A lot of prize winning novels are like Paul Harding’s Tinkers – worthy, philosophical, at times profound but ultimately a bit dull.

It doesn’t particularly surprise me that Harding had great difficulty getting the book published.  He met with numerous rejection letters before it was eventually accepted by an independent publishing house – Bellevue Literary Press.. He believes publishers were reluctant to take a chance on the book because they feel was that “nobody wants to read a slow, contemplative, meditative, quiet book”. Its subsequent success proves this to be a wholly false assumption.

The fact that a first novel by an author in his early 40s can scoop the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction is encouraging for budding authors but it is not a novel that enthralled or convinced me.

Harding is a graduate of the Iowa Creative Writer’s Workshop and currently a teacher of creative writing at Harvard. He was raised in New England where Tinkers is set.

Harding calls his methodology “interrogative writing” and the premise of the novel is built around speculation about the question : what is the thing you will remember most in your life when you are about to die?

Paul Harding

This is what is on the mind of the 80 year old man as the story opens with the arresting line: “George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died”.  George is dying of renal failure although with a precision that is a feature of Harding’s style we learn that “His actual death was going to be from poisoning by uric acid”.

George worked as a clock repairer and time is a key theme of the novel, as it is with a very different, and much better, book A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan which won the Pulitzer Award this year.

When you start reading the book, you imagine that George will be the main character but, in fact, it is his father Howard Aaron Crosby who has this role. He is a tinker by trade and cursed by epilepsy.

Playing with the word ‘tinker’, Harding settles on ‘tintinnabulation’, a new word to me which means the sound of bells; or ,in the context of the novel, the ringing of pots and buckets Howard carries on his cart when doing his rounds. This sound is equated with the ‘aura’ that descends on Howard when he becomes aware that he is about to have a seizure:  “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 controlled beauty of passages like this are reminiscent of Marilynne Robinson who, not coincidentally, taught Harding at Skidmore College and wrote a rave review of Tinkers which helped it gain wider attention. Like Robinson’s novels, most of the story is built around the interior lives of the characters; what goes on in their heads rather than what they do with their bodies.

The most dramatic event is the decision of Howard to leave his wife and family when he learns that his stern wife is about to have him committed to an asylum because of his epilepsy.

Much of the tension of the book is built on how this affected the life of his dying son George who was just 12 years old when his father left without warning.

Harding’s story may not be action-packed but the novel does illustrate a sad truth that when a person dies a vital link to the past disappears for ever.

George’s work as an horologist allows scope for analogies between how a clock functions and how lives interconnect. Harding is equally adept at drawing on symbolism from nature. At one point, Howard looks up in a wood and observes that “the branches  of maples and oaks and birch leaned across the road toward one another and intertwined and became nearly indistinguishable”. This is not a casual image as I think Harding is suggesting that our memories and, particularly those surrounding family histories are like these tangled branches.

This attention to detail is impressive but I found the detached quality of the storytelling made it hard to engage with the characters.

We learn very little about  George’s life beyond his work and relationship with his father so it is hard to feel much sympathy with his passing.

Links:

Mr. Cinderella: From Rejection Notes to the Pulitzer  (NY Times)
The Literary Horologist  (Open Loop press – interview with Paul Harding)

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