Monday, August 18, 2014


TinkersTinkers by Paul Harding
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Who is a tinker, and what does a tinker do?

Simply put, a tinker is a repairer - someone who mends various contraptions, fixes broken instruments and gets into the tiny, metallic, brass-filled heart of appliances to make necessary adjustments.

In Paul Hardings' 2010 Pulitzer-Prize winning novel Tinkers, we meet two such characters: George Washington Crosby and his father, Howard Aaron Crosby.

Throughout the novel, each either tinkers with clocks, various paraphernalia in the drawers of wagons, and finally - in an attempt to revisit the past or as a result of being helplessly thrown back in time because of a hallucination - their own memories.

The novel begins with George Washington Crosby, who is suffering one such hallucination:
"George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died."
Using variations on that same sentence, Harding places markers throughout the novel that gradually count down the hours to the day George dies (the end of the novel).

The story itself, however, does not progress so linearly. Rather, key moments in the childhoods of both George and Howard are fleshed out in the span of 191 pages in prose that is at once devoid of quotation marks yet punctuated by italicized text and the occasional 'extract from a manual' (more on that later). Indeed, why should there be any quotation marks? After all, everything is happening inside George's/Howard's head. It is therefore fitting that Harding also heavily uses parentheses to indicate interruptions in otherwise ceaseless trains of thought - thought that is often spelled out in long, Proust-worthy sentences.

(don't feel obliged to read the quote below, but it's a great example of 1) Harding's style 2) George's reflection on death as he considers his future )
“And so this end in confusion, where when things stop I never get to know it, and this moving is the space, is that what is yet to be, which is for others to see filled wherever it may finally be in the frame when the last pieces are fitted and the others stop, and there will be the stopped pattern, the final array [...272 words...] why can't I stop all the moving and look out over the vast arrangements and find by the contours and colors and qualities of light where my father is, not to solve anything but just simple even to see it again one last time, before what, before it ends, before it stops. But it doesn't stop; it simply ends. It is a final pattern scattered without so much as a pause at the end, at the end of what, at the end of this.”
Apart from these long sentences, extracts taken from various manuals (e.g. The Reasonable Horologist) also appear in Tinkers and deal mostly with clocks: their parts, their history, their inner workings: time. After all, the characters are all so immersed in time and revisit it throughout the novel. In remembering his past and remembering about his father, George is 'tinkering' with time and his memory of his father. In changing his name after running away from home, Howard is tinkering with his identity.

Another defining stylistic feature of Tinkers emerges in Harding's very detailed descriptions of nature.
Here's a lovely example:
Those early flowers smelled like cold water. Their fragrance was not the still perfume of high summer; it was the mineral smell of cold, raw green. He crouched to look at a daffodil. Its six-petaled corona was fully unfurled, like a bright miniature sun. A bee crawled in its cup, massaging stigma and anther and style. 
Indeed, nature is omnipresent in Tinkers and tied to its characters. The mute and enigmatic Gilbert practically seems like wild nature in homo sapien form; at one point, Howard's brain is likened to branches that flare in the "metallic blue of dusk" before they are "drained from the sky."

When Howard has his epileptic seizures, a thick stick shoved into his mouth saves him from biting off his tongue and leaves him with bark caught between in teeth. So the presence of the natural world in Tinkers isn't 'light;' such an image brims with violence. Nature in this novel is described with such detail, strength and rawness that Harding's language itself is what powerfully transforms the experience of reading Tinkers. His diction, although not always reader-friendly, is what magnifies an otherwise short 192-page novel into a work that transcends time.

I don't think Tinkers changed my life or is a book that will, mostly due to its inaccessible prose. But I can still see why it won the Pulitzer - Tinkers is deep despite its brevity, thought-provoking and absolutely, ABSOLUTELY beautifully written.
Choose any hour on the clock. It is possible, then, to conceive that the clock’s purpose is to return the hands back to that time, a time which, from the moment chosen, the hands leave and skate across the rest of the clock’s painted signs and calibrations and numbers. These other markings on the face become irrelevant in themselves; they are now simply clues pointing in the direction of the chosen time. It is then possible, too, to conceive of the clock’s gears and springs as each having its own intrinsic function, but within a whole mechanism, the larger purpose of which is to return to the chosen time. In this manner, the clock resembles the universe.
Your cold mornings are filled with the heartache about the fact that although we are not at ease in this world, it is all we have, that it is ours but that it is full of strife, so that all we can call our own is strife; but even that is better than nothing at all, isn’t it?
And as the ax bites into the wood, be comforted in the fact that the ache in your heart and the confusion in your soul means that you are still alive, still human, and still open to the beauty of the world, even though you have done nothing to deserve it. And when you resent the ache in your heart, remember : You will be dead and buried soon enough.

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