I wanted to do a post on Paul Harding’s Tinkers, which I recently finished reading. Two thoughts: first, how I would situate Harding’s book in contemporary American fiction; second, a brief thought on how the book relates to the defenses of the humanities in previous posts.
So, first thought: Back when I was in college, now over a decade ago, people were still talking about “postmodernism” and “postmodern literature” — especially fiction by Barth, Barthelme, and others not named Barth() who wrote playfully self-referential, anxious, formally innovative stories and novels. The works that got called “postmodern” usually contained a lot of very strenuous literary artifice and were often criticized for being hypercaffeinated exercises in cleverness, light on hard-won feeling or difficult insight. They seemed to come out of some decadent, exhausted sense that every formal possibility in literature had already been explored, so that there was nothing left to do but pull literary pranks — including pranks that had already been pulled two centuries earlier in Tristram Shandy. Maybe because I was reading Harold Bloom back then, I remember associating postmodernism with the chaotic age that follows Vico’s age of men. In my mind, the ancient Greeks and the Renaissance writers and the Romantics and the Modernists dealt with primary things in original forms; postmodern fiction wasn’t really trying to do either. It was mocking whatever happened to be lying around.
Anyway, I remember being annoyed by a lot of the postmodern fiction I read as an undergraduate. Sometimes it was a little funny, but it was never funny enough to justify the effort of reading it. It was never as funny as the funniest movies or truly funny novels like Gulliver’s Travels, Dead Souls, and Pnin, none of which required wading through a thousand pages of superficially processed raw material from other books and non-book data sources.
Above all, postmodern fiction seemed too easy. Cleverness, I thought, is easy compared to emotional work or real thinking. The difference between the work that went into Gravity’s Rainbow and the work that went into Heart of Darkness is like the difference between coming up with a series of puns — something that computers can already do — and coming up with one of Louis CK’s stand-up shows — something that a computer will almost certainly never be able to do. At the same time, I could feel the tricksterish, antinomian appeal of writing postmodern fiction, which probably only intensified my scorn for it — the special scorn that we reserve for things that come dangerously close to reflecting parts of ourselves.
These are, of course, familiar criticisms of postmodern literature. Once I heard that David Foster Wallace had articulated my own doubts about his work, it became pointless to dwell on the issue. As Zadie Smith pointed out several years ago in The New York Review of Books, postmodern fiction really isn’t something that needs to be undermined anymore. It lost, and the MFA-industrial complex of delicately crafted, precisely observed New Yorker-style fiction won.
The trouble is, I’ve always had skeptical reservations about New Yorker-style fiction as well. How many stories about middle-class marital infidelity does the world really need? I read very slowly, and I’m not sure how much I can gain from spending twenty or fifty hours of my life reading a subtle, minutely detailed realist account of the various problems faced by the typical audience-member for NPR’s Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me. I also feel a slight sense of dread whenever I open a novel and find that all of the pages look the same — a workshop-approved balance of sentences of reasonable length arranged in reasonably paced paragraphs alternating in a reasonable manner between exposition, description, and quotation — with the exposition and description containing an acceptable amount of general observation, a heavy fortification of concrete detail, and a few maturely constrained dashes of figurative language as a kind of exotic spice.
After feeding on the MFA-industrial diet for too long, someone might start to hunger again for the kind of formal variety that postmodern fiction provided. But without the self-indulgence and futility. This was what I ended up thinking: to move forward, literary fiction could try drawing on the formal innovation of postmodern fiction, but with the seriousness and difficult work of emotion and thought that goes into the best realist fiction. The kind of book I had in mind would look different from a New Yorker story when you flipped through its pages. Maybe it would even look different from one page to the next. But it wouldn’t be a self-defeating joke or pointless formal exercise.
I guess the primary thing I wanted to say about Tinkers is that it fits this description. It’s one of the few books I’ve read that moves literary fiction forward in the way I’ve always hoped things would go. Like a handful of earlier books I’ve appreciated — like Austerlitz and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting — and no doubt like many other books I haven’t read but look forward to reading (including Eimear McBride’s recent A Girl is a Half-formed Thing), Tinkers draws on the formal possibilities opened up by experimental fiction, without becoming meta-fiction or formal experimentation for its own sake. I don’t intend this post to be a review, so I won’t try to summarize the combination of styles and even genre-types that Tinkers moves between. I’ll just say that it pretends to be a variety of different kinds of texts, and it moves between these forms without presenting them all as existing within a single realist frame.
My second thought about Tinkers was simply to share the appreciation I sometimes experienced while reading it. The book does the kinds of things that I described good literature doing in earlier posts on the humanities. While reading, I found myself thinking about things that matter but that most of us rarely have occasion to think about: the importance of family and love, the mutability of human commitments, the importance and lack of importance of money, the fact that those I love will die, and I will die. Family, love, death, work. When the book prompted me to think about these things, and moved me, it was hard to imagine a novel doing much more than that.
That’s really all I wanted to say about Tinkers, although I should also add that I still have some ambivalence about the book. Between the passages that moved me and made me think, there were a lot that seemed primarily concerned with exploring old-timey gadgets and quirks of language for their own sake, and in weaving together various figurative motifs for their own sake. But this is a minor criticism for a novel that’s so concise (less than 200 pages). It’s also very possible that I didn’t give these in-between passages the interpretive attention that they deserved. It’s probably suitable — and maybe it was intended to be this way — that a book about tinkers and tinkering would end up spending a lot of time tinkering with small matters and stylistic textures rather than dealing entirely in grand themes.