Wednesday, 30 October 2013
Tinkers - Paul Harding
"George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died."
Thus begins Tinkers, a realist frame for a fantastical work. It is as if the constraints of time are wearing away as George approaches death and he visualises the future, and the collapse of the house which he built: "George imagined what he would see, as if the collapse had, in fact, already happened: the living room ceiling, now two stories high, a ragged funnel of splintered floorboards, bent copper pipes, and electrical wires that looked like severed veins bordering the walls and pointing towards him in the centre of all that sudden ruin." He projects forward to the seeming end of time itself: "Next fell the stars, tinkling about him like the ornaments of heaven shaken loose. Finally the black vastation itself came untamed and draped over the entire heap, covering George's confused obliteration."
The book also projects backwards into the life of George's father Howard, who, when we meet him first, circulates the surrounding countryside on top of his tinker's wagon, making and repairing tin goods and selling household goods to the tight fisted poor. The agent for these goods is a wonderfully grotesque disciple of the salesman's 'art' who pushes Howard to sell expensive goods on "installment plans" because "installment is the future, it is the grail of selling!" He rhapsodises about selling: "Jesus was the founder of modern business, he quoted. He was the most popular dinner guest in Jerusalem. He picked up twelve men from the bottom ranks of business and forged them into an organisation that conquered the world!"
He also suffers from epilepsy, and this will lead to a rift in his life, a rift which means that the vast majority of George's memories of his father are from his early childhood.
George tinkers too, having taken up clock repairing first as a hobby and later as a profession. Indeed, there are many descriptions of the various workings of clocks and of George taking clocks apart and putting them back together. There are also quotes on horology taken from a fictional book called The Reasonable Horologist. Here's one: "If, when the patient horologist has finished his attempt and the clock, when thumbed at the great wheel, does squeak and gibber rather than hum and whirr with brass logic, this process" (taking clock apart) "must be reversed and tried again with calm reason until the imps of disorder are banished."
It is as if the hallucinations of George are this process, the process of dismantling the world and understanding it before he leaves it behind. It also sketches the stories of both George and Howard's lives, and their connectedness.This story is, apparently, loosely based on told of Harding's own ancestors and it is a remarkable tale.
I enjoyed the book and there are flashes of visionary writing and images that will stay with me. However, there were times when I felt that the weight of sheer meaning being placed on paragraph after paragraph toppled over at times and seemed to verge on fatuity, or perhaps more accurately preciousness.
It seems to waver between realism and fantasy, with some characters appearing to push the boundaries of the possible. One is an old anchorite who lives in the woods, apparently without a house and to be an incredible age. Once a year Howard meets him at a certain place and does a deal with him exchanging animal pelts for tobacco. He is ragged and foul smelling and haloed with flies but he brings a signed first edition of a Hawthorne book in perfect condition to pay Howard for a favour. He was, it appears, a classmate of Hawthornes.
Perhaps the methodology of the book is described in this passage outlining Howard's thoughts on the hermit: "Howard, instead of trying to explain the hermit's existence in terms of hearth fires and trapper's shacks, preferred the blank space the old man actually seemed to inhabit; he liked to think of some fold in the woods. some seam that only the hermit could sense and slip into..."
Howard fancied himself as a poet and there would seem to be a preference for the poetic above the true. I was almost tempted at times to echo Howard's wife, a none to likeable character: "A poet, ha! He was a birdbrain, a magpie, a loony bird, flapping around with those fits and all."
The book seems to me to be imbued with a kind of mystic gnosticism and to ask to be read as a series of mythic pointers towards some ultimate truth. Howard's father features briefly and he was a preacher who had to be removed as his theology moved further from that of his congregation and the christian church. He is in some ways an echo of Wyatt Gwyon's father in Gaddis' The Recognitions, another book in which gnosticism plays a role. He appears to slowly become invisible: "It seemed to me as if my father simply faded away. He became more and more difficult to see."
The writer who hangs over this most, though, is Marilynne Robinson, who was one of Harding's teachers at the Iowa Writer's Workshop. The relationship between fathers and sons over three generations (Gilead) and a reference to bodies in a lake (Housekeeping) almost seemed like little acknowledgments of her influence. However he never achieves the tonal control or emotional impact of Robinson's novels, not that many do.
All in all I enjoyed Tinkers, but with reservations.