For a 180-page novel, tinkers by Paul Harding does some pretty extraordinary things.
Not the least of which is that readers must engage in the very activity the novel is about in order to appreciate the glorious mechanics of it all.
Before we poke and fiddle at this claim, let’s get our bearings first.
George, 80, is a trader and repairer of antique clocks.He is dying in his home in New England, surrounded by his wife, children and grandchildren. As his body fails, he begins to hallucinate. His consciousness is “a shifting mass, the tiles of a mosaic spinning, swirling, reportraying, always in recognizable swaths of colors, familiar elements, molecular units, showing him a different self every time he tried to make an assessment.”
During this great unraveling, George fixes his attention on a single shifting tile, his dad, whom George hasn’t permitted himself to think about since his dad abandoned the family years ago. Bodies and minds after all are not the only things that deliquesce. “Everything is made to perish,” including the clothes we sew, the homes we build, the friendships we make—and most poignantly the families we form. They all “leak” out of existence, eventually.
The novel, then, has as its emotional core the pain of abandonment and the beauty and anguish of impermanence.
One of the most striking features of the novel is Harding’s boldly inventive style. He changes narrative modes throughout in kaleidoscopic fashion. He alternates story lines between George, our protagonist, and George’s dad Howard and even George’s grandfather the pastor. Although it’s tempting to see three distinct story lines here, they’re really three strands that form a single thread of patrimony.
What wonderful things our forebears bequeath us!
A signed copy of The Scarlett Letter, a manuscript of free verse poetry, dispositions, proclivities and clichés, i.e., “it’s not man’s lot to be at ease in this world.”
A pastor’s love of words is transformed into a son’s love of poetry which in turn is transformed into a grandson’s love of antique horology.
In addition to alternating story lines, Harding shifts first- and third-person points of view and relies on interpolations of seemingly unrelated texts. In tinkers you’ll find long passages from The Reasonable Horologist by the Rev. Kenner Davenport, 1783, lengthy selections from a prose poem about nature, a substantial fragment from a sermon, and even instructions on how to build a nest using your fingers as beaks.
If these formal challenges weren’t enough, Harding deploys two systems of tropes throughout the novel. On the one hand, there’s the language of mechanism, of gears, cogs and springs of antique clockwork and the language of dynamism and chaos, on the other, of swirling thoughts, feelings and perceptions. Although these tropes threaten to work at cross purposes, ultimately they do not.
The closing two paragraphs of tinkers are as moving as anything I’ve ever read. As readers of tinkers will appreciate, Harding’s universe is a great “cataclysm of making and unmaking,” where buildings dilapidate and memories fade. Its purpose is to return hands, teeth, elbows and eyes to their starting point. At the moment of death, George is reunited with his dad in memory (a stunning Christmas scene that’s perfectly done) and reunited with him in death as he returns to the “unknowable froth.”
Paul Harding deserves to be warmly congratulated on a remarkable piece of writing.