Monday, August 02, 2010

Janet TAY reviews Paul HARDING’s Tinkers

Review by JANET TAY
In his final hours, a clock repairman imagines his father, who had abandoned the family, and finds that some things cannot be fixed.

By Paul Harding
(Bellevue Literary Press/William Heinemann)

TINKERS was a little-known book before it won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in April this year. According to The New York Times, Paul Harding’s manuscript “languished in a desk drawer for nearly three years”, rejected by publishers who told him that “nobody wants to read a slow, contemplative, meditative, quiet book”. It was eventually published by Bellevue Literary Press, a publisher affiliated to the New York University’s School of Medicine, which paid a US$1,000 (RM3,500) advance to the author.

Harding called it a “little book from a little publisher that was hand-sold from start to finish.” The Guardian reported that it has been 30 years since a small publisher last won the Pulitzer, the last being John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces in 1981.

Tinkers may look like a little book, but it is not an easy read. It starts off uncomplicated enough—the emotions and observations in the last few weeks/days of a clock repairman, George Washington Crosby, who lies dying in a “rented hospital bed, placed in the middle of his own living room”.

George drifts in and out of consciousness with memories of his childhood and his father, Howard Aaron Crosby, while his family (his wife, their grandchildren from Kansas, Atlanta and Seattle, his sister from Florida) are in the house, periodically attending to his minor requests, like winding the clocks and giving him a drink of water. In Harding’s words, George, “as he lay on his deathbed … wanted to see his father again. He wanted to imagine his father”.

Howard’s narrative dominates the book, and often extends beyond mere memories. Although it is said that they are imagined by George, or part of his hallucinations, it is difficult to believe that a dying man could have such clear, distinct memories and conceive of an imaginary world in such specific detail.

Howard’s narrative seems perfectly able to stand on its own, perhaps even as a separate novel, and makes George’s feel more rushed and summarised, like an underdeveloped story rather than part of the book Tinkers is meant to be.

Harding’s writing is lyrical and evocative; he has George yearning to record the memories of his life in the last months of his life with a tape recorder, a wistful, emotional description: “He talked about blue snow and barrels of apples and splitting frozen wood so brittle that it rang when you split it. He talked about what it is like to be a grandparent for the first time and to think about what it is you will leave behind when you die.”

When George realises that the clocks he had regularly wound have now stopped, he is dismayed: “When he imagined inside the case of that clock, dark and dry and hollow, and the still pendulum hanging down its length, he felt the inside of his own chest and had a sudden panic that it, too, had wound down.”

Harding’s use of metaphor and imagery here is effective, melding George and his clocks, the objects that are so much a part of his life—it is as though he were fused to them—so that they become almost like the vital organs in his body, both failing at the same time.

Despite the interiority of the novel, Harding’s descriptions of 18th-century New England are also breathtaking. Howard observes how a “late-spring storm capped the last daffodils and the first tulips with dollops of snow, which melted when the sun came back out” and the roots of flowers that “drank the cold melt, their stalks straightened from the chilly drink; their petals, supple and hale, were spared the brittle coating of a true freeze.”

In true idyllic fashion, Harding describes the afternoon becoming warm and “with the warmth the first bees appeared, and each little bee settled in a yellow cup and took suck like a newborn” and frozen rainwater on trees that “turned into sheaths of ice that refracted the gold light from the rising sun into silver light that glittered in the breeze”.

Readers who enjoy lush descriptions of scenery may enjoy his writing and these clearly demonstrate his ability to write beautifully. On the other hand, heavy emphasis on these descriptions alone may result in a tedious trudge for readers who prefer the story to unfold in a setting that is not quite so stationary.

Harding’s arrangement of the narratives and storyline also leave much to be desired. Told in a non-linear fashion, Howard and George’s narratives continuously intersperse until the end of the book and even include a fictional 18th-century clock repair manual called The Reasonable Horologist. Although the author’s knowledge of horology is impressive, one may be inclined to skip the laborious description of clock repair, unless one is a horologist or has a special interest in clock repair.

The sum of a man’s life usually comprises his memories and the significant events he has been a part of. Had Harding developed these memories further (for instance, George witnessing his father’s epileptic fit and being bitten in the process, the perception of epilepsy at that time, and Howard’s abandonment of his family) in order to expand the novel and elaborate on the emotional scars from these events, Tinkers might have been a more compelling read.

Reproduced from the Sunday Star of August 1, 2010


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