Tinkers needs to be approached slowly and savoured, read less as a novel than as poetry. I say this having approached the novel myself at a gallop, charging through the first several pages on the strength of my momentum, and wondering at the end of it what I may have missed. Perhaps nothing of importance. And there, perhaps, is the rub.
Tinkers is a tale of how illness affects families in their response to the person afflicted. It is also very much a novel of reminiscence in considering how the afflicted person sees himself in the context of his illness. George is dying. His bed, which he knows is to become his deathbed, is set up in the family living room in which his children and other relatives come initially to express their concern and to provide George with assistance but, as time goes on, he becomes increasingly a part of the furniture with life going on around him as if he barely exists. This leaves George with much time to think.
Where it becomes a little confusing is in the introduction of George’s own father. Afflicted by his own illness – epilepsy – with which his own family can barely cope, we do not see Howard through the eyes of George. There is too much there he could not have known. Instead, Howard enters the work as a second protagonist in effect. I say in effect because George’s lack of lucidity, made plain from the outset, may mean that this is a false reminiscence with George filling in the gaps. I may have missed something. I may not. Perhaps it makes no difference.
By the novel’s end, Howard’s own father and his own indisposition is introduced, something George – or Howard – makes plain that George could never have known about given Howard had never discussed it with him. However, most of the narrative is given over to George and Howard, with Howard having the bulk of it.
There is something here of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, a realistic twist on its theme of family development in the face of a key member of it becoming ill and even, in the case of Howard in particular, in the effective rejection of that member in the metamorphosis illness produces. It seems likely Harding had Kafka’s work in mind, even if only subconsciously, in writing this novel. Indeed, at the beginning with effective ‘dream sequences’ being presented, the novel suggests it is to be less realistic than it turns out to be, but these sequences are soon lost and the realistic approach largely prevails from early on in the novel, albeit with echoes in the strange turn of mind that affects Howard prior to one of his fits, or in George’s own consideration of clocks – as a horologist – as suitable metaphors in considering his own condition.
There seems to be no marked linearity in the development of plot, or plots, as we watch these men in their actions and activities. Significant events are presented. Decline is marked. So we follow the characters through notable moments in their lives and in their illness as a series of anecdotes, usually inconsequential in themselves. Or apparently so.
If I sound uncertain throughout this review, that’s because I am. For that, a potentially five-star novel loses a star. In some of the turns of events, the strange goings-on, the dream sequences, the disjointed happenings, I feel as if I am supposed to be seeing something here that I’ve missed. For example, at one point we are presented with a (perhaps illusory, perhaps not) native American in a river, his head alone above the water. He opens his mouth, and a fish jumps straight down his throat so obligingly that the recipient of its sacrifice doesn’t even need to swallow. It’s things like that leave me wondering whether I’m supposed to have spotted something I simply can’t spot. Or should I just take it as read and move on? Is this a novel too clever for its own good, too clever for mine, or am I finding the potential for cleverness where none actually exists? In these considerations I can’t find anything solid to examine. There seems to be nothing more I can derive from such things than that they simply are. I’m happy – more than happy – to leave a novel puzzling over hidden meanings and deeper understanding but instead, with Tinkers, I’m left pondering structure and authorial intent. And, indeed, the possibility of my own want of intelligence. Such thoughts are considerably less appealing.
I am tempted to read the novel again at some point, but fear in doing so I will emerge with the same bemusement… so perhaps not. The work is beautifully written, the events interesting, the characters well-delineated if, overall, a little passive and internal, not in itself a bad thing though it can feel at times that life goes on too much around the central characters than within them. That, though, is in accordance with the theme. Perhaps these positives should be enough and that is all there is, the negative purely my own sense of something missed with no way for me to find it. I’m glad I read it once, but that mild irritation lingers. Perhaps a second reading would not dispel it, only intensify it.