By A.W. Marshall
The second novel conundrum is a bit of a cliché: an unknown writer succeeds spectacularly on his or her first outing, only to crumble under the pressure to outdo this success. Paul Harding’s first novel, Tinkers, was a tour de force of language and metaphor, aesthetically similar to Marilyn Robinson’s Housekeeping, but where Housekeeping was haunting and wonderfully alienating, Tinkers was laced in a mystical hope and such exquisite language that each sentence seemed its own kind of love letter.
The impression I get from Harding’s new novel Enon is that he decided to write the novel he wanted to, regardless of pressure. And like Robinsons’ second novel, Gilead (and for that matter her third, Home), he chose to not be limited by his or anyone else’s “Tinkerish” (or “Housekeepingish”) expectations.
Enon is a more commonplace thing, less about language and story than a contemporary person making sense of his life through the past. And while this is common ground with Tinkers, somehow Enon does not create the lush haze of his first novel. So while Tinkers is lyrical, lovely, and complex, Enon is less lyrical and much sadder. This is not a criticism. An author of Harding’s talent is free to examine the depth of anything, even if it makes the book a bit less fun to read.
In Enon, Harding examines grief. On page one, the narrator Charles Crosby loses his daughter, Kate, in a car accident and spends the rest of the novel beating himself into nearly humanless pulp with drugs, alcohol, and misery. As he deconstructs, Harding manages to keep Crosby’s voice strong and honest; his life has become a long-winded, out-of-body experience. He is as much a witness to his own annihilation as the reader is. Every innocuous story leads us to grief or tragedy. A simple trip to the convenience store to feed the desperate hungers of coffee and cigarettes naturally introduces stories about gophers, cats, and children who have been hit by cars on the road leading there--which naturally leads us back to Kate, to grief.
Kate is relentlessly in his memory, so much so that he imagines her woven into his small town’s history: she stars in big budget, operatic dreams, and he imagines her meeting and befriending the historic witch, Sarah Good, who was hanged. One gets the feeling Crosby is trying to weave Kate into the past he sees as constantly alive in the memorials and houses and gravestones around New England’s Enon to make her less faded, less forgotten, and more eternal. Even if he is only becoming pathetic. And that seems to be the point; he is evaporating himself because of the injustice: “Before, even as I felt a corresponding plunge of deeper despair at the thought of Kate’s death being merely now a milestone of my life, because my life continued while hers had been cancelled. It was just a matter of grammar on one level, I realized, but it still felt selfish and awful and disloyal.”
In many segments like these, Harding risks too much sentimentality in this father/daughter tragedy, but he manages for the novel to be more gothic than weepy, more gray than black. Harding walks this line expertly, matching Crosby’s sorrow with realism and awareness, such as when he picks out a pewter urn, which somehow feels connected to his family’s classical colonial aesthetics, “And I felt both abashed and comforted by the fact that I had maybe deepened the connections between myself and my grandparents and my daughter, as best I could, in an inadvertent, backhanded way, by being susceptible to the notion of being a colonial son during the subdued sales pitch for my dead daughter’s urn rather than the whelp of mongrels.”
And because of all this grief, Enon is an easy novel to pick on, as many other reviews have, for eschewing traditional novelistic aspects--conflict, other characters, and scenes--for a kind of myopic fifty shades of sorrow. Enon is as much as anything a character study under extreme grief--a what-would-this-character-do-if-his-daughter-died diatribe. And I have to admit, a few times while reading it I absentmindedly said, “I would have killed myself by now.”
There are one hundred pages without a traditional scene, without any present dialogue or conflict--nothing but the relentless mourning of this poor man, who maybe deserves to be left alone, and not novelized. And while this approach is effective, visceral, and authentic, it is also somehow indulgent. Yet, whereas not having the narrator interact in any scene that is not in the past or imagined or dreamed or hallucinated for so long creates for the reader an intimacy with Crosby and his grief, it does not exactly create as much readability as one hopes for.
When Harding does finally provide a few scenes beyond the four closing walls of Crosby’s psyche, he doesn’t seem to take the opportunities. Each meeting with another person is so truncated, so minimalistic, that they almost feel like sparklers to kids who never get fireworks. And with each, the potential for effective scene is not explored. It’s hard to understand why Harding, despite the narrator’s discomfort, didn’t sink a bit more into these other wonderful characters: Frank, a introverted man who used to work for Crosby’s painting company whom now sells Crobsy drugs; an old man with dementia who thinks Crosby is his brother when Crosby breaks into the man’s house; an East Indian store keeper who is saving up to bring his two children across the ocean; and most importantly, Mrs. Hale, an old, rich woman Crosby has been fascinated with for years and throughout the book. Near the end of the book, he breaks into her house out of a fantastic need to see her orrery, a mechanical device that exhibits our solar system’s movements, that he saw with his grandfather (the focus of Tinkers) when he was a child. He is confronted by Mrs. Hale, but their conversation is so brief (less than one page) and cryptic that Harding reduces Mrs. Hale, a fantastic character, to a Deus Ex Machina device.
In the end, these series of meetings, each more haiku than Shakespeare, feel like lost opportunities so Crosby can focus on burying Kate over and over again, lost in obliviousness. Crosby cannot be consoled with her memory, with other people; he longs to father. His obsession with putting her where she doesn’t belong almost feels like witchcraft, a Frankenstonian delusion. This is why Harding gave the novel such a tunnel vision, where everything besides Crosby’s sorrow is only distraction. To Harding, Crosby’s lonely sinking into the mental landscape of his grief is scene, is the novel. As Harding stated in an interview with “Publisher’s Weekly,” “With Charlie in Enon, it all takes place in his head, these are projections, it becomes the psychology and emotional tectonics of grief, and he invents this other Enon in which he repatriates his daughter and he joins her there and that’s how he negotiates her passing. The idea is that her absence is as specific to and as highly articulated as her presence.”
Despite what sounds like simply a laborious read, it is only fair to state that Harding’s writing is lovely, well-tended, and just plain impressive. Let it be known this alone is worth the read. So many sentences hit their marks so concisely, so poetically, that they become lush bouquets of expression, not simply a sum of thoughts.
On being at home after his daughter’s death, before his wife leaves: “What an awful thing then, being there in our house together with our daughter gone, trying to be equal to so many sudden orders of sorrow, any one of which alone would have wrenched us from our fragile orbits around each other.”
On the “nocturnal kingdom” he and his boyhood friends enjoyed on late nights: “You could almost hear it (the nocturnal kingdom) folding itself back up just ahead of the sunrise, outside the nylon walls of the tent. We were careful never to be outside when it disappeared, in case one of us tripped on an overturning corner and was gobbled down into the throat of that old earth, into the cross sections of years and centuries and generations, folded up into curled layers of prehistoric winters and antique summers where we had no business being after dawn, and getting coughed back up into the right night on the right front lawn might be a one in a million or even slighter chance, and the rest of us finding a rope in Peter Lord’s garage and lowering it into the eons and lassoing our friend and hauling him back up through the constellated gears and pinions of eras and epochs was something we couldn’t grasp on, couldn’t plumb, didn’t have whatever tool, whatever rare sextant or theodolite was required for sighting the lines along which we could pull him back to the here and now without him being hoisted from the ground a dead Puritan or quadruped fossil.”
Rarely do writers find the cosmos in a sentence like Harding. And it is because of that Harding is able to re-revive Crosby’s sensory grieving over and over so well that, as a reader, you get it--not that this man is suffering, but what the onslaught of suffering is. How it isn’t a stage, but a siege. And when Crosby does survive and turns the corner toward a form of healthiness, it isn’t a surprise. But to be fair to Harding, none of it was boring either. What remains is Harding’s ability to sink into tangential images that are truer than the obvious, more impacting than the expected.