Posts Tagged ‘Tinkers’

I’ve said it before (but at the time I may have still been events coordinator at our local indie bookstore, and therefore professionally invested in exhorting people to attend) and I’ll say it again: there’s nothing quite like hearing an author read and discuss his or her work. Take Paul Harding, who I heard at Gibson’s today. Admittedly I’ve said many times I could listen to him read his grocery list and learn something. But hearing him read from his new book Enon helped me understand the reaction I’d had to the book in a way even discussing it with other readers couldn’t.

I read this book during my vacation reading binge. I came away feeling somewhat drained; I describe Enon as devastatingly brilliant and just plain devastating. I chatted with a writer friend about what we each thought — it’s stylistically different than Tinkers, which Paul* described today as an unlineated lyric poem. Enon is first person narrative, a book with dialogue. She felt Enon wasn’t as “tight” as Tinkers and said although she admired it she didn’t enjoy it, which gave me pause.

I agreed but then rescinded that feeling today: I stand by my original assertion that I enjoyed it. It’s a tough book, emotionally. But even in its darkest parts, Paul noted, he made sure never to extinguish the light altogether; he hoped the light — hope — would be the brighter for the darkness. Paul described it today as a ghost story, and a book about a person, Charlie Crosby, experiencing grief.

He noted that a narrative about an actual grieving person is not a meditation on grief. Instead, he called it a lamentation, a psalm. He said that Charlie’s sense he shouldn’t be doing what he’s doing, and then his doing it anyway, is straight out of Paul’s letter to the Romans. I sat there thinking “that’s so true, and I hadn’t thought of that.” A few minutes later he said something I’ve heard him say before: that he tells his students, what a writer should strive for is that readers will read a sentence and say “that’s true, and I’ve always known it but I’ve never seen someone put it into words like this before.”

That sense of profound truth, of human experience writ both small, in the story of a particular person, and large, in the sense you get reading it that this man is every man who ever lived, now and in the past and the future, that time has compressed, as Paul would have it, and that reading this book reveals what is, what was, and what will be in the human heart, well, that is just about as beautiful an experience as a reader can have.

And that is why I enjoyed Enon, in all its devastating, heartbreaking, gutsy raw truth.  The literary pyrotechnics aside — Paul’s inordinate skill at not only writing prose that it strong and powerful and lovely but also at weaving so much detail into his world that you feel you could walk through the town of Enon and know your way — this book will enter your mind and heart. Paul Harding makes me see the world differently. It’s both a more difficult and a more hopeful place, which I always knew, and never heard anyone else put it into words quite the same way before.

*I’ve spoken with him several times and actually sold a copy of Tinkers to his mother at one of his events before I realized that’s who she was. Also he’s possibly the only Pulitzer prize winner I’ll be on a first name basis with, so I’m taking the liberty of referring to him as Paul.

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This week I read Tim Horvath‘s first book, Understories, and it made me realize there are some excellent writers you’ve never heard of (nor have I). If it wasn’t for the fact that Horvath knows Rebecca Makkai, who I met last summer, I might not have heard him read from “Circulation” when they visited Gibson’s Bookstore in July (Rebecca was promoting the paperback of The Borrower). It’s entirely possible that what with books for my column, books I hear about at work, and books already around my house waiting for me to read (not to mention heavy media coverage of only a few “it” titles a month, but that’s another rant), I might have missed Understories.Which is maddening, because this is not a book I would want to miss.

Understories is a very satisfying short fiction collection because the stories not only share an aesthetic — writing that is philosophical, sometimes whimsical, darkly funny, thought provoking, intense, evocative — but seem to come from a world that is similar to ours but riddled with portals into imagined places beyond anything you or I could dream up. I loved the way reading these stories left me feeling slightly off kilter.

Examples: the eight “Urban Planning” stories are each set in a strange city, such as one inhabited by the dead (new residents don’t always realize it at first). Another city has films constantly projected on its walls, and the main characters in that story are a projectioneer and his childhood friend who is in an anticinematic movement.

Some of the other stories that aren’t part of the “Urban Planning” series also dip into fantasy, like “The  Conversations,” which I read as a satirical poke at the breakdown of civil discourse. Conversations (capital C) explode like terror attacks, leaving a strange mint scent in their wake. A philosopher determines that the opposite of Conversation is kismet, “meaning moments when people found common ground in an almost transcendent way.” He’s delusional and has spent a lot of time on his research: “the idea was to ingest as many and as various substances as he could track down, legal and illegal alike, and describe them.” He crashes a scientific summit convened to solve the problem of Conversations.

Even the stories set firmly in what we recognize as reality have a philosophical bent; Hovarth doesn’t just tell a story, he gives readers a window into the hearts, minds, and souls of his characters. I was drawn to many of them — the main characters in “Runaroundandscreamalot” and “Circulation” are people living with a great deal of empathy, even as they struggle, respectively, with divorce and joblessness and a dying parent. They each have a fairly quirky relative – an inventor brother in one case, and the dying father in the other, a man whose life work (never finished) was a book called the Atlas of the Voyages of Things.  Both men are so kind to these misfit souls whose quests have impacted their families’ lives.

I also loved “The Understory” — what a beautiful story. Schoner, a botany professor at University of Freiburg where Heidegger is also teaching, gets to know the philosopher before fleeing Germany ahead of the war. In America he can’t teach because his English isn’t good enough, so he landscapes, and eventually buys a home with a small patch of forest in New Hampshire. The hurricane of 1938, closely followed by the hurricane of Hitler’s invasions of Czechoslovakia and Poland, topples the trees Schoner loves, even as the war topples everything he’s known in Germany. His children want him to “clean up” the plot, cut paths through it, but he refuses because in it he sees all the people who he lost: “this plot preserves them.”

“The Discipline of Shadows,” about an “umbrologist” is both a playful jab at academic politics and a funny and strange story about a professor of shadows. In “Planetarium,” a man vacationing with his family in Glacier National Park runs into an old high school classmate and revisits the memory of a girl he knew, his giddy admiration of her, and her rejection of him. I’m summarizing poorly, but Hovarth captures that bittersweet sense of both the pleasure and pain of adolescence that can be easily triggered by a memory conjured after long dormancy.

This is not a quick read; it’s a book to read slowly and carefully, and to ponder between stories. But you’ll be glad you spent time in Tim Horvath’s rich, thoughtful, witty fiction. I was not surprised that Bellevue Literary Press published Understories. They bring readers this kind of thought provoking, beautiful book (like Tinkers and The Sojourn)Check out their titles, and maybe you will discover a book you might have missed.

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