On Tinkers

October 6, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

Myth is what happens to a strong belief once the belief has changed. In other words, what was once firm belief, turns into cultural story and entertainment. They become important narratives, but not necessarily belief systems. For example, we know who Zeus is, but I doubt that anyone believes the story of Leda and the Swan. (I say that with some hesitation because one could argue that the story is really about transformation, and that that particular myth represents the idea of change. I do concede that change is indisputable.) My point is, rather, that at one time, a society upheld Zeus as a supreme being and now we anthologize those representations into myth as opposed to religious texts. These stories often address the uncertainty of change or new beginnings. They analogize situations for which we have no data and no real coherent answer. They often come from ancient societies, but in today's blog I want to take a peek at a recent novel which, I argue, demonstrates the way that history sometimes feels mythic.

Recently I read the contemporary novel, Tinkers by Paul Harding. I felt that the novel ably demonstrated this idea of transformation from the almost-impossible (or unspeakable) into the mundane. By weaving fictional texts in and out of his story, Harding creates the mythic beginnings of a family. Through a poetic, winding style, the reader must piece together the family history. The men in this family all carry one trait, that of epilepsy. In the beginning, societal fears surrounding epilepsy in conjunction with the other-worldly experience of a seizure, defines the men. The omniscient narration style allows for historical notions to fluidly enter the stream of consciousness of one who experiences an episode. Therefore, through three subsequent generations, we better understand the historical time period as well as the individual characters.

In the first generation, the father is sent to an insane asylum (which was the only 'treatment' for epilepsy at this time). In the next generation, the insane asylum option exists, but the father abandons his family before being committed. Instead, he turns to a mundane city life in which he bags groceries and remarries. In this new life, he is valued and treated as normal. It is as though he has gone through a transformation from mythic beginnings to mundane humanity. Once the men remove long-held beliefs (placed upon them by society or reputation), they achieve the power to direct their own lives. They have stepped outside of the long-held belief which previously devalued their lives. Instead, the reader hopes that future generations will go on to live a life which achieves some level of happiness, despite disability.

The passage below exemplifies these mythic beginnings. In this section, a son watches a father fish for an apple. Whether he is actually watching this scene is less important than trying to see how the son understands his father. He literally imagines (or sees) his father's disintegration. The narrator does an excellent job of describing this ethereal being return to what must be the stuff of all beginnings.

“Another time I found him fumbling for an apple in the barrel we kept in the basement. I could just make him out in the gloom. Each time he tried to grab a piece of fruit, it eluded him, or I might say he eluded it, as his grasp was no stronger than a draft of air threading through a crack in the window. He succeeded once, after appearing to concentrate for a moment, in upsetting an apple from its place at the top of the pile, but it merely tumbled down along the backs of other apples and came to rest against the mouth of the barrel. It seemed to me that even if I could pick an apple up with my failing hands, how could I bite it with my dissipating teeth, digest it with my ethereal gut? I realized that this thought was not my own but, rather, my father's, that even his ideas were leaking out of his former self. 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, or lunar dust or railroad spikes. Perhaps they already were all of these things and my father's fading was because he realized this: My goodness, I am made from planets and wood, diamonds and orange peels, now and then, here and there; the iron in my blood was once the blade of a Roman plow; peel back my scalp and you will see my cranium covered in the scrimshaw carved by an ancient sailor who never suspected that he was whittling at my skull – no, my blood is a Roman plow, my bones are being etched by men with names that mean sea wrestler and ocean rider and the pictures they are making are pictures of northern stars at different seasons, and the man keeping my blood straight as it splits the soil is named Lucian and he will plant wheat, and I cannot concentrate on this apple, this apple, and the only thing common to all of this is that I feel sorrow so deep, it must be love, and they are upset because while they are carving and plowing they are troubled by visions of trying to pick apples from barrels. I looked away and ran back upstairs, skipping the ones that creaked, so that I would not embarrass my father, who had not quite yet turned back from clay into light.”

Many thanks to the conversation group which opened up this incredibly poetic text to me!

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