Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Tinker on Mars

Last week, just before boarding a plane for a six hour flight, I picked up a paperback at Hudson Booksellers in the Nashville airport. My thirty-second choice was based on four things: the intriguing cover, the size (191 small pages), the endorsement by Marilynne Robinson and the Pulitzer Medallion on the front. It had all the earmarks of a winner and I wasn't disappointed.

The book is tinkers by Paul Harding. (His debut novel, BTW and, no, the title was not capitalized) The story drew me in from the start and the prose kept me reading. Like this description of a dismantled clock: "Such a crooked and flimsy device could only keep the fantastic hours of unruly ghosts." At times his style reminded me of Ray Bradbury's, the kind of short, crisp sentences that leave a minty-fresh taste in your mouth: "Lightning crawled down the mountain and drank at the water, lapped the shallows with electric tongues..." So creative. I read with a pen poised to bracket particularly inspiring passages.

I admit that I was both puzzled and encouraged by the success of this book because it bent and broke a lot of rules that we all learned in Writing 101 at the School of Hard Literary Knocks. Here are some observations that wouldn't normally get past the editor's desk or would otherwise work against its success:

  1. Multiple POV & tense changes. The kind that have you backtracking to figure out whose head you are in at the moment.
  2. Long sentences. I mean long. Stream-of-consciousness long. One sentence had 386 words and 30 commas. And two question marks, which did little to impede the sentence, since it did not actually come to a stop at either one.
  3. Lack of punctuation. I finally realized that the capitalized word in the sentence meant someone was speaking at that point, sans those helpful quotation marks.
  4. Sentence structure. Some had so many clauses that I forgot the point before the end.
  5. Small publisher: Bellevue Literary Press, a small 3-year-old, non-profit affiliated with New York University's School of Medicine. What are the odds they would produce a Pulitzer winner? The last small publisher to do so was in 1981.
  6. Time travel. Not really - it just felt that way, with the main character's hallucinations transporting him back to his childhood and further, and back again.
  7. Long passages from a manual on clock repair. I understand that these were important to the story and paralleled his father's writings, but they began without warning. Just a slight indent of the paragraph, and me momentarily scratching my head.
  8. Slight overuse of a few favorite words. The words 'sibilant' and 'boreal' and 'arboreal' were used several times. I didn't have a problem with them (they are ethereal and slightly sensual) but it registered that my editor would have pointed it out and asked for a word change because they were very distinctive.
Basically, I'm tickled pink that an author who was allowed to defy so many rules was awarded the Pulitzer, but I'll admit that I see the wisdom in those rules. More than once, I had to step back from the story to orient myself. That's precisely what we don't want as writers. Our stories should be seamless so that our readers look up at the end in wonder that they are still sitting on a familiar couch in their own home or a window seat on a crowded plane making its approach. But I guess it's a good thing I'm not a judge for the Pulitzer Award!

All in all, it's a remarkable, ground-breaking book. I will read it again and force myself not to highlight or mark sections, but to absorb it all together as a solid entity. Do you have a book that has made you wonder how the author got away with major rule breakage?


Nicole said...

I never wonder: I just applaud. The "rules" are stringent and if applied rigorously would eliminate the classics from existence and squash all creative endeavor.

Latayne C Scott said...

What you saw there was what I saw the first time I read a Faulkner novel -- incredible perception for the flow of language and thought which occurs outside of punctuation and other "rules."

He was a brilliant writer. However, when I first approached Janet Grant to be my agent and told her that I loved Faulkner and would love to write like him, she said, "Oh dear."

Yes, great writing and profitability often don't match up.

Or maybe usually don't match up? I'm wondering. Anybody else think this?

Jan Cline said...

I recently read a historical fiction that had many POV "mistakes", but a good story. As a first time novelist, I find the balancing act between rules and creative lisence is not as threatening as I thought. As a reader, I do get distracted when there are too many broken rules - I dont think I would have made it through tinker. Hats off to you for staying with it!

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Nicole, it makes me wonder exactly what the rules were when the classics were written.
Latayne, I know that generally, being a Christy Award finalist does nothing for sales. I would imagine that being a Pulitzer winner might improve them, but his publisher had only sold 15,000 of 'tinkers' and wasn't sure how many more they would print.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Jan, it was clearly the lyrical writing that kept me reading. Some times I felt like I needed a road map.

Nicole said...

That's just it, Debbie. Rules are necessary for learning the basics of writing. Some things don't work without the guidelines. However, to shovel out stories with all the rules intact creates mundane pieces which only appeal to certain types of readers.

I applaud writers who dare to create. Who take chances, who go the distance adhering to their own compass's directions. Why not? Authors follow the rules and don't sell well and vice versa. Isn't this process at its roots about the passion of the written word, about the story that comes from inspiration and begs to be formed on the page, about the creation of style with a voice all our own?

Sorry-my soapbox forever. I'll stop now. Maybe.

Bonnie Grove said...

Great post, Debbie. Made me pull my copy of The Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories from the shelf. I spend a great deal of time reading stories and novels that don't fit with the "rules" we have all been told to apply. But I always have read these books - Doris Lessing, Michael Ondaatje (his novels and memoir are a study of the physical structure of a book), Marilynne Robinson, et. al. I'll be sure to pick this one up. Thanks for reminding us to write from the gut.

Wendy Paine Miller said...

Late to the game today. Crazy busy here.

Wally Lamb is famous for his stream-of-consciousness sentences. But they work for him and his novels.

You've intrigued me about tinker. The sentence about lightning alone did it.
~ Wendy

Kathleen Popa said...

Nicole, me too. I love to see authors take risks to forge new literary trails.

This morning I'm dealing with two eight-week-old kittens, who are into EVERYTHING. I'm enjoying immensely their sense of adventure and play and amazement. Writers should be like kittens.

Not sure I agree though (if this is what you're saying) that authors who keep the rules always write mundane stories. Leif Enger kept most of them, I think, when he wrote Peace Like a River.

These kittens would be every bit as cute if they didn't crawl into my waste paper basket and bat things out of it, if they didn't play with the cords under my desk and pull the attached contraptions off my desk.

At least, that's what I'm trying to tell them.

Still, I love to see a writer break the rules and get away with it. Not easy to do.

Nicole said...

I'm not saying authors who obey the rules always write mundane literature. But I am saying if every author followed the rules exactly how they're communicated by the professionals and echoed by many others both published and not, we'd be reading formulaic and unadventurous novels with canned creativity.

I read almost exclusively in CBA. I'm not just mouthing off here. I read a lot of novels. The mundane overruled the truly interesting this year--and those folks, for the most part, followed the rules.

If every advance was earned out, if most CBA-published authors sold well, there probably would be no need for this conversation or for the discussions on marketing . . .

Megan Sayer said...

An artist painter friend of ours once painted his lounge room turquoise, with a purple ceiling and bright orange trim. The hallway was magenta and lime green. It looked amazing!

I am also a painter. I recently painted my

My point? He and I both know well the rules of colour. He also knows how to push, bend and break them to fantastic effect. Confidence.

Henrietta Frankensee said...

Rules are there to be broken! Just not too many at one time.
Rules are cultural and temporal. I am currently rereading Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. The protagonist spends more than two thirds of the novel unnamed or scarcely mentioned, at death's door and inactive toward the plot.
We exist in strange times. Many cultures and tastes swirl in the atmosphere. Markets therefore are small and legion. Literacy is high and, with the true predilection of human nature this popularises the lowest common denominator.
Juxtaposition is essential. Break a rule to stimulate but provide a settling place for comfort and encouragement.
And write from the culture you know.
How's that for a soap box?