Two thoughts on Paul Harding’s Tinkers

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 TravelsDead 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.

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