Mike Robinson's Reviews > Tinkers

Tinkers by Paul Harding
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Feb 15, 12


I might use the term "Formulaic" for this novel, strange, I know, as the term often applies to commercial literature of the Grisham / Steele variety. However, whether the New York critics and MFA graduates like it or not, there is also a certain formula for literary novels, one that is rigorously pounded into the head of every university student of creative writing. When I saw Harding was a product of the Iowa Writer's Workshop, I had a strong sense of what I was in for, and I was correct.

"Tinkers" is the classic case of a book that's all language and very little else. Many literary authors disguise their story and character shortcomings by adorning the pages in crisp and elegant prose, which is usually couched in fractured Faulkner-esque narrative techniques. Of course, I have absolutely nothing against elegant prose. I wish more authors could or would write with Harding's strive for musical fluidity in their passages. But just as with an inept genre piece, when something is lacking, nothing - not plot twists or beautiful prose - can aptly conceal it. Harding's pages slosh over with classic "melancholy sentimentality". One gets the sense he is writing with the Iowa Workshop echoing in his ear, hoping to be a Great Important Author by employing the unspoken rule of literary fiction that all Great Important Work must involve depressing entropic principles, belabor sections of mechanical daily minutia and puzzle the common reader in presentation.

With that aside, I must say that Harding skirts some of these cliches with definitive moments of pantheistic wonder that seem to embrace life and death as one rolling organism of which humankind is a welcome but stubbornly individuated part(or so it seems). The passages of cosmic marvel, and of some of the interfacing between nature and human perception, are beautifully written and quite memorable, as are those involving the hermit and Howard's epilepsy, which, in its illumination of the universe, makes for a nice allusion to Prince Myshkin's reaction to his own seizures in Dostoyevsky's "The Idiot".

Yet unfortunately, "Tinkers" reminds me of the sadly ongoing divide between the commercial and literary schools. Relatively few authors have successfully straddled the bridge, able to deliver stirring plots and three-dimensional characters in beautifully minded and manicured prose. There is no need for this separation, for which both sides are at childish fault.
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