My book club selected this remarkable first novel for our November read. Some people didn't enjoy it, put off by the odd structure, while others of us loved the ambiguity, the space for interpretation between the scenes. It's certainly not a linear narrative. In a recent blog post Jennie Cruise describes the difference between linear and patterned structure: “. . . sometimes your story isn’t about what happens next. Sometimes it’s about the pattern of events, the accumulation of small crises, the juxtaposition of character reactions, the layering of behaviors that make a character deeper and more faceted and the release of the information about that layering in juxtaposition with other characters . . . It’s not the cause and effect that matters, it’s the pattern.”
Tinkers certainly fits that definition. In the frame story, 80-year-old George Crosby is counting down the days to his death. The patterned structure is appropriate for this story. The author tells us early on that “George Crosby remembered many things as he died, but in an order he could not control . . . showing him a different self every time he tried to make an assessment.” As Cruise says, “Most of the time, most stories need linear structure, but when a story says, ‘I don’t care what happens next, I care what these things together mean,' you’re looking at a patterned structure.”
As his mental state deteriorates, George is not always sure of the identities of the people in the room. His thoughts turn to his childhood in rural Maine and his father, an itinerant peddler subject to epileptic fits who disappeared from George's life when the boy was only eleven.
Many of the fortezza, the pieces George tries to form into a mosaic, are from his father's point of view. Howard's memories, interspersed with George's, sometimes tell of the same incidents, sometimes not. These are not simple flashbacks; George could not know the details Howard relates of his travels and of his own childhood. In one of the most moving sections, Howard tells of the disappearance of his father, a minister who “leaked out of the world gradually” when Howard was still a boy. He tells of seeing his father fumbling in the apple barrel and realizing “that this thought was not my own but, rather, my father's, that even his ideas were leaking out of his former self.” Perhaps this explains how Howard's thoughts inhabit his son's dying mind.
Howard goes on to say that from this realization he understands that “Hands, teeth, gut, thoughts even, were all simply more or less convenient to human circumstance, and as my father was receding from human circumstance, so, too, were all of these particulars, back to some unknowable froth where they might be reassigned to be stars or belt buckles, lunar dust or railroad spikes. Perhaps they already were all of these things and my father's fading was because he realized this . . .”
Howard describes his epilepsy as feeling as though he is filled with lightning, “split open form the inside by lightning.” But he is more than his illness; he is a poet and a philosopher drawing on the Transcendentalist tradition of Thoreau and Emerson. In his lonely travels Howard falls into ecstatic states of wonder at the natural world: “Howard walked along the road and looked at the winter weeds poking up from the new snow. There were papery shells of burst pods and thorns and whitish nubs at the end of pannicles. Some were bent over, broken-backed, with their tops buried in the snow as if they had been smothered in the frost. The interlocking network of stalks and branches and creepers was skeletal, the fossil yard of extinct species of fine-boned insectoid creatures.” I'm tempted to quote the whole book.
Interspersed with George and Howard's memories are excerpts from a 1783 tome on horology, the study of measuring time. In his retirement George has begun fixing clocks and likes nothing better than pulling apart the ancient works to find the problem. The clock imagery is gently persistent, a background to the story without being overdone. We also get excerpts from an old book found in the attic by one of George's grandsons who reads him the profound and mysterious little reports, bits of philosophy and poetry. The first, on Cosmos Borealis, starts “‘Light skin of sky and cloud and mountain on the still pond.'” We even get some flash-forwards to what will happen after George's death.
As readers of this blog know, I am easily confused by such jump-cuts. Here, however, I was never in doubt as to the identity of a section's narrator or the time period. Since the book is written in third person point of view, I had the name of the narrator but also other details to orient me such as George's clocks, Howard's wagon full of odds and ends to sell, and the inexorably decreasing number of days until George's death.
The book is a profound meditation on identity and inheritance. George and Howard share a similar view: “Your cold mornings are filled with the heartache about the fact that although we are not at ease in this world, it is all we have . . .” On a more mundane level, they are both tinkers, though in a different realm. Howard's travels on the back roads of Maine involve not just selling necessities but also fixing things for the isolated folks who live there. George has his clocks, of course. The author too is a tinker, messing about with the workings of narrative. In the end, though, it is the language that seduces me. I'm a sucker for beautiful language and there is some gorgeous prose here. Howard's descriptions of the natural world are particularly luscious. I'm a sucker for ideas, too, and there is no shortage of ideas in this story of what is lost and found. All the pieces I want in a novel are masterfully brought together is this small volume, the best book I have read in a long time.