I first heard about Tinkers on the PBS Newshour when it had just won the Pulitzer. The description of the publisher–a tiny medical/science press that only puts out 2 – 3 works of fiction a year–and the fact that Paul Harding was an alumnus of my soon-to-be program was intriguing, and Paul’s description of being in Marilynne Robinson‘s class compelled me to pick up the book the next day.
Tinkers is the kind of book that I endlessly fantasize about writing. The language is precise and gorgeous, the story dense. I can only take it in in tiny bits, like a piece of rich cake, and I can savor every bite no matter its size. When I read a book like this, I talk to it out loud, so moved by every tight, lovely sentences, every description of nature, of the internal workings of clocks, epilepsy, old age, fierce, violent weather, encroaching death. Had you been in the same room with me as I made my way through the almost 200 pages, you would have heard nonverbal noises of affirmation, surprise, want, adoration, recognition. I would gasp, say “Jesus” in wonder, “fuck” in surprise and awe, and sometimes I would just close my eyes and press the open pages against my forehead. The protagonist suffers from seizures, and after one has passed through his body, “confusion prevailed; Howard’s blistered brain crackled and sparked blue… it was as if… [he], by accident of birth, tasted the raw stuff of the cosmos.”
This vivid, perfect description is not an accident, of course. In the Newshour interview, Harding spoke about Robinson’s influence on his writing, and the importance of precision in prose:
… something I tell my students all the time is precision is the best style, because the real beauty of your subjects comes out of, you know, describing things as accurately as possible. You know, the loveliest meaning things, you know, and beauty in things comes out of describing them and then the experience of them by your characters. You’ve got this sort of telescoping series of lenses to which you write, and you just start getting these, you know, sort of beautiful unexpected things. I mean, I don’t think that there was a sentence in “Tinkers” that I ever expected to write.
The story is a relatively simple one–an old man is dying, and in his mind travels back to his New England childhood and the people and places who remain there–but it is done with such grace, such beauty, such pain and precision, it’s almost unbelievable.
Marilynne Robinson calls Tinkers “remarkable”, and it is. If you’re a fan of her work–Housekeeping, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead, its sequel, Home–and savor beautiful prose, Tinkers will undo you.