'Free Curve to the Point' by Wassily Kandinsky via Wikimedia Commons

Something perfect

From baseball to theology (passing through Kant, the Bible, and Moby Dick,) we present a face-to-face encounter with PAUL HARDING, the former rock musician who won a Pulitzer Prize with his first novel.
Luca Fiore

Paul Harding left his band. He was the drummer for Cold Water Flat. In the nineties, the band recorded a couple of records and toured the United States and Europe. Then Harding quit rock and roll and decided to become what he had always wanted to be: a writer. He attended a creative writing class in New York, and later became a writing professor at Harvard University and at the University of Iowa. In 2009, he pulled a novel out of his head. The big publishers disregarded his work, which was eventually released by a small publishing house. Tinkers was a success and earned him the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2010.

The book tells the story of George Washington Crosby, a clock repairer–a tinker–who, on his deathbed, recalls the story of his life and of the difficult relationship with his father Howard, an epileptic. When he talks about the way his stories come to life, Harding says that he has a vision of the perfect form of the novel. “It is sort of the Platonic idea. Writing is the process of trying to transcribe this perfect work of art. But the process never works. The result is imperfect. But I believe it is precisely the imperfection of the end result that makes the reader’s heart quiver and leap.” There you have it: imperfection. It’s odd that, talking to one of the most acclaimed American writers, we end up talking about imperfection.

Does this relationship with perfection apply only to art, or is it the same for life as a whole?
It probably applies to life as a whole. Of course, my medium is art so it’s easiest for me to talk about it that way. In sports in American–for example, baseball–we talk about “the perfect game.” There are relative types of perfection in all different realms of life. I don’t think it’s exclusive to art.

Reading your book, and listening to you talk, it looks like you have a lot of faith in things as they are. It’s strange, because nowadays we are dominated by fear and uncertainty about what is to come. Where does your attitude originate?
I am heavily influenced by theology, which is strange, because I do not come from a religious background. I think of theology–in particular the Judeo-Christian theology–as a narrative form of philosophy. It deals with the problem of transcendence, and its relationship with what is immanent. I am preoccupied with immanence, and the idea that we are meant to be mindful of this life. I think there is no greater human temptation than to look elsewhere, far from life as it is. There is so much strife in this life, and you think that there must be something better–even if this means running away from what happens. Yet, the aesthetic discipline that I’ve applied to myself and my art implies looking as deeply into immanence as you can.

Isn’t this the opposite of the theological process?
Sure, it’s a kind of paradox. God is transcendent, but the way that He demonstrated this transcendence was to become immanent. It’s the idea that we are immanent and transcendent at the same time, and that there is almost a dialectic that makes us move back and forth between the two poles. Yet, each of the poles is meaningless out of the context of being in relationship with the other.

The New York Times wrote that you are an eager reader of Karl Barth. How does a former rock drummer end up reading such an author?

Well, all along when I was a drummer, I was an avid reader as well... these activities were never exclusive [he laughs]! This goes back to the influence of my friendship with Marilynne Robinson [Pulitzer Prize winner for Fiction in 2005], who was my first creative writing teacher, and a profoundly religious woman. The more I got to know her, the more I got to admire her. If I asked her for her own account of the source of her inspiration, she would name her religion. I started to look into theology, partly just to be able to have good conversations with her, and then what I found was that it engaged me deeply and it has not let up. I find it endlessly fascinating.

I think of the Bible–especially the Old Testament–as a novel. I also think of the best theology as close reading of a novel. That is not to diminish the Bible; it’s to recognize the sacred nature of narrative. In the same way, theology or cosmology are narrative ways of interrogating what it means for us to be in the Universe. I don’t take the Bible literally, but I take it as true. In a way, I take Moby Dick as true; the great novels are true at the heart. They don’t need to be factually true to be true. I read the Bible as a collection of poetry and novelistic narratives. It is a great model for narrative economy, compression, and sophistication. I think the biblical stories are some of the most profound interrogations of the human condition that you can find anywhere.

What do you mean by “true at the heart”?

It has to do with something that doesn’t need to be a fact for it to be true. I think too often people conflate fact with truth. War and Peace may not be factual, but it is true, and I recognize my own human experience in it. It resonates with me; it rings true. The same happens with Moby Dick, and all my favorite novels.

“Howard lifted a daub of potato with his fork. Then he speared two string beans and then a piece of ham. He raised the food to his mouth but stopped before he took the bite. The muscles at the hinges of his jaws flexed. He gasped. His eyelids fluttered.”

What are you looking for when you pursue this kind of precision in you writing?
In my opinion, precision and exactitude are the virtues of writing. Yet, what I found is that the deeper I pursue details, and precision, and exactitude, the more, at a certain point, they reach a critical mass and you get that kind of transcendence; they suddenly turn inside-out and you get something that is more, the details add up to more–the whole is larger than the sum of its parts. I realize that, when descriptions reach the maximum level of exactness, they open up a whole world of metaphors and symbols. Penetrating to the depth of immanence leads to becoming aware of what is transcendent.

You teach creative writing. Apart from teaching the tools of the trade, how can you pass on the passion for perfection you talked about?
It’s difficult. The teachers who inspired me the most inspired me just by modeling the life of the mind. The best teachers don’t teach you what to see; they teach you how to see. I can do this only by example. I can show my students how passionate I am about the products that you can end up with, the artifacts that the process of art produces.

Right now, many American novels tell stories about dying fathers. I’m thinking about Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. In a way, your novel does that too. Is this just a coincidence?
It probably is coincidental. At the same time, I think that every generation of artists reconsiders the sort of eternal, essential human predicament, which includes: you lose your father, you get married, people die–there are dozens of hallmarks, big, large, important hallmarks of every human life. In terms of my writing, I never come up with a theme for a novel and then try to write on the theme. My book is not about “fathers.” I wrote a book about individual characters. When the book is finished, you stand back and look at it, and then you can subsequently describe it as having such themes, like that of fathers. While I am writing, I don’t think thematically; I think in terms of characters first.

How is your relationship with your own father?
I have a great relationship with my father! A few days ago, I went fishing with him, my brother, and my sons. In the case of this book, it was more my fascination with my grandfather’s life. His father abandoned his family when he was 12 years old. It got me thinking about what it would be like to have your father missing or, conversely, what it would be like to be a father and to abandon your family. I retraced and gave shape to what had been family myths. So, it was a pure act of imagining my way into other people’s lives.

Let’s go back to imperfection. You talked about a sort of Platonic vision, but your interest in things, in what is immanent, is not very Platonic...
I think of Plato but I also think of Kant. He talks about the noumena and the phenomena. The noumena is the intuition that there is something more, something perfect that we–being flesh and blood–cannot access. We have access only to the phenomena. This is sort of what I mean by immanence. We are limited to what we can perceive in experience, but our experience tells us that there is more to the Universe than what we are able to directly experience and verify. There is always a pull toward the idea that out there something is perfect.

Kant says that the noumenon can’t be known. Yet, reading your book, one has the impression that that is not always the case...
No, my moment-to-moment, day-to-day experience is of a constant sense of being in the presence of a great, ultimate meaning to which I have practically no access. I feel immersed in meaning that is larger than myself, and meaning that is not directly accessible to me, but I keep striving for it. When I write, I never stop trying for the noumena, that perfect vision, knowing that I will fail. But what you bring back into the world as a work of art is beautiful because it reproduces the human desire for the noumena, for the perfect. You can never actually do it, but there is no reason to stop striving for it.