Monday, April 12, 2010

12-day-late April Fool’s joke

The Pulitzer Prize in fiction has been awarded, if that is the right word, to Paul Harding’s Tinkers (“a powerful celebration of life,” intones the prize citation, “in which a New England father and son, through suffering and joy, transcend their imprisoning lives and offer new ways of perceiving the world and mortality”). Harding was trained, you will not be surprised to learn, in the deathless art of creative writing at the University of Iowa.

The novel, which was not even mentioned as a possible winner, consists largely of meandering “meditations” like this one, in the voice of a man lying on his deathbed (quoted from Michele Filgate’s review at the Quarterly Conversation):

I will remain a set of impressions porous and open to combination with all of the other vitreous squares floating about in whoever else’s frames, because there is always the space left in reserve for the rest of their own time, and to my great-grandchildren, with more space than tiles, I will be no more than the smoky arrange­ment of a set of rumors, and to their great-grandchildren I will be no more than a tint of some obscure color, and to their great grandchildren nothing they ever know about, and so what army of strangers and ghosts has shaped and colored me until back to Adam, until back to when ribs were blown from molten sand into the glass bits that took up the light of this word because they were made of this world . . .Stop me before I disappear into Harding’s navel! It’s official. The novel as a means of saying something public and important (and worth reading) about the human experience is now dead.

Update: I have been asked whether I have read Tinkers. The short answer is that Harding’s novel frustrated my efforts to read it. The prose never gets out of first gear. The device of alternating between narrators does not make up for the lack of a plot. Each section of the novel is a monologue, and exhibits the rambling structure of a monologue. Nor is the defense of the method convincing. Harding seeks to imitate the movement of memory, but as Yvor Winters pointed out many years ago, a writer cannot explore a mental state by being sucked into it, because understanding requires separation: to think otherwise is to fall into what Winters called the fallacy of imitative form.

After a page or two of Harding’s prose, my mind would respond to its summons and wander off on its own accord. And when I set the novel aside, I experienced a strong inner check against picking it up again. I finally gave up, and abandoned it about halfway through.

Update, II: Another good question: If not Tinkers, then what novel ought to have won the Pulitzer Prize? Last year was not, it’s true, a good year for fiction in America. But one novel stood out.

14 comments:

Richard LeComte said...

"Smoky arrangement of a set of rumors"? Like when the guys in "Mad Men" gossip? Not exactly "American Pastoral" or "Rabbit at Rest," or even "A Thousand Acres," which at least had a plot.

panavia999 said...

Frankly, I was lost on "vitreous squares" but I soldiered through the entire paragraph.
That quotation couldn't be more pretentious claptrap if it was written by a silly college girl in a poetry class.
Please oh please let the novel be literary hoax designed to expose the prize committee.

Dwight said...

So... trying to find the right words here... should an award be evaluated each year by the worthiness of what wins? Can the value of an award be completely written off when something like Tinkers wins? If so, what does that say about other recent winners like Gilead, Middlesex, Empire Falls, or The Road? (granting plenty of room for hyperbole)

D. G. Myers said...

Dwight,

What are you trying to do? Calm my hysteria? Introduce some level-headed historical perspective?

All the awarding of the Pulitzer to the bumbling Tinkers really demonstrates—you are right—is the taste of the prize jury, which included the great Charles Johnson!

Dwight said...

Heaven forfend I do anything of the sort! Although it is a good thing the author's name wasn't Sokal.

Shelley said...

"Saying something public" is an evocative and rather haunting phrase, at least to me with my work. The thing is...when you try to "say something public," you're not saying that in a vacuum. You're saying that smack dab in the middle of a huge...web of 21st century doubt about whether any belief in anything, or assertion of anything, is (a)arrogant or (b)simple-minded or (c)sentimental,or...(take it on down to z).

Trevor said...

I've got 30 pages left in the book, and I still don't know where I'll fall. On the one hand, the writing is frequently (but not always) a bit overdone. That quote you pull is horrible and as bad as it gets. Fortunately, there is actually a reason for some of that writing, as it takes often takes place when a man who considers himself a bit of a poet (and we know he's no good) is suffering from an epileptic seizure. Still, the writing does get in the way. On the other hand, I am enjoying it. Sometimes the writing is spot on, and I'm particularly enamoured by the way Harding is using time and the universe to discuss the mortality of three generations in New England.

I have to ask, though, does anyone have another candidate? I wasn't thrilled with much of the American fiction of 2009. I'd love to hear what of worth was published last year.

Kevin said...

Did you read the novel? One howler of a passage doesn't a navel-gazing make. I've not read Tinkers myself, in fact, hadn't even heard of it before today, but I'd be interested to hear why you think it fails, if that in fact is what it does. Regards, Kevin

Rose City Reader said...

Oh no. I am compulsive about reading the Pulitzer winners. But this one sounds like it will test my resolve.

Theresa said...

"vitreous squares floating about in whoever else’s frames..." sounds worse than Gabriel García Márquez's "wormy guava grove of love". Good grief!

It comes right on the heel of finding the worst cover I have ever seen for a classic. Behold: http://www.wired.com/gamelife/2010/01/dantes-inferno-reprint/

I'm not sure whether I'm glad or upset that it's only the Inferno, and not the whole of the Divine Comedy.

Patrick Scott said...

Question regarding Update 2:

I know she lives in New York, and her book takes place in New York, but isn't Zoe Heller British?

Is she even technically eligible for the Pulitzer?

Kenneth Griggs said...

I liked Tinkers. Thought the ending was great, though Harding certainly "overwrote" in parts. Guess I'm in the minority here, though. Anyway, this is a great blog. Glad I found it.

pontalba said...

There isn't a thing about the quote you've given that I don't like. Perhaps because I come from a family that is so conscious of it's antecedents, but even we, whose knowledge goes back fairly extensively for 5 generations...the author's descriptions, "smoky arrangement of a set of rumors" resonates with me. I do not find it pretentious, only accurate.

I read Tinkers last month and hated to put it down for a moment.

Lee said...

A writer may not understand a mental state by imitating it, but he can surely evoke it.