Whenever I read a book, I’m on the lookout for unique things an author might do with language. Do they invent new words? Is onomatopoeia used to enrich the narrative? What’s the tone of the prose? Do I need to pull out a dictionary and look up words that I’ve never heard of before? I like it when the author’s language jumps out at me and makes me take notice.
An author whose language recently had this effect on me is Paul Harding. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Tinkers, Harding examines life and death, as mirrored through the protagonist’s look back on a life of repairing clocks. Although there are less than 200 pages in all, the author packs in three generations of New England family life, all centered on George Washington Crosby as he languishes on his deathbed. The overall effect is that of having created a family saga, something that is fleshed out with an eye for detail and a penchant for vivid memories. Like a tightly wound timepiece, Harding’s prose is taut and at times tense, but always full of rich language that produces an engaging narrative.
As Peter Bartels said in his June 15, 2010 review of the book, “Harding’s debut novel is a celebration of language and an invigorating exploration of human consciousness. Full of soulful, sensory truth, every page of this thin but dense novel offers a multitude of pocketable quotes: worthy not only for their wisdom, but also for the pure, aural pleasure of repeating them aloud.” An excellent example of the enjoyment the reader can get from Harding’s prose occurs early on in the first chapter, on page 15, when the author employs alliteration and onomatopoeia to craft a sensory-rich passage that reveals Howard Crosby’s susceptibility to epileptic seizures:
Tinker, tinker. Tin, tin, tin. Tintinnabulation. There was the ring of pots and buckets. There was also the ring in Howard Crosby’s ears, a ring that began at a distance and came closer, until it sat in his ears, then burrowed into them. His head thrummed as if it were a clapper in a bell. Cold hopped onto the tips of his toes and rode on the ripples of the ringing throughout his body until his teeth clattered and his knees faltered and he had to hug himself to keep from unraveling. This was his aura, a cold halo of chemical electricity that encircled him immediately before he was struck by a full seizure.
After reading these lines and experiencing the metallic sounds and sensations conjured by the author, it isn’t difficult to see how his use of language enriches and enlivens the narration. As Bartels writes, “Again and again, Harding paints flowing, alliterative pictures of what it means to grab hold of life. From beginning to end, Tinkers is nothing if not poetic.”
Another reviewer, Michele Filgate writes that “Harding’s clarity is often poetic and at times explosive” and that “Tinkers’ prose sings of seizure and shock, of frigidness and frozen motion. A grave condition is transformed into a poetic burst of alliteration and examination, but also remains terrifying.” This is illustrated when Harding has a character ask on page 45: “What is it like to be full of lightning? What is it like to be split open from the inside by lightning?” From the easily imagined jolt of the electric charge to the inherent brilliance of the situation, there is evidence that Harding adds tactile texture and depth to his narration through his use of language and the imagery he creates in the process. In addition, the physical words he uses on page 46 to produce his descriptions reinforce the imagery with their very sounds and rhythm: “In the cold, blasted, numb hours following a seizure, confusion prevailed; Howard’s blistered brain crackled and sparked blue behind his eyes and he sat slumped, slack-jawed, blanket-wrapped, baffled by his diet of lightening.” In this passage, adjectives like “cold” and “numb” set the stage for the senses, while alliteration in words like “blasted” and “blistered” and the hard K-sound in verbs such as “crackled” and “sparked” drive home the impact that lightning can have on its target. The repetition of the L-sound in words such as “slumped”, “slack-jawed”, “blanket-wrapped” and “baffled” serve to paint a melodic picture of the physical aftermath of a lightning strike. Another reviewer, Satyam Kaswala describes this description as “strong, fiery language” that shows the reader that “Howard begins to exist in between moments rather than within them as he becomes pure, unconscious energy and experiences something fuller than death in his cooked consciousness.”
Tinkers is full of similar descriptions and evocative passages that demonstrate author Paul Harding’s interesting use of alliteration and other literary devices. Although the novel is not long by Pulitzer Prize-winning standards, his compact prose compensates for this with an abundance of descriptive language. This creative use of language allows the author to enliven and enrich his prose, all the while weaving a compelling narrative.