I love diving deep into books and focusing on specifics like motifs, character development, and author technique. But after a bit of feedback from a fellow blogger, I realized that I may be alienating readers a bit (who, of course, won’t have the exact same reading itinerary as me) with these posts. So I figure that, in addition to my more in-depth examinations, I’ll do an introductory overview post for each book I read that caters to those who haven’t read it.
So here it is: an intro to 2010’s Pulitzer The Tinkers by Paul Harding. (I skipped 2011’s A Visit From the Goon Squad because I’ve already read it. If you haven’t, go buy it right now. It’s absolutely spectacular.)
An old man is sick and dying in his house. His father was a rural merchant who sold things out of a cart. It alternates rather rapidly back and forth (every few pages) between the son’s last moments and stories from his father’s life. The two stories don’t really intertwine until the end. It’s a fairly quick read and can be tackled in hours rather than days.
Harding has a Dickens-meets-fantasy style with long, rolling sentences that meander from the fantastic to the curt and realistic. Fans of the prose will call it poetic, deep, and imaginative. Critics will call the prose long-winded and claim that any creativity found inside has been far too diluted by the word count to have any potency. Here’s a sentence typical of the book:
“Cold hopped onto the tips of his toes and rode on the ripples of the ringing throughout his body until his teeth clattered and his knees faltered and he had to hug himself to keep from unraveling.”
The son is sick and nervous about dying. He turns out to be a bit of a swindler. He works on clocks. Yep…that’s about it for him. His father is epileptic and a dreamer, kind but unpredictable. He makes a living (barely) by toting around a cart and selling sundries to countryfolk. We get to know him a little better than his son, but not by much.
At one point, the dying son thinks the ceiling, roof, clouds, sky, and whole universe is falling on him, one by one. It’s surreal and imaginative, and it’s very well done.
There’s also a charming dynamic between the merchant father and a hermit. They only meet briefly in the book, but the section that detailed their interaction was the part I remember most fondly.
Who Should Read this Book
This is a solemn, slow-moving book with a lot of abstraction. Harding thinks nothing of making use of four or five coordinating conjunctions in a sentence, and he thinks nothing of making a sentence an entire paragraph. He also experiments with short, Hemmingway-like descriptions in the passages that describe the father’s life, but he eventually throws that experiment in simplicity by the wayside. This is a book that is attempting to be high art, and if you’re looking for plot or easy reading, this is not your book. This book is more longform poetry than novel. So if you love poetry, this might be your jam.
For What It’s Worth (A.K.A. My Opinion)
Certainly, the novel has some imaginative parts, but they almost always fall flat. This book, to me, has all the flavor of a communion wafer. It’s sterile. Most who know my taste would probably imagine I’d love Harding’s flowering, abstract style of prose. I’m not 100% sure where this went wrong.
I think I’m getting an “art for art’s sake” vibe coming off this book, and the “art” of his prose just doesn’t cut it–in fact, most of his passages don’t work at all. His description and metaphor have the ring of a student in a fine arts grad program trying to find the ground under him. He’s struggling to be deep and haunting, but he’s just creating passages that don’t make any sense and aren’t poignant in the slightest. Here’s an example of this:
“When his grandchildren had been little, they had asked if they could hide inside [his grandfather clock]. Now he wanted to gather them and open himself up and hide them among his ribs and faintly ticking heart.”
Or how about this? In the story, the son’s leg muscles stiffened as he got closer to death, spawning this passage from Harding:
“When his wife touched his legs at night in bed, through his pajamas, she thought of oak or maple and had to make herself think of something else in order not to imagine going down to his workshop in the basement and getting sandpaper and stain and sanding his legs and staining them with a brush, as if they belonged to a piece of furniture.”
This sort of passage just doesn’t work. It isn’t just that his wife (nor anyone, for that matter) would actually think of that. It also doesn’t add anything to the story. It’s just words and imagery for their own sake, and that imagery isn’t good enough to stand alone as art. The problem with empty, nonsensical passages is that you run the risk of losing your audience. When your words aren’t worth much, people will start scanning.There isn’t enough reward to justify the work of reading.
This isn’t so much the case in the beginning–it’s easy enough to follow the cadence of present/deathbed to past/father’s life to present/deathbed. But then things start switching from third person to first person and back again. It reminds me of the end of Beloved, except the confusion caused there by the switching from person to person and viewpoint to viewpoint reflects the madness that’s taken over the house, blurring the lines between individual delineations. In Tinkers, it just seems like Harding is trying to be experimental without much of any direction.
I’d be interested to hear from anyone who disagrees with this assessment. I’m easily swayed. Meanwhile, if you haven’t read the book, there’s your essentials plus my bonus peanut gallery comments. Hopefully readers can feel a little more included in the conversation if I pop off posts like these when I finish a book.
Did you know 2012 didn’t have a Pulitzer winner? One of the books in the running was Swamplandia by Karen Russell. Since I happen to have bought her St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves on recommendation from a former professor, I think I’ll read that as my stand-in for 2012. Yes, I just read 2010’s and I’m totally out of order. Yes, that isn’t even the Russell book that was nominated. I’m a free spirit.