Sunday, February 13, 2011

"The Fields of Memory"

There are several passages within the slim 200 pages comprising Paul Harding’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Tinkers that describe the inner workings of old clocks. Harding’s beautifully spare prose reveals these elegant machines to be intricate, precise constructions that, though clearly made by human hands, are able to contain and convey to us a great mystery – the passage of time.

One could apply the very same description to this extraordinary debut novel. A work of art that is obviously the product of meticulous and careful thinking, multi-layered and complex, every little word and phrase (like the tiny brass springs and screws inside the aforementioned clocks) the exactly right choice for its job… and yet, somehow, the whole transcends the sum of its parts to convey profound truths and fearful mysteries. Nothing less than death, the fragile bonds between fathers and sons (and how these complicated relationships echo and ripple across multiple generations), and yes, the passage of time are among those mysteries that readers of Tinkers will confront in original and profoundly satisfying ways.

Before I go any further, I want to emphasize that this is not my “review” of Harding’s novel. On many levels, I do not feel either worthy or qualified to criticize this book (or any other for that matter), but the most relevant reason for now is that, having only just finished my first reading of it, I honestly feel I have barely dipped my toe into the virtual lake of mysteries the novel has opened up within my mind. Tinkers invites and compels you to dive headlong into deep waters indeed. Undoubtedly, the fact that I am both a father and a son, and more specifically, the son of an octogenarian man who is ailing and near the end of his life, all contribute to the deep emotional resonance this novel had for me. But even if that were not the case, I find it hard to fathom that anyone who appreciates meditative and humanistic fiction would not be at the very least impressed, if not profoundly moved, by what Harding has accomplished here.

One of the most interesting and, for a total book nerd like me, exciting aspects of Tinkers is its unusual and intricate structure. I know from interviews I have heard with Harding that he was steeped in the work of the American transcendentalists (particularly Emerson and Thoreau) as well as theologians like Barth and Tillich while writing the book, but I have to wonder if he isn’t also deeply familiar with the great Confessions of St. Augustine as well. I am no expert on the latter classic, but I can’t forget its fascinating, extended meditations on time and memory – and this entire novel feels like it almost belongs if not on the same shelf, at least in the same library as those profound chapters.

The novel’s conceit is to give us the final hours of a man’s life – but we experience them both from the inside (that is, from inside his mind, we “hear” the man’s thoughts as he has them) and from the outside (we are with his family as they hold vigil over him and care for his needs as his life slowly expires). But the dying man’s thoughts are almost exclusively of his own father and his life, and so Harding gives us as a kind of parallel narrative the life story of the dying man’s father, in a different time and place. So we experience the bond between a father and son in a unique and, at times, almost painfully intimate way. For theirs was a relationship that never got to be completed, and the father’s absence throughout the majority of the dying man’s life has obviously made an impact he will carry literally to the grave (and maybe beyond?).

So there’s a kind of “wheels within wheels” structure at work here that is interesting and, because the “wheels” are made of the stuff of time and memory and family and heartache, poignant as well. There is plenty of emotionally complex material already to create an interesting novel. But Harding doesn’t leave it there. In the sections of the book in which we learning about the dying man’s father, we become vividly aware of the issues he had with HIS own father, an eccentric but loving Methodist minister. We see how the ripples emanate outward from one man’s life into another’s, and into another’s… the Bible says something about “the sins of the fathers” being passed down to their sons across multiple generations, but Harding makes sure that we understand that there are graces to be inherited as well through this tenuous but vital connection.

As if all of that weren’t thought-provoking enough, Harding also gives us lengthy passages (and this is an amazing feat of the imagination in itself) from a wholly fictitious treatise by a 19th-century horologist and minister about the inner workings of clocks. The central character (the dying man) repaired clocks as part of his life’s work, and we can assume that these passages are from a book he once owned. What particularly impressed me about this device is that by making this imagined author a minister, it gives Harding – who is clearly fascinated by the great philosophical and theological conundrums – a chance to speculate about the similarities between the mechanics of clock machinery and the inherent order of the universe, and muse about what the human inclination to measure time might tell us about our inner yearning for the Divine.

I don’t want to reveal too many more details, because if someone reading this post hasn’t yet discovered Harding’s exquisite book, I will be doing them a disservice if I do. I would truly hate to rob anyone of the memorable experience of reading Tinkers, and reveal the strange wonders they will encounter on nearly every page. I haven’t even gotten into the stark, poetic descriptions of New England’s fearsome beauty during the frozen winter months; the nightmarish clarity of Harding’s accounts of one character’s epileptic seizures (sometimes described by the epileptic himself, sometimes from those observing him!?!); the moving passages about married love and the compassion of those who serve the bedside needs of the dying. There is even a cameo appearance (of sorts) from a very famous American writer, during an amusing and dream-like diversion involving one of the main characters and a wizened old hermit living in mysterious seclusion, deep in the woods.

Tinkers is a book I won't be getting over any time soon. It has been lingering powerfully in my mind (and in deeper places, the heart perhaps) since I read the last line. I don’t think I’ve fully processed its impact on me, and I know I can’t say I fully grasp its meaning. I doubt very much, actually, that there is one “meaning.” The book is going to mean something very different for everyone who reads it – as I suppose is true of any book worth the sheets it’s printed on. But a book like this one, which attempts to plumb the depths of those mysteries we all grapple with every day as human beings, and which confront us with increasing urgency as we get closer to our own day of reckoning – a book like this becomes a very personal, subjective experience. It will no doubt reward, and even demand, subsequent readings. I can say this for sure: it is going to get a few from me. And I am grateful to Mr. Harding for using his abundant gifts of thought and expression to provide us all with such rich and thought-provoking material to “take and read.”