Bellevue Literary Press, the publisher of Paul Harding’s debut novel, Tinkers, has declared its mission to publish books by authors who “address the impact of scientific and medical practice on the individual and society.” I think I can be forgiven for saying that this sounds like a prescription for tedious books. But Tinkers—a story about an illness that afflicts four generations of rural New England men—is surprisingly engrossing.
The novel opens with (and later returns to) the bed in which one George Washington Crosby lies dying of renal failure and thinking about clocks. The clinical detail with which Harding renders George’s compromised body creates a sense of voyueristic horror. A passage that depicts George choking on the sponge through which he—too weak for straws— must drink water, is difficult to read without a sympathetic gag and a little lurid interest. The pages that follow the blunt introduction do not specify the names of all his children or all the events of his life, but they do include excerpts from fictional manuals on clock repair, and a description of every item in his room. Though Tinkers is a book about people and their illnesses, it is also about people and their stuff. The novel argues, convincingly, that the most trivial–seeming stuff can make life bearable.
From George’s deathbed, the narrative drifts to his childhood, a childhood overshadowed by the poorly understood epilepsy of George’s father, Howard. To Howard’s family, his illness is an eruption of horrifying symptoms, rendering him dangerous in his wife’s eyes, and an animal in his children’s. Howard, on the other hand, conceives of his father’s epilepsy through metaphors of encounters with the divine or profound:
It was like the opposite of death, or a bit of the same thing death was, but from a different direction: Instead of being emptied or extinguished to the point of unselfness, Howard was overfilled, overwhelmed to the same state. If death was to fall below some human boundary, so his seizures were to be rocketed beyond it.
The disparity between Howard’s perception and that of his family reflects the novel’s insight into the strains of living with family afflicted by chronic illness. The author’s subtlety in instances like these contrast with his clunky direct treatment of his characters’ emotional lives. Describing George’s mother, Kathleen, Harding writes that her “humorless regime mask[s] bitterness far deeper than any of her children or her husband imagine”; here he tells us what we already know, and, in so doing, undermines the nuance of his portrait of his character.
Harding is up to something more ambitious than an exploration of the psychological impact of illness. Howard’s father‘s illness is only the most dramatic of Harding’s portrayals of disease as a disruption of the relationships between people, the body, and—by extension—the physical world. Howard’s father‘s illness is also one of several phenomena depicted by Harding which border, perhaps, on being a tad contrived. Harding avoids failure, though, because of the seamlessness with which the illness fits into the patterns that he illuminates throughout his book. That this episode of magical realism is related through Howard’s unrealiable childhood memories also innoculates the novel against a sense of cheap emotionality.
What is most intriguing, perhaps, is the manner in which the novel shares George’s interest in clocks: the narrative routinely breaks for excerpts from a fictional manual on clock repair, The Reasonable Horologist. Harding uses these manuals to explore the ways his characters try to comprehend the relationship between their concrete worlds and the abstract and infinite forces that seem to defy rational comprehension, forces which Howard likens to the divine. As the title of his manual suggests, George’s clock repair is an exercise in ordering both of these realms. George’s enterprise— creating and systematizing the relationships between the concrete and abstract—is a stark contrast to his father’s conception of a gloriously chaotic universe in which these relationships are unstable. Though they are working, perhaps, at cross–purposes, the deep links between their projects binds the two men. The novel itself works with the logic of a horologist. The links between the novel’s episodes are not always clear, but they interact, setting each other in motion like the clock gears about which Harding tells us so much. Harding gets a lot into a very slight book.
Tinkers draws on several other fictional sources, including entries from a fanciful encyclopedia and manuals on how to build nests with tiny tin beaks. Real texts turn up, too. A hermit thanks Howard for removing an abcessed tooth with the gift of an inscribed copy of The Scarlet Letter. The hermit is mute, pointing towards the novel’s suspicion of the spoken word. Megan Finn, Howard’s second wife and the novel’s only big talker, is redundant and dull. “Well,” she says, “I sort the beans and the peas and the carrots...Oh, it’s terribly hard and boring and you have to go so fast! In comes the asparagus and just like that I have to sort it by size, color, and quality into the different bins—and fast, fast, fast!” Though Harding critiques the abuse—and overuse— of language, he is not completely cynical about the possibilities of communication. Howard’s wife empty chatter forms a fascinating tension with the novel’s rich interplay between the cited texts, which serve to link George to a number of his relations.
Harding is not up to anything revolutionary here. The heterogenous narrative structure and generational leaps are recognizable features of a certain subgenre of literary debut (think Everything is Illuminated); nor is Harding the inventor of the deathbed elegy. What is noteworthy is that, in Tinkers, the stock character of the discontented young man is present but decidedly marginal. Contrary to expectation for this type of novel, the discontented youth’s quest for a sense of self through a rediscovery of familial history does not drive the narrative. George discovers no profound connection to his patrimony. When George’s sister urges his grandson to give his dying grandfather a shave, it’s hardly a moment of intergenerational bonding and torch–passing. At the suggestion, the grandson is overcome by the desire to “choke his greataunt . . . and smoke all of her cigarettes.” Even on his deathbed, George is not exactly laboring under the fantasy that he’s important to his descendants; instead, he imagines himself an increasingly tiny fragment of increasingly modest interest to each generation of his descendants. If Tinkers is a novel about the indelibleness of family connections, it also recognizes how little these connections sometimes matter.
These family connections seem even more fragile against Harding‘s celebration of the the immediate connections to the material world. Harding’s depictions of illness acknowledge the horror of a forced awareness of the limitations of the body. It is, however, in these very moments of corporal failure that Harding suggests the possibility of transcending the ordinary limits of human understanding. Harding does not romanticize illness; his respect for the emotional strain on everyone involved complicates the comfort derived from the potential insight into the sublime. Illness in Tinkers intermingles with familial obligation, the one compounding the burden of the other. And Harding’s generosity as a writer tempers the very potential for bleakness. Harding renders the physical world with a peculiar beauty and wonder, and makes a powerful argument for the importance of the natural environment. Yet the exhilarating transcendence and communion with the infinite is also dangerous. Against it, the everyday world may seem inadequate, but as Harding’s sensitive attention to backwoods wives’ bartering and children’s pyres for dead mice demonstrates, there is plenty of solace and mystery to be found within those limits.
GWENNETH CULLEN is a Junior at Barnard College.
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