Friday, October 29, 2010

Paul Harding's Tinkers: Not Quite a Review

One of my long-term projects is to read all of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novels that I haven't already read. I try to read the new ones as soon as they're announced and I'm also trying to get to a couple older ones each year. I figure that--with my already too-full reading schedule--I'll be caught up with all the previous winners in a few years. It's part of my larger project of reading more American novels and reading more contemporary American literature. What this means to you is that I have recently finished Paul Harding's Pulitzer Prize-winning novella Tinkers and I'm about to bore you with some thoughts I have about the book. I had mixed feelings about Tinkers while reading it and my feelings remain mixed, but I find that over time the proportions of that mixture keep changing.

Tinkers is the story of George Crosby and his father, Howard. The book opens with George lying on his deathbed in the living room of the house he built, moving in and out of dreams, memories and hallucinatory states. Harding shows us George's connections with life and the world breaking down, and the recurring metaphor of the universe-as-machine gets introduced in an absolutely gorgeous passage taken from a fictional book about clock repair. In places like this, Harding's prose shines like gold and I was breathless reading it.

As George's mind and body break down, the story of Howard Crosby bubbles up and takes over the narrative. Howard is an itinerant salesman in the back woods of New England, a soft-spoken, gentle man who suffers from violent, terrifying epileptic seizures. Howard's sense of the universe as something that can come apart at the seams is similar to George's experience of falling away from life, and I think Harding does a good job arguing his point that life, both communal and private, is a fragile thing made up of many parts that aren't held together by much of anything. I really enjoyed the "Howard" portions of the narrative, and found myself becoming frustrated when the story shifted back to George.

By now you've probably already heard the glowing praise for Harding's attention to detail and the way the story is built up from lovingly-writ passages that describe bits and corners of the physical world. You've probably heard that the narrative is loosely-structured, folding in on itself and traveling nothing like a straight line. So this is a book full of beautiful writing and formal experimentation. I keep thinking that it's a sort of Ulysses and Remembrances of Things Past in miniature. Which sounds really cool, doesn't it?

The only problem is that it doesn't work. It doesn't add up and while there is much to love about Harding's writing and his observations of humanity caught in the machinery of life, Tinkers is a frustrating experience for a reader. As a writer, I am very glad I read it because a lot of Harding's prose experiments are fascinating and, as I keep saying, beautiful taken in isolation. But that's part of the problem with the book: it's a lot of experimental pieces that Harding hasn't pulled together into a whole. There seems to be no underlying structure to the work, no movement, and ultimately very little meaning.

It's as if Harding had essentially one thing he wanted to say, and he found fifty different metaphors to illustrate it and assembled them together, without actually hanging them onto a story. There seemed to be no point to the "George" portions of the novel. Harding abandons his "185 hours before his death, George..." structure halfway through, and begins to loop around and play with point-of-view, voice and a laundry list of other narrative technique, some of them lasting no more than a sentence or two. This is where I think of Ulysses. The difference between Harding's book and Joyce's, however, is that Joyce was using all of his technique in the service of a story, and Harding doesn't seem to be. Joyce was able to sustain formal experimentation over a 500-page narrative but Harding's brief experiments stumble over each other in a book that's less than 200 pages in length. I'm all for experimentation in literature, but the basic materials of Tinkers seem too slim to support the weight of all the formal ideas piled upon it.

A lot of what Harding does in Tinkers is interesting, gorgeous and well worth reading if you're a writer or if you want to see some of the possibilities there are in formal experimentation. I have no problem with this book winning the Pulitzer Prize, for a number of reasons I won't get into. But at the same time, reading Tinkers frustrated me because I wanted more than experiment and gorgeous prose; I wanted Harding to talk about more than one idea over and over; I wanted the incidents in George Crosby's life to have some sort of dramatic or emotional meaning. Tinkers seems, in the end, to lack a beating heart around which all this lyrical prose is wound. If Harding's fundamental materials had been less slight, he could have kept all his experimentation and variation-on-a-theme metaphor and I'd have loved this book instead of merely admiring it.


  1. Tinkers is on my list for sometime next year. You make it sound interesting if not satisfying. I'm looking forward to seeing how I experience it now.

  2. Ah, that's disappointing. I'd had high hopes. I'll probably still read it, but I appreciate you tempering my enthusiasm ~ at least I can read it with some expectation. Thanks!

  3. Some people absolutely love this book and don't share my experience of it at all. I am a notoriously difficult audience.