The Ethereal Prose of Paul Harding’s “Tinkers”

Book: Tinkers

Author: Paul Harding

Genre: Fiction


I had never heard of this book before seeing it recommended at the Tattered Cover in Denver. I love independent bookstores (sorry, Barnes & Noble) and as they are a dying breed, I usually try to support them by buying a book. This was one of those books, and I probably would not have bought Tinkers otherwise.

Through the first fifty pages or so, I was not enjoying it. Harding’s prose felt winding and meandering in a way that was more tedious than interesting to me. The plot, too, felt like it was wandering to nowhere. I struggled to tell my girlfriend what the book was about, and realized I was not very sure either. Fortunately, I kept with it, and Harding continued to carve aimless channels of…beauty?!

At some point during the first third of the novel, after I had accepted that the plot was not very compelling, I realized that many of Harding’s sentences were truly beautiful observances of the divine among us–namely nature, but there was another more general, less pointed ethereal atmosphere being described. In fact, that is how I would describe the entirety of this generational elegy, which swerves off the conventional plot highway and takes readers on a scenic drive through memory, love, and a certain nameless emotion I won’t even try to describe. More so than memory or love, it was that nameless feeling that kept me reading. As the sentences floated off the page and away from the little plot that exists, I made futile grasps at its identity. Was it the sense of divinity in each of us? Was it, perhaps, the sense of divinity in our human connections? Was it a mixture of sublimity and beauty? Obviously I gave this a lot of thought, but never came up with anything definitive, so here is an example:

The true essence, the secret recipe of the forest and the light and the dark was far too fine and subtle to be observed with my blunt eye–water sac and nerves, miracle itself, fine itself: light catcher. But the thing itself is not the forest and light and dark, but something else scattered by my coarse gaze, by my dumb intention. The quilt of leaves and light and shadow and ruffling breezes might part and I’d be given a glimpse of what is on the other side; a stitch might work itself loose or be worked loose. The weaver might have made one bad loop in the foliage of a sugar maple by the road and that one loop of whatever the thread might be wound from–light, gravity, dark from stars–had somehow been worked loose by the wind in its constant worrying of white buds and green leaves and blood-and-orange leaves and bare branches and two of the pieces of whatever it is that this world is knit from had come loose from each other and there was maybe just a finger-widths hole, which I was lucky enough to spot in the glittering leaves from this wagon of drawers and nimble enough to scale the silver trunk and brave enough to poke my finger into the tear, that might offer to the simple touch a measure of tranquility or reassurance.

Life is difficult for those of us who have not learned the location of our brain’s off switch. Thought, as much as it is our own story’s narration, comes in degrees. Sometimes, trains of thought putt-putt along at a reasonable pace, allowing for logic and reason, but other times, those trains are barreling down the tracks at unstoppable speeds, so fast that what emerges is startling, awful, and amazing all at the same time. Some of us think like Neil DeGrasse Tyson and others think more like Gabriel Garcia Marquez–but the point is, the latter often becomes a force of its own. Thoughts emerging from characters in this book trailed on so far that they lost connection with the character, seeping into a more generalize ethereal feeling that encapsulates the whole novel. Howard, our thoughtful and epileptic protagonist, is both a victim and a beneficiary of these thoughts–while they often throw him into epileptic fits, they are also his most personal, most sacred feelings. I connected and empathized with this, not as an epileptic, but as a person both blessed and cursed with the sorts of thought patterns that run through Howard’s mind. They are beautiful and fantastic and surreal until you are pushed to the edge of what’s familiar, and look out, over the edge into the black.

Death, for instance, is one of those topics that often pushes me, my heels grinding in the dirt at the edge of my mind, towards and into that darkness. It isn’t bad, necessarily, but it is unknown, and uncomfortable, and sad. From pages 64-66, Howard’s son George ruminates on what it means to live and die (sorry it is so long–I could not bring myself to shorten such an incredible passage):

Eighty-four hours before he died, George thought, Because they are like tiles loose in a frame, with just enough space so they can all keep moving around, even if it’s only a few at a time and in one place, so that it doesn’t seem like they are moving, but the empty space between them, and that empty space is the space that is missing, the last several pieces of colored glass, and when those pieces are in place, that will be the final picture, the final arrangement. But those pieces, smooth and glossy and lacquered, are the dark tablets of my death, in gray and black, and bleached, drained, and until they are in place, everything else will keep on shifting. And so this end in confusion, where when things stop I never get to know it, and this moving is that 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, but not even that, because that final finitude will itself be a bit of scrolling, a pearlescent clump of tiles, which will generally stay together but move about within another whole and be mingled with in endless ways of other people’s memories, so that I will remain a set of impressions porous and open to combination with all the other vitreous squares floating about in whoever else’s frames, because there is always the space left in reserve for the rest of their own time, and to my great-grandchildren, with more space than tiles, I will be no more than the smoky arrangement of a set of rumors, and to their great-grandchildren I will be no more than a tint of some obscure color, and to their great-grandchildren nothing they ever know about, and so what army of strangers and ghosts has shaped and colored me back to Adam, until back to when ribs were blown from molten sand into the glass bits that took up the light of this world because they were made from this world, even though the fleeting tenants of those bits of colored glass have vacated them before they have had even the remotest understanding of what it is to inhabit them, and if they–if we are fortunate (yes, I am lucky, lucky), and if we are fortunate, have fleeting instants when we are satisfied that the mystery is ours to ponder, if never to solve, or even just rife personal mysteries, never mind those outside–are there even mysteries outside? a puzzle itself–but anyway, personal mysteries, like where is my father, 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 simply 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.

I have thought on countless occasions of the grandfather I was never able to meet–of the uncle with few friends and family to carry on his memory–of my aunt, her ashes mixed in with those of her two dogs. When you consider the entirety of a life lived, its legacy held simply and solely in memories and minds, bits and pieces, it makes you want to cry. This book made me cry, and it was wonderful.


NEXT POST: The Autobiography of Gucci Mane by Gucci Mane and Neil Martinez-Belkin

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