Author Features / Features / Fiction

Time, Death, and Grief: The Risky Fiction of Paul Harding

by Joe Schuster

On the surface, it may seem that Paul Harding made a safe choice when he settled on the territory for his new novel, Enon. It shares the same geographic setting as his debut, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Tinkers—both take place in the fictional New England town that gives his second novel its title—and centers on the same family that populates that earlier novel. Tinkers tells the story of the last days of the life of George Crosby and Enon that of his grandson, Charlie, who appears briefly in the first novel. Beyond those surface elements, the narrative mechanism of both books turns on a similar event—the death of an important figure. In Tinkers, we learn in the first sentence that the central character is dying, and in Enon, the third sentence tells us that Charlie’s daughter dies after a car hits her, days before she is to start high school. Following those openings, both trace the deterioration of their protagonists.

In Tinkers, we watch George’s body fail and his mind shift in and out of consciousness with varying connection to reality, and the largely interior narrative moves back and forth in time, both within his life and within the lives of his father and his grandfather, slipping sometimes into hallucination. In Enon, after the accident that kills his daughter, we watch Charlie’s life unravel: the interior narrative moves through the end of his marriage and then we observe his fall into a depression that deepens until he is able to do little more than sleep on the couch. When he does stir from his house, it’s only because of a kind of animal need—at first to buy coffee and cigarettes, then to convince a series of doctors to write him prescriptions for pain killers, and then, when the doctors stop writing the prescriptions, to meet with a dealer who sells him drugs for exorbitant prices. Finally, we see Charlie breaking into the homes of elderly residents who, he suspects, will have drugs he can steal to numb his pain. Sometimes Charlie wanders the town in his grief, visiting the cemetery where his daughter’s ashes are buried, becoming nearly as much a ghost as she is; sometimes he’s a sort of ghost in his own life, waking in the cemetery with no notion of how he got there.

Despite these marked similarities, however, Enon is, in a number of ways, just as risky a venture as was Tinkers and gives strong evidence that Harding is a writer who, despite the considerable accomplishment of his first novel, is serious about continuing to test himself. In fact, according to Harding, there’s no point in trying to write serious fiction unless you’re willing to accept that it must test you:

“If you feel comfortable then something has gone wrong,” he says. “I sat down every day writing Enon thinking, ‘I can’t do this. I can’t write this book.’ Faulkner talked about this: You have to write better than you’re able to write. With any project I always have the sense that I am not a good enough writer to write the book I want to write. But then the only way to become a good enough writer to write the book I want to write is to write the book I am trying to write.”

By now, Harding’s story is familiar to anyone who pays attention to contemporary literature. In 2004, a handful of years after he earned his MFA in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he finished a short novel, Tinkers, and set about trying to find an agent or a publisher for it. He had no takers. As he later told a reporter for The New York Times, “[The agents and editors] lectured me about the pace of life today. It was, ‘Where are the car chases? Nobody wants to read a slow, contemplative, meditative quiet book.’” Harding put the novel away and assessed his motives for writing at all. “I had to reconcile myself with making art for art’s sake because I had to face the fact that publishing might not be a part of my life as a writer,” he says.

Eventually, an editor for a small publisher who had declined the book called it to the attention of the publisher of a non-profit press connected with the New York University School of Medicine, Bellevue Literary Press, who offered Harding a modest $1,000 advance. The novel appeared in 2009 when Harding was 42 and once it was out in the world, it began accumulating fans. Tinkers wound up on several “best of” lists at the end of the year. NPR named it one of the top debuts of the year and The New Yorker included it among its annual compilation of “reviewers’ favorites.” Random House signed Harding to a two-book deal and then, in April 2010, Tinkers won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction – such a surprising selection that one newspaper called the choice a “real sleeper” and The New York Times headlined its profile of Harding after the prize, “Mr. Cinderella.”

Like Tinkers, which weighs in at around 40,000 words, Enon, at roughly 70,000, is a relatively short work. Despite their brevity, the two novels are sprawling, in both scope and ambition. While the event in Tinkers that helps organize the novel, George’s death, occupies only eight days, the book covers more than a century, giving us George’s life as well as those of his father, Howard, and his unnamed grandfather. In its framing narrative, Enon deals with little more than the year following Charlie’s daughter’s death, but Harding extends the chronologic scope, largely with flashbacks to Charlie’s boyhood and then further because of Charlie’s fascination with the history of the town of Enon, which reaches to the 17th century.

The subject of time, in fact, is one of Harding’s principle concerns as a writer, something he deals with in several ways and for specific purpose. In Tinkers, George repairs clocks, and Enon reflects this in Charlie’s memories of accompanying his grandfather as a quasi-apprentice—most importantly to repair one clock in particular, made by Simon Willard, who made clocks for Thomas Jefferson and Paul Revere, among others. In his memory of that day, Charlie recalls:

The old air fell out of the clock, dry, held in the cubic shape of the case for who knows how many years until I opened the door and it collapsed out into the contemporary atmosphere, distinct and nearly colonial for a moment and then subsumed, and I wondered how old it was, it if contained any of Simon Willard’s breath.

Harding pushes Enon even farther back in time than the late eighteenth century, as Charlie’s growing grief and increased drug use sends him spinning into hallucination, including one in which he sees himself rising out of some primordial soup:

I felt as if I were the only man on earth, as if I were floating through some uninhabited, primeval realms. Only jellyfish and I would watch the vast nets of lightning being cast across the sky above . . . and hear the muted roaring of the winds over the face of the water and watch with our simple eyes the atmosphere cooking and boiling and synthesizing itself so that when the storms quieted . . . and the sun shone back down on us, we would step onto the sand with our brand-new feet and walk . . . onto the fern-littered shore.

For Harding, the centuries, and even eons, through which his novels travel give a sense of his characters inhabiting a real world that has breadth extending beyond their own life spans. More than that, his concern with time reflects one of his larger ambitions for his novels:

It’s the coupling of the infinite with the infinitesimal and how one illuminates the other. You feel how overwhelmed you are by how infinitesimal you are when you place yourself in geographic, geologic, cosmological time. But at the same time, when you go back to your own experience of that, [you introduce] the primacy of consciousness. In some ways, you’re nothing in the universe and in some ways you’re everything—the idea of the possibility that reality exists because you’re there to observe it. All of this then means that you inevitably and naturally and organically and totally belong to creation and to time. But at the same time nothing could alienate you more than that cosmological time. You just feel outmatched by it.

Clocks Paul Harding TimeBeyond his willingness to explore such large questions about what we’re to make of ourselves against such a seemingly incomprehensibly vast canvas, Harding’s riskiness as a writer is apparent in other ways. For example, in both Tinkers and Enon, he is willing to allow readers to lose their bearings in the work as he attempts to draw us deeper into the points-of-view of two characters with tenuous connections to reality. Sometimes, he makes plain to readers the trigger for George’s or Charlie’s imagining, telling us, “I thought about Kate” or “Eighty-four hours before he died, George thought,” or, “There was a photograph of Main Street in 1890 [and] I closed my eyes and imagined what it must have been like…” But at other points, he launches into a passage with no such safety net.

In Tinkers, for example, we sometimes encounter, with no introduction, excerpts from a fictional treatise on clock repair—The Reasonable Horologist—that Harding invented for the novel. Coming to such a passage, in the middle of a section where Charlie is reading aloud to his grandfather, we’re brought up short: what are we to do with this, what does it mean, why is it here? But Harding is writing about a character who moves suddenly between sleeping and waking and such passages bring us deeper into his experience, as if not only is he waking while someone is in the midst of reading aloud to him, but we are as well.

In Enon, some of these kinds of passages are even more disconcerting—intentionally so—than they are in Tinkers. For example, Charlie and his wife, Susan, elect to cremate their daughter. At one point later in the novel, as Charlie slips deeper into remorse and near madness, Harding gives us a masterful two-page passage in which he pushes us, with no preparation, into a hallucination that manifests Charlie’s horror over his thoughts of his daughter’s body burning:

The obsidian girl . . . is all but invisible, the girl of black glass . . . [She] steps in front of the furnace . . . The heat blasts at her . . . The outlines of her face and arms and legs begin to buckle and kink. Her legs give at the knees, and the rest of her slides off them and drops in front of them. She remains upright for a moment on the stumps of her legs, but then she topples face-first onto the dirt floor.

The images themselves are terrible to consider: the daughter’s body, already inhuman at the beginning of the hallucination, melts away, but Harding makes the moment even more difficult for the reader, and to great effect. He pushes us deeper into Charlie’s point-of-view so that, in a way, it becomes ours. A more conventional approach would have signaled the start of the dark vision: “One morning, Charlie dreamed that his daughter was obsidian, a girl of black glass.” There is safety for the reader in such an approach. For one, thing, we can keep our bearings more easily, as we know without doubt how the passage connects to the narrative; for another, because the fantasy would be mediated through a statement that establishes the point-of-view, the reader could remain at a distance from Charlie’s horrible fantasy. Instead, Harding strips away that distance and forces us to confront more fully Charlie’s grief and increasing disorientation. Doing so, he increases our discomfort—always a risk in the relationship between author and reader—and to great effect.

Harding also risks alienating readers in the very character that Charlie becomes as the novel progresses. While in Tinkers, Harding gives us a character that never ceases being attractive—he’s a good and upright man who had some of the difficulties that make characters in fiction engaging (for one, his father abandons him when he’s 12)—in Enon, Harding is not shy about making Charlie unattractive. His deterioration is increasingly difficult to bear as he wallows in his grief, pushing for some bottom; he’s “ravaged and haunted,” waking in his own vomit after a night of drugs, whiskey and, when the whiskey is gone, cough syrup. Even more, he turns into the sort of man who steals drugs from people who trust him and who need the drugs.

According to Harding, the litmus test of a book’s achievement is whether, when he finishes reading it, he thinks, “I’m totally shaken because I just read a great work of art.” For him, just as he doesn’t want to feel he’s in safe and comfortable territory when he writes, the point is that readers should also be able to confront something challenging as well. In a way, writing—and reading—risky work is an appropriate response to one of Harding’s obsessions as a writer, the exploration of our minuteness in the context of the seeming infinite. Because they’re not “safe,” books like Harding’s two novels offer a sort of invitation to see beyond our own tiny selves: here is the vastness of time, here is the vastness of one man’s grief. We can either look or not look.

In not looking, we perhaps preserve a bit of security and our minds remain untroubled. But doing so pushes us further into our smallness.

In looking, we may not enjoy what we see, we may not enjoy the discomfort that novels like Tinkers and especially Enon bring us, but in pulling us out of our safe, comfortable selves, they allow us to participate in the vastness that dwarfs us.

I, for one, would rather look.

Bloom Post End

Joseph M. Schuster is the author of The Might Have Been (Ballantine, 2012), a finalist for the CASEY award for the best baseball book of the year and one of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s 25 favorite fiction books of 2012. A member of the faculty of Webster University, he has published short fiction in the Iowa Review, the Kenyon Review, and the Missouri Review, among other journals.

Homepage photo credit: Caucas’ via photopin cc
Clocks photo credit: leoplus via photopin cc

Joe Schuster’s previous features: Karl Marlantes’s Matterhorn: Ghosts Into AncestorsKarl Marlantes: An Audio Conversation With Joe SchusterExperience Required: The Polar Explorer’s Guide to Writing a NovelQ&A with Joe Schuster

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