    Art gallery first time visit by Jeremy who now seems a successful artist, despite himself. Or because?

    “A fire engine with a key in its back wound itself down, its little red light blinking more and more slowly and the sound of its engine growing weaker.”

    “He had observed the world steadily swelling and involuting, developing new twists and whorls and clusters like some complicated cell mass—first inch by inch, then faster, so that now it seemed that after the briefest holing-up in his studio he could come back to find everything changed: people stranger, cars more vicious-looking, even the quality of light altered in some indefinable way. But he had kept up with things. He knew what was going on in the world. Mary underestimated him.”

    “There was nothing he could do they would not expect.”

    Olivia — whom Mary picks up as waif and stray, same age as Darcy.

    Memories of his Mother coupled with co-vivid Dream of escape from Baltimore
    Guy Tell and Mary’s mother-in-law
    J’s Versions of Mary in his mind, admires her instinct
    Brian, art manager …. J’s statue of him with other all manner of ingredients

    “…dream of being held prisoner in some confined and airless place.”

    “Wasn’t that what life was all about: steadfast endurance? In the dark, where his thoughts seemed more significant than they did in daytime, he decided that this was what made the difference between him and Mary.”

    “Surely, then, if ghosts existed he would have to become one; his restless spirit would be forced to return to haunt what he had left undone.”

    Wedding day opportunity because of Tell divorce
    But M Gone!
    Statue, again – words that become the found objects they describe.
    Dropped the ball, or balanced invisible apple?

    “At night, colors and shapes crowded his mind, elbowed each other aside, quarreled the way his children did: ‘Let me speak! No, let me speak!’ He traced outlines in the dark with his index finger. He pressed his thumbs against his lids to erase images that disturbed him—cones rising in a tower,…”

  10. 7 (Spring and Summer, 1971: Mary)

    “Actually, Jeremy forgot to marry me, Brian, and of course I could have reminded him but that would have been the third reminder on top of my proposing in the first place, and what kind of wedding is that?”

    Do we see more secrets in the first person singular of each character – here can we Tell Mary thus? – than in the eyes of those of a different first person singular? Or are ALL of these voices the author’s ‘voice’ of oversight depicting them, with such an author’s adept words of poetry and indirect narration, depicting their (un)reliable narratorships? Here Mary persuades Brian to allow them house room, all the kids plus Darcy, in his basic ramshackle cabin by the wild land water far out of Baltimore. They pass thus tellingly on the journey in Brian’s car more of J’s objective-correlatives of sculpture or collage …
    “We passed long avenues of service stations and cut-rate tire dealers and machine shops, and then oil refineries and warehouses and strange mechanical monsters standing alone in tangles of dry grass—electrical objects on wiry, spraddled legs, tanks and cylinders, gigantic motors with bolts as big as grown men and twisted black pipes that could suck up a house, all silent and unused.”
    And we can tell a lot more about her as an artist’s wife during this long period in isolation and about diffident Jeremy through words that become her eyes, and their explicit Rapunzel lockdown …

    “I had forgotten how desperately babies struggle to be vertical.”

    “We are like amoebas, encompassing and ingesting and adapting and moving on, until enormous events become barely perceptible jogs in our life histories.”

    [Also cross-reference my chance concurrent review about a first person singular loophole morphing periodically to a third person, here in ‘The Secret in Their Eyes’: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2021/03/27/the-secret-in-their-eyes-eduardo-sacheri/ ]

  11. I got my autism diagnosis not long before reading this book and realised I was both Jeremy AND the author. I hear she appeals to autistic men, and has suggested she might be herself.

  12. 8 (Spring through Fall, 1971: Olivia)

    “Well, it shouldn’t have surprised me. Actually she was a very ordinary woman, not at all what you’d expect of an artist’s wife. The wonder of it is that she ever had the good sense to marry him in the first place.”

    This novel, as it was suggested to me yesterday, is a patchwork quilt of a novel. And it does seem fitting that you are reading, in real-time, this my gestalt real-time review of this novel upon a communication vehicle where many such quilts from my own home have been featured visually over the years. And that, as I am also told, in due connection perhaps with the word ‘gestalt’, Tyler’s other great novel is entitled ‘A Patchwork Planet’…

    “The older you get the more you censor what comes into your head. Big blank spaces grow where you have snipped things out. You get like Miss Vinton and Mr. Somerset; you speak very slowly, spanning all those gaps.”

    A planet, as Olivia maintains, in her own first person singular, has Martians et al as part of its gestalt… and time loops. An instinctive osmosis she’s drawn from Jeremy? Whose ‘ craziness’ is shown by ‘smiles trembling at the corners of his lips’? Whatever the case, this patchwork is built up accretively by various first person singulars such as Olivia’s, Olivia who was the waif and stray I told you about before, as adopted by Mary, and now our next necessary viewpoint on the gestalt that is Jeremy, with him being one of those great characters in literature I have discovered. A character bolstered or factored into by his sculptures, collages and statues — and his wooden crate dollshouse in which we all live like those screamers teeming from our heads, from the heads of writers or simply people with empathy whatever the detachment forced upon them.
    The Celestial Navigation that unifies all the creatures of the universe, here or there, Martian or otherwise?

    “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. As if each piece were another layer scraped off him, when already he was down to the quick.”

    Olivia’s viewpoint, perhaps naive, but complexly expressed through Tyler’s filter, gives us a respect for his artwork through her eyes. As she sleeps beside him simply to be on watch. On watch for what, though? Martians? Yes, there is much in this chapter about seeing through others’ eyes, with secrets as well as open things. Her respect for the artworks is now our respect, despite the chaos that accrues to both the artist and her.
    Perhaps Mary wasn’t good enough for him, as Olivia must have once thought. Now she leaves him, too, ironically, hoping to be adopted by another woman in a car…

    “Look at stairs, we thought, silently, together: what a perfect example of pointlessness. They go up and down, both. If you go up you must come down. You undo everything and start over.”

    And that balanced apple again, can you tell?…

    “I went in one day with a bowl of granola and an apple, and I found him nailing boards together into a sort of box.”

  13. 9 (Fall, 1971: Jeremy)

    “In the kitchen he made two cheese sandwiches and a thermos of coffee, and he put them into the backpack along with an apple, a flashlight, and all the rent money from the cookie jar. He located a city bus map in the front of the telephone book, and after studying it for a moment he carefully tore out the entire page and folded it over and over and put it in his shirt pocket. Then he was ready to go.”

    This chapter reminded me that Jeremy’s chapters are in the third person singular, but they are essentially more HIM than the others’ first person singular chapters are THEM! A chapter that is utterly poignant with J’s memory-filled head of all the people he had known, his mother, sisters, Mary Tell and their children et al. All in his head like ready-mades, transfigured works of art or sculptures or statues transcending Marcel Duchamp and even the Apocryfan…apocryphal because it wasn’t Jeremy’s statue, other than by osmosis?

    “The mistakes he reviewed were not evil deeds but errors of aimlessness, passivity, an echoing internal silence.”

    Then his impulse of non-Jeremyish bravery with the bus map … and if I tell you where he went, and with what clumsy difficulty and blinkered determination he made this journey, and whom he visited, and what their or his reactions were, and what he did there for them — all that would be sacrilege on my part, in case you accidentally read about it here before reading it in this incontrovertibly great book. A book that I have managed to get round to before it became too late.

    Suffice to say, there were ‘surprise’ whistles, and the winterizing of windows by stuffing equivalents, I guess, to his artwork installation ingredients into new frames!
    Not forgetting his possibly foolhardy trip on a dinghy to ‘air the sails’ of a boat…

    First person singular, after all?…
    “Why couldn’t I have been a musician, he wondered, and played what other people have already written down? Why not a writer, just giving new twists to words I already know?”

    Utterly poignant and intrinsically true chapter. Still one more chapter, to go, though…

    • 10 (Spring, 1973: Miss Vinton)

      “Old people are dwindling. The few that are left pick their way down the sidewalk like shadows, whispering courage to themselves and clutching their string shopping bags full of treasure.”

      A truly telling short coda. Where someone “goes on whistling long after”…

      To repeat:
      … this incontrovertibly great book. A book that I have managed to get round to before it became too late.

  14. The glimpses into other characters for one chapter each I find very haunting and affecting. Everyone is important till they are not.

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