Friday, October 21, 2011
The Prose Music of Tinkers
Awesome! Awe inspiring! I rarely use these terms when describing a novel, especially a first novel; but they're the only apt words to describe Paul Harding's literary, Pulitzer prize winner, Tinkers. What makes this novel so brilliant is its language. Written in a style that hearkens back to the early 19th century, taking his literary cues from Hawthorne, Melville, Emerson, Thoreau, Harding embraces the Transcendentalist ethos (nature as transcendental spiritual experience) in a time when brevity and minimalism seem the preferred stylistic choice amongst most authors. His prose, bold, unabashedly musical, filled with alliteration that would make a poet blush with envy, thumbs its nose at contemporary influences. And for that he deserves his plaudits.
What makes his style so captivating is both its richness and its precision. With lush and specific detail he allows entry into this strange world of a clock repairman and his father, a tinker, or door to door salesman. Harding isn't shy of employing long sentences, parentheticals, using dialogue as dramatic effect. He uses frequent time jumps, enmeshing present time and past and distant past, employing POV shifts, and on a sentence level, uses just about every literary trope ever created (synechdoche, metonymy, metaphor, allusion), but keeps his manufactured world from slipping into obscurantism by favoring concrete nouns and specific verbs over adjectives and adverbs (largely).
The book has been described as "a little miracle." And that it is. It is a miracle of experience. By keeping us rooted in the sensual experience of a man lying on his deathbed, his mind spinning back into memory, a man making sense of his life when all certainties besides death have passed, he makes us ponder the meanings behind objects--a desk, a painting, a swatch of fabric, a necklace, a pipe tree.
What I also love about his writing is his characters' forays into speculation. It is a wonderful technique enabling us to expand the story into realms of imagination. Take the following passage: "What if the wagon, instead of a house on wheels, contained a kingdom of bees? There would be a panel on one side, fixed at the top with brass hinges, which would open and be propped up with poles at the corners. There would be windows looking into the hives. People could stand and watch the bees work while I gave lectures on the insects' habits, their industry and their loyalty. I could charge two cents a person. Young children could see the hives for free Schools could send entire classes, or, even better, I could go to the schools and set up right in the yards. I could plant a bed of flowers on top of the wagon for the pollen and put the entrances to the hives on the side opposite the windows, so that the spectators would not bother the bees." It is wonderful writing, detailed without being overwrought, favoring clarity over obtuseness for the sake of moving speculation forward.
I also love his wordplay. For instance, "Crepsucle Borealis: 1. The bark of birches glows silver and white at dusk. The bark of birches peels like parchment. 2. Fireflies blink in the thick grass and form halos around hedges. 3. The spaces between the trees look like glowing coals, 4. Foxes keep to the shadows. Owls look down from branches. mice make brisk conversations." Here Harding manages to infuse poetic diction into his prose, metaphor, barches compared to light, simile, bark likened to parchment, alliteration (bark, birches, peels parchment, halos, hedges), more simile, spaces compared to coals, etc. His writing surprises, excites, communicates its ideas playfully; it's a refreshing change from writing handed down to us from the staccato of Hemingway.
You would never find this, "Saw grass and wildflowers grew high along the spines of the dirt roads and brushed the belly of Howard's wagon. Bears pawed fruit in the bushes along the ruts" in Hemingway, or in most contemporary authors. Instead you get prose that moves the story along, plot given primacy over style, style being the aftereffect of the plot. For me, style and plot and character and theme and tone and diction are all part of a book's DNA, each like a chromosome in a double helix that spirals to form the book's identity.
Harding, it seems, can do it all. He can convey the deepest feelings of character, his most intimate thoughts, describe the minute details of repairing a clock in an antiquated language, describe how to make a birdhouse, wax poetic, dive into stream of consciousness prose, interior monologue, write son convincingly about landscape that it would make Melville or Thoreau envious, and then turn around and give us something heartbreakingly beautiful through lush description, and then, just when you think you've seen it all, he gives you this: "Thought that he was a clock was like a clock like a spring in a clock when it breaks and explodes when he had his fits. But he was not like a clock or at least was only like a clock to me. But to himself? Who knows? And so it is not he who was like a clock but me." Awesome!
How many times have I read this book? Five now and counting. It sits sandwiched between Madame Bovary and (ironically) Hemingway's short stories as one of my all time favorite novels.