Paul Harding's first novel is only now arriving in bookstores, from Bellevue Literary Press, a small publisher affiliated with NYU's School of Medicine — but it's fast becoming one of the most talked-about books of the season. "Astonishing," says the L.A. Times. "An especially gorgeous example of novelistic craftsmanship," according to Publishers Weekly.
Tinkers is the eighth novel to be featured in Powell's subscription program, Indiespensable. Our response to the book was not unique, however. Carole Goldberg might have been speaking for our staff when she wrote in the Hartford Courant:
A book by an unknown author, from a new and nearly unknown press, lands on a reviewer's desk. What are the chances it will command her attention? Or turn out to be a beautifully written meditation on life, death, the passage of time and man's eternal attempt to harness it?
Not great, you might say. But Paul Harding's Tinkers defies expectations and proves to be one of 2009's most intriguing debuts.
Harding, formerly the drummer for Cold Water Flat, now teaches at Harvard. In Tinkers' 191 incantatory pages, he somehow makes us intimate with three generations of a New England family. But the book does so much more.
Pulitzer Prize winner Marilynne Robinson gets at the heart of the matter when she declares, "Tinkers confers on the reader the best privilege fiction can afford, the illusion of ghostly proximity to other human souls."
Dave: Tinkers starts, "George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died." Another section of the book begins, "Nearly seventy years before George died..." And another, "One hundred and thirty-two hours before he died..."
Did your conception of the novel start with these markers in relation to George's death, or was that device helpful only later in bringing George's vocation to the novel's surface?
Paul Harding: The latter. It's what physicists might call "an emergent property"; it arose fairly late in the process. It became a kind of organizing mechanism, but it presented itself organically, late enough in the composition of the novel so it didn't feel overly contrived.
Eight days is how long a clock runs. In an early draft, it wasn't eight days; I'd overplayed my hand a little bit. But it did end up helping to organize the book, almost like a countdown. The whole book is headed toward the instant of his death. That was always going to be the case. The question was how to frame it, how to get from Point A to Point B.
Dave: Where did your idea for the book begin?
Harding: The very first image I had was the moment when George suddenly becomes conscious that Howard is riding past the house, that his father has left the family. It started with Howard leaving, and then the dinner with Kathleen and the kids, holding them in abeyance, that strange suspended time. That was the beginning. And these would be George's thoughts, images that would haunt him at the end.
Dave: Even in imagining Howard riding past the house, you were thinking of that scene from inside, at the table?
Harding: Yes. Maybe even before I was consciously aware of it, I was, in deed and in fact, thinking as George. I imagined that moment as a function of George's consciousness, wondering, Where is my father once he goes beyond that point?
It's a familial consciousness, over the course of the book. There's a lot of osmosis going on; it's porous. And that was nice because I was able to imagine my way in between and among these different characters, particularly the generations of fathers and sons.
Dave: Later, Howard's father becomes a major presence in the book. Was that a matter of the story simply rippling outward? We learn a lot about Howard in those sections.
Harding: It came by penetrating more deeply into the past. When anybody investigates their family, their parents or grandparents, there's always a point at which they'll say, "I never knew my own grandparents." There's always a drop-off point where everything prior becomes legendary or mythical. The moment I thought of Howard's father, I thought, This is almost the Old Testament, as far as this family is concerned. He'd be the patriarch.
As a technical inevitability, that whole third section of the book, when Howard remembers his own father, would be a way of illuminating the contours of Howard's mind, as it was with George remembering Howard. A good way to illuminate a character is to get them thinking about something that means a lot to them.
Dave: The book is full of passages that fixate on senses and surroundings. One that jumps out is your description of the living room where George is dying. We see every item in the room.
Harding: Sort of a catalog. The catalog of the exhibition, sure.
Dave: At those moments, instead of pushing the narrative forward, it's as if time stops.
Harding: I recognize that at a certain point it becomes a matter of taste, but I often think of my stories as painting or a type of tapestry. It just happens to be the case that when fictional moments present themselves to me, they present themselves as instants.
There is a process of taking the moment and exploding it. You keep penetrating to find the essence. To the extent that the story has dramatic tension, it comes from the tension of the moment: man thinking, or consciousness, as opposed to, as you say, action or plot. It tends toward the lyrical.
As a writer, you just have to be hyperaware of the very predictable pitfalls to avoid so it doesn't turn into mere indices of details. You have to keep applying pressure, to interrogate the details. So it's inclusive but not exhaustive, if that makes any sense.
Dave: The novel plays with time, and it's also, to some extent, about our perception of time.
Harding: Yes. The book messes with time and the experience of being in time. Going back to what you were saying, time stops and moments explode. The constriction and dilation of time and consciousness. I spend my time reading all the physics I can understand, and time is the big mystery. And theology: I spend tons of time reading Karl Barth and Jonathan Edwards. Also philosophy.
This whole idea of being in time is fascinating. And it's connected to narrative. That's what narrative is all about: This happened, and then this happened, and then this happened. We're in the stream of it, wondering what it all means.
Dave: There's a passage close to halfway through the book that begins, "O, Senator, drop your trousers! Loosen your cravat!" It's a distinctly Whitmanesque flourish.
Harding: Or Emerson.
Dave: That passage sits alongside technical descriptions of clockworks. You use a number of voices side-by-side.
Harding: You want to give yourself access to as many textures and rhythms as possible. The analogy is to the painter's palette. Also, it's just fun. It was purely delightful to be able to write in this way.
I love Emerson, and I love Melville: nineteenth century, birch bark metaphysics — I love that. But the style is archaic. I couldn't write in that style cold and have it not seem instantly, utterly, uselessly mannered. Well, here's a plausible excuse to use some of that delightful, nineteenth century, rhetorical tone. Rather than flattening out the story through mannerism, it actually deepens it. Same with the book, The Reasonable Horologist...
Dave: Can I assume you made that up?
Harding: That's totally made up.
Dave: Is there a long history of unreasonable horologists?
Harding: No! No, no. Make of this what you will — it's loosely associative — but I think of it in terms of the Enlightenment. So I think: reason; the Age of Reason and Enlightenment; the idea of the clockwork universe. In the 1780s, that would be this philosophical ideal that man has finally given himself access to reason, which is going to unlock mechanisms of the cosmos. I liked the idea of a strain of the narrative with that kind of exuberance, the access to your own reason. And that's set in synthesis with the more religious stuff.
Kenner Davenport, the author [of The Reasonable Horologist] is an amalgam of the old critic Hugh Kenner and the old writer Guy Davenport because they did all these funny little books about automatons and strange things like that. It's a little homage to them, and a way to give the writing access to that strain of thinking.
Dave: One of my favorite lines from The Reasonable Horologist is, "Our greatest clock men find that poetry resides in the human process of distilling civilization from riotous nature!"
Harding: There's that joy, this idea of distillation. For me, it ends up being ominous, too, with industrialization. But taking metal out of the earth and, through the process of smelting, ending up with stuff like brass, and then being able to make clocks out of that — machines and mechanisms and calculations, this idea of distilling the natural world, it was fun to play with those ideas.
This is one reason why dispositionally you end up a fiction writer rather than a philosopher: You can take these ideas and investigate them; in the context of fiction, you're under no obligation to prove them. They can all exhibit their own virtues and shortcomings, and then when you lay them next to each other, they create something like chords and harmonies. They reverberate amongst themselves. The hope is that the whole is more than the parts.
Dave: We learn about George in a similar manner, by putting complementary pieces together until a more fulsome understanding emerges. For example, we see in the first few pages that he started repairing clocks late in life. It's a bit of a surprise when later we find out that much of his exuberance for the job comes from how well it pays.
Harding: Right. He came from a dirt-farming, hardscrabble background, so that was a pleasant surprise for him. But he finds it engrossing, I think; and roughly, associatively, there's something appealing about clocks because they promise order.
People like the idea of an orderly universe. On the most basic level, given the chaotic nature of George's early life, losing his father, being impoverished, there would be something reassuring about not only the regularity and orderliness of clocks but also their mendability.
It makes me think of another quote from somewhere in The Reasonable Horologist, about "banishing the imps of disorder." The clock almost represents man remaking the world in his own image, or distilling the world, precipitating it into a version of the world that he can fix. That doesn't really work, but it's a lovely idea. That it fails is not necessarily a strike against it.
For instance, what's so great about Moby Dick: Melville cuts the whaling ship down the middle and goes deck-by-deck, task-by-task, inflating everything on the ship into a metaphor for the entire cosmos. He gets onto these flights, and gets you believing, Yes, the cooper and his barrel! That really is like the universe! And then he'll say, "Oh, we should stop all this silliness. We're going to fall out of the crow's nest if we go on this way."
These metaphors are going to fail, but that's no reason to stop making them. There's something wonderful about that.
Dave: When George runs away, he thinks,
To run away meant away. He had never been away. Away was the French Revolution or Fort Sumter or the Roman Empire. Maybe, Boston, three hundred miles away south. He had no idea what was in the three hundred miles between here and Boston.
That scene helps to reinforce their isolation, deep in the woods of Maine.
Harding: My own maternal grandparents were from northern Maine. Every year, my grandfather would take us into the woods, and we'd spend a lot of time fly-fishing, out in the boonies up there. You quickly get a sense of that isolation. Even in August, there's frost in the morning. Summer is about five weeks long. There's this real idea of, There's not even electricity or flushable toilets out here now. When winter clamped down on this place, you must have got down on your knees and prayed that you'd make it to spring.
Dave: The publisher describes Tinkers as "life affirming." Maybe that's true, but it took me by surprise when I read it. What do you think?
Harding: To me, the only way to be anything close to what you would call "life affirming" is to try to write truthfully. Any affirmation in the story comes from giving these people the respect that comes from bearing precise and accurate witness to the truth of their lives.
In that sense, there's affirmation. Even these very modest, obscure people, if you take the time to bear witness to their inner lives, you find a richness that you might not suspect is there. It's a very funereal book. But you get the one thing by setting it in relief against the other; the light shines brighter because it's so dark.
I don't think I have a particularly morbid sensibility. I'm not obsessed with death more than any other novel writer, I don't think. To me, though, it's the Keats thing: truth, beauty; beauty, truth. And this ends up tied back into the catalog of the living room: Meaning and value reside in this life, itself. Imminence instead of transcendence — you get this paradox where by going deeper into reality you end up transcending it in some way.
I don't know. That's why it's art and not cabinet making. If you're going to be truthful with yourself and your readers, you're not going to try to answer these questions. You'll penetrate through to these places. And now we have arrived at the place where a reader undertaking this kind of writing means to get to in the first place. Now that you're here, I'm not going to do some kind of reductive reading.
I teach writing, and one thing I often tell my students is that you never try to confuse your reader; you don't want to seem complicated or fancy or clever. You try to write clearly, lightly, precisely, and truthfully about things that are truly mysterious, rather than writing obscurely about things that once the reader figures out the clever trick or conceit prove to be just received opinion.
Dave: In the spring before his death, George dictates his memories into a tape recorder. He loses himself in doing this, but as soon as he plays back the recording, he's repelled. He burns the tape. That's a moment when we can probably recognize a bit of ourselves in George. Most of us have had some kind of similar experience.
Harding: Hopefully, it's totally recognizable.
Dave: Did you ever feel that way when you recorded music and then listened to it played back?
Harding: With music it happens incessantly. What you hear when you play music is not what other people hear. You listen to what you play, and it sounds nothing like what you thought. Usually for the worse.
The level at which I was playing music... We were a power trio, and I basically played lead drum. I played the crap out of the thing. I think I was a good live drummer because I beat the living tar out of the drums. It was big and bombastic; we played a lot of 6/8 stuff, big, thunderous, rolling, the heave and the ho of 6/8 time. Then we'd get into the studio, and I couldn't play to a click track. All these things suddenly become necessary in a studio. In the emotion of the moment, it feels cathartic. Then you listen back to it, and it's the antithesis; you're abashed rather than elated.
That's the kind of moment George has with the recording. It's confessional in the sense of Augustine. But the experience itself of catharsis is not what is captured. When he plays it back on a cheap old Sears tape recorder and he hears it objectively, outside of his own experience, he thinks he sounds uneducated.
Dave: Do you still play music publicly?
Harding: No. I think the last time I played drums was a session for Mary Lou Lord. She made a Kill Rock Stars EP, and we did a cover of the Bevis Frond song "Lights Are Changing." Later she recorded the song with the dude from Bevis Frond playing the drums, so I apparently didn't impress them.
It's been at least ten or twelve years since I played, but finally, after all these years, I've set up my drum set. Both of my sons are now old enough to want to go down to the basement and smack around on it. That means that now I go down there. I've started playing to the iPod. In some ways, I'm a much better drummer for not having played for ten years. Not to get cheesy, Zen 101 about it, but I think I have more taste now.
But in terms of music and writing, the difference between playing drums in a rock band at one hundred twenty-five decibels and sitting at a desk pecking away at a laptop — the differences are mostly superficial. One is really noisy and very public, and the other, at least in the composition, is private. But they scratch the same itch. The idea of creativity, or precipitating experience into art, it's the same sort of thing.
I think I'm a better writer than I was a drummer. I have a little more patience for it.
Dave: Are you working on anything now? What projects do you expect to undertake?
Harding: What did William James call these weird periods in between, when you're not necessarily working on anything in particular? All the reading you're doing, it's like putting the ingredients into the pot and setting it on simmer.
I guess I'd say I'm working on a selection of short stories, a cycle of stories. The town where George lives in Tinkers is called Enon; everything I've been writing is centered in that same town.
I've published a couple short stories. One of them, "Miss Hale," was one of the hundred honorable mentions in Best American Short Stories, but no one ever told me. One of my students came in and said, "Congratulations!" George actually shows up in that story for one or two lines. He's the narrator's grandfather.
I wouldn't go so far as to say I'm deliberately doing my own Yoknapaptawpha thing, but I troll the same fishing spots. I'm kind of a landscape junkie, landscape as character. Just the idea of this town... The area where I grew up, on the North Shore of Boston, has a lot of Audubon sanctuaries, so I spent a lot of time walking around the northeastern woods. I'm preoccupied with that landscape and the light.
When I read Thoreau's book on the Maine woods, it resonates in such a way... Same with Wallace Stevens. It's impossible for me to read enough Wallace Stevens. The way that he turns the weather into a cosmology, occasions for cosmological investigation. I find myself laid claim to by the landscape where I grew up. Maine remains semi-mythical. I spend a couple weeks each year up there. In the winter down here, I'm always wondering what it must be like up there.
So, probably short stories. I probably have eight to ten in various stages of construction or planning, but I have a feeling that there's some kind of subterranean root network between them that might need a couple years to see if it will come to anything.
Dave: Publishing your first book, what do you make of the process?
Harding: It's been nice so far, but the book isn't even out yet. I remember the interminable waiting in the music business. You record the music and you mix it, and then it has to go get mastered and pressed up. It's an interesting delay. We were always ready to make the next album by the time the first one came out. In this case, I'm glad I have a little more time. The writing and the publishing of it are such different processes.
Dave: Tinkers is already attracting a lot of attention, particularly for a small press debut. That must be gratifying.
Harding: I didn't think it would ever get published. I finished the book and it was literally sitting under my desk. With the state of things commercially these days, if you describe the book to a commercial publisher...
I'm eternally grateful to Erika Goldman and Bellevue Literary Press, her being at Bellevue and Bellevue putting her in a situation where she could say yes to a book like this. That makes me exuberant and hopeful. And then the great thing, too, is what you guys are doing. The idea that Powell's is creating this special edition, to me it's the coolest thing in the world. I'm a total book junkie. I really love cool, small print run books. I have my signed first editions of Sebald. It's a rare pleasure, that sort of connoisseurship.
I love the picture on the front. I worked on the book for five or six years, and I never showed it to anybody. The first person who read it was Barry Unsworth at Iowa. He'd been one of my teachers, and I'd kept in touch with him. But Erika was literally the first person outside of Barry Unsworth to have read the book, so for her to immediately say, "This is the cover I want to use for it," that was a good sign. And then, even better news, when I saw the cover she wanted to use, I thought, Jesus, that reminds me of what I wrote!
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State