Monday, 16 April 2012

Books that Disappointed: Tinkers (Paul Harding)

Tinkers, Paul Harding’s debut novel, won the 2010 Pulitzer Award for fiction, arguably  America’s most prestigious literary award. It opens with a scene in which one of its protagonist, George Washington Crosby, is lying on his death bed and hallucinating. What is George hallucinating? Is he hearing voices inside his head, the voice of God, say, informing him that his time has come? Is he feeling insects crawling under his skin, perhaps? Or a painful sensation in his teeth?

The answer is none of the above. George Washington Crosby is experiencing visual hallucinations. He is imagining, perhaps ‘experiencing’ is the correct word, that the room in which he is lying on a bed, indeed the house around him is collapsing and he is being transported (at a speed more than he would care for) vertically downwards, in the direction of the basement of his house.

This bravura opening is one of the few, scattered moments of brilliance in this novel by an author who was virtually unknown before his Pulitzer triumph.

Tinkers purports to tell the stories of two men: George Crosby, and his father Howard Crosby. Howard’s father, whose name I forget, makes a brief appearance in a section that relates to Howard’s childhood. Howard Crosby is an epileptic. Why is he an epileptic? Why not a syphilitic (which one would assume was far more common in Howard Crosby’s time)? Who knows? Perhaps Howard Crosby is an epileptic because his malady presents the author with an opportunity to describe, in gruesome three-pages -long details, a particularly violent seizure Howard Crosby experiences and bites his son’s finger when the son inserts it between his teeth (a silly thing to do if you ask me). As for Howard’s Crosby’s father, he is not quite right in the head, either. He is a reverend; but, as his grip over his mind and reality around him becomes tenuous, he begins delivering increasingly vague and abstruse sermons to the initial puzzlement, followed by consternation, of the parishioners—who, being the hicks they are, in the backwaters of America, would, in any case, have had difficulty in following straightforward English, let alone the reverend’s thought disordered musings. Eventually the reverend, in the interest of his own health, is carted off to the loony bin. It is then that Howard suffers his first seizure. Co-incidence? Very probably. If you hold the view that epilepsy is triggered by erratic firing of your neurones, then any external triggers are extraneous. Howard Crosby almost meets the same fate as his father in adulthood, as his epileptic attacks become more frequent and intractable, and his increasingly exasperated wife, in the interest of his own health (and safety of others’ fingers) plans to cart him off to a loony bin. Howard, when he gets wind of his wife’s intentions, scarpers. He goes to another part of America where he assumes another name, marries a woman who does not pause to breathe while talking. The woman takes him to another doctor who prescribes him bromide (instead of loony bin) and his epilepsy is controlled. Howard however keeps track of the movements of his old family, in particular his eldest son, George, and, one Christmas, turns up uninvited at George’s house. Howard’s son George Crosby is an amateur clock repairer, probably for the same reason why his father is made an epileptic. It gives the author a chance to show off the minutiae of his knowledge about the workings of the clocks by inserting faux-historical (and unreadable) excerpts of an eighteenth century horologist, giving otiose information such as the working of the escapement on a clock.

At just under two hundred pages Tinkers is not a long book, but it is a slog. It is a slog because of many reasons. The narrative is not linear and moves back and forth in time Would that it were the only peculiarity of this peculiar novel, one could cope with it. There are many novels with non-linear mode of narration (Slaughterhouse 5 and The Good Soldier are two examples which immediately come to mind) which are good reads. What makes Tinkers a struggle to get through is the combining of non-linear narrative with other unappetising elements. It is like you going to a dinner party and being served with a rare beef steak, and you hate beef. You may not like beef but may just be able to swallow it if well-done; but when a raw chunk of red meet oozing blood is placed in front of you, your appetite disappears. The novel is excessively impressionistic. There are pages after pages of descriptions of nature. Howard Crosby is a tinker and travels at the turn of the twentieth century through the New England woods and sells his wares to the housewives living at the edges of the wood. Far too often Howard is prone to get lost in reveries of the beauty of the nature surrounding him. While you admire the writer’s ability to think of several different ways in which sunlight gets refracted off the leaves of various trees, or his extensive knowledge of wildflowers, or his attention to detail while describing different barns, it is not immediately clear to you what his intentions are behind deluging readers with all this information that adds nothing to the story (unless it is to tire out the reader). Tinkers is a novel full of nature; there is so much nature in it, it will give you nature fatigue. Be warned: reading Tinkers runs the serious risk of turning you into a nature-hater. 

Harding speaks in several narrative voices (none of which particularly engaging) and sometimes the shifts in the narrative voice are not smooth. Howard Crosby, while recounting his childhood experiences always speaks in the first person, while George’s story is told in the third person. At one point, when the narrative voice shifts from third person to first person, it strikes you only after you are half way through the narration that it is not Howard but Charlie, George Crosby’s grandson (and a peripheral character in the story), who is speaking.

The made-up entries of the eighteenth century Horologist which Harding sprinkles throughout the novel serve no purpose other than to interrupt such flow as it is of the narrative. Also scattered throughout the novel, apropos de rien, are entries made under headings such as ‘cosmos borealis’, ‘crepuscule borealis’, ‘tempest borealis’ etcetera. These entries, usually descriptions of some pond or a birch tree or fireflies are distractions, and are not, in themselves, particularly riveting either.

Harding is not interested in developing characters. That by itself need not be a handicap. The reader can draw his own inferences about the protagonists, from the information provided by the writer, of the way the protagonists relate and respond to the worlds they inhabit. The problem here is: the two protagonists—Howard and George—despite reams of pages devoted to them remain shadowy; they do not come alive for the reader; you simply do not care what happens to them. They have about as much depth as cardboard cut-outs.

The prose of Tinkers is laboured and overwritten. When you are repeatedly assaulted with sentences such as:

‘Early man sought always methods of capturing time more precisely than casting the shadows of Apollo’s chariot upon graded iron disc (for when the sun sank beneath the hills in the west, what then?), or burning oil in a glass lamp marked at intervals so that crude hours might be gleaned from the disappearing fuel’;


‘The reasonable sensitive soul who perhaps one day while taking his rest along the banks of bubbling brook came to hear, in that half-dream, half-wakeful state during which so many men seem most receptive to perceiving the pulleys and winches that hoist the clouds, the heavenly bellows that push the winds, the cogs, and wheels that turn the globe, came to hear a regularity in the silvery song of water over pebbles , that soul is unknown to us’

all but the most determined (or masochistic) would be tempted to throw in the towel. (These two sentences incidentally come one after another.) There are several passages in the novel which I found myself reading again and again, not because I found the prose particularly praiseworthy, but because I didn’t have a clue what the writer was talking when I read it the first time round.

Tinkers is in many ways a Cinderella story. Its author, Paul Harding, a former musician (he was a drummer with a band called Cold Water Flat before he decided to turn his hand at writing) and a graduate of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, was an unknown entity. The novel was apparently rejected by several mainstream publishing houses before it was accepted by a small new press (Bellevue Literary Press), with a laudatory blurb from Merilynne Robinson, whose student Paul Haring was. (That should have served as a warning for me; Robinson’s Gilead, which won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, was the most tedious novel I have read in the last ten years, until I read Tinkers). It was ignored by the literary establishment (New York Times, for example, did not bother to review it) and was promoted by the independent book sellers. The novel sold a few thousand copies through these book shops. Then it won the Pulitzer; and now all the literary critics are queuing up to tell the world what a masterpiece the novel is. 

Tinkers is not a literary masterpiece; it is a literary curio; and since it has won a big literary award, I have little hopes of Harding’s second novel.