Are you confused about writer’s “rules”? As soon as you glean a new rule from a book on writing craft or hear it from a teacher, you find an exception in a novel you’re enjoying?
We’ve all heard the admonition: “Keep flashbacks to a minimum.” Yet, time and again, I find books replete with them. Hmmm. To flashback or not to flashback? What’s a writer to do? I’m no longer confused about that “rule.” It is intended to make writing more manageable and, as with other rules, it was made to be broken.
Case in point: Paul Harding’s Tinkers. It’s mostly a flashback within the consciousness of George, a dying man, and dips even further back to George’s father’s life. The novel won the 2010 Pulitzer not because it follows the “rule,” but because it so imaginatively breaks it.
Lesson: Keep time for the reader
When I first read Tinkers, I was disoriented before I finished page three. George is dying. His house is collapsing around him, plaster falling on his head. Women are in the kitchen, men in the yard, but no one comes to George’s rescue. It made no sense. I began again with page one and realized that the author couldn’t have been more clear. The first sentence reads: “George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died.” (That’s a helpful gatekeeper. See the Gatekeepers & Story Seeds category in this blog for others.)
Somehow I’d missed “hallucinate” on the first read, or missed understanding its implications. I’d been in a hurry. I slowed my pace and read the opening again. Hmmm. George is going to die in eight days. He’s in a hospital bed in his own living room. No cliffhangers here. He’s ill and is going to die at home. I like character-driven fiction and don’t need complicated plots, so I kept reading, carried forward by the percussive prose detailing George’s hallucinations. (Harding used to be a drummer in a rock band. He says he writes by ear, by rhythm, and it shows.)
Tinkers is a meditation on life, love, and family. A rich vein of controlled emotion—love and loss—connects the stories of son and father. George’s imagination buries him in wreckage—ceiling, plumbing, old coats from the attic—and his dying days blur his present and past life with that of his father, Howard, an epileptic who abandoned his family when George was a boy. With all the hallucinations and dream-like states of consciousness, the double story line could become a blur, but Harding points the way. Throughout the book, he orients us with clear prose: “Noon found him momentarily alone…” “Nearly seventy years before George died, his father, Howard Aaron Crosby drove a wagon…” “One hundred and sixty-eight hours before he died, he snaked into the basement window…” “One afternoon, in the spring before his death, George…” “George was dehydrated ninety-six hours before he died…” “Eight-four hours before he died…” “George woke for the last time forty-eight hours before he died…”
Lesson: Play with time & consciousness
Harding’s time-keeping device ticks down the days, hours, and minutes of George’s life and propels the story forward. The narrative moves easily between George’s hallucinations and his father’s non-linear mind. These opening sentences of three successive paragraphs demonstrate how we’re carried into George’s consciousness, to Howard’s, and back to George’s with direct transitions: “George could dig and pour the concrete basement …” “The stubbornness of some of the country women with whom Howard came into contact…” “George bought a broken clock…”
If the story was more linear and the consciousness of the two men less dreamy and other-worldly, these transitions would feel too structured and obvious. It is by contrast that they work so well to establish the book’s rhythm, the zig-zagging between the men’s lives. As the novel progresses, the identifiers are less specific, yet they are particular to remembered time and place. The story lines weave in and out from page 11 until 66, then Howard’s story takes over. George appears as a boy in Howard’s section. On page 157, adult George comes back in, and his last days are interwoven with Howard’s history until the book’s end. “The last thing George Washington Crosby remembered as he died was Christmas dinner, 1953…” By this time George had the family who will figure in his dying days—the wife and children who at book’s beginning gathered around to care for him. The remembered Christmas was the last time George saw Howard, who made an unexpected visit, kept the car running outside, and didn’t stay for dinner. George’s memory of Howard’s departure merges with his final thought. Their parting, past and present, collides in one word: “Goodbye.”
Lesson: Make all elements serve the story
George repairs clocks, and clocks appear throughout as the days wind down. Howard was a tinker—a seller and repairer of things. His wagon of household and miscellaneous items juxtaposes with the stuff of George’s attic—life’s detritus falling upon him. A clock repair manual and astronomy, man-made (houses, clocks) and natural worlds (woods, weather) characterize the son and father. Because George grew up with an unpredictable father, he sought predictability as an adult. What can be counted on more than a clock, especially if one knows how to keep it ticking?
Thought that he was a clock was like a clock was like a spring in a clock when it breaks and explodes when he had his fits. But he was not like a clock or at least was only like a clock to me. But to himself? Who knows? And so it is not he who was like a clock but me.
Tinkers is held together by a sense of chaos and repair, things falling apart and being mended: clocks, pots, and emotions. It is a hymn to the firmament of life and death, the unfathomable dimensions of the heart and the real, intricate workings of daily life. Tick tock.