The Gollux and the Clockmaker: An Appreciation of Paul Harding’s Tinkers

Presented at my book club, Dec. 2, 2014

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Once upon a time, in a gloomy castle on a lonely hill, where there were thirteen clocks that wouldn’t go, there lived a cold, aggressive Duke, and his niece, the Princess Saralinda. She was warm in every wind and weather, but he was always cold. His hands were as cold as his smile and almost as cold as his heart. He wore gloves when he was asleep, and he wore gloves when he was awake, which made it difficult for him to pick up pins or coins or the kernels of nuts, or to tear the wings from nightingales. He was six feet four, and forty-six, and even colder than he thought he was. One eye wore a velvet patch; the other glittered through a monocle, which made half his body seem closer to you than the other half. He had lost one eye when he was twelve, for he was fond of peering into nests and lairs in search of birds and animals to maul. One afternoon, a mother shrike had mauled him first. His nights were spent in evil dreams, and his days were given to wicked schemes.

Wickedly scheming, he would limp and cackle through the cold corridors of the castle, planning new impossible feats for the suitors of Saralinda to perform. He did not wish to give her hand in marriage, since her hand was the only warm hand in the castle. Even the hands of his watch and the hands of all the thirteen clocks were frozen. They had all frozen at the same time, on a snowy night, seven years before, and after that it was always ten minutes to five in the castle. Travelers and mariners would look up at the gloomy castle on the lonely hill and say, “Time lies frozen there. It’s always Then. It’s never Now.”

The cold Duke was afraid of Now, for Now has warmth and urgency, and Then is dead and buried. Now might bring a certain knight of gay and shining courage – “But, no!” the cold Duke muttered. “The Prince will break himself against a new and awful labor: a place too high to reach, a thing to far to find, a burden too heavy to lift.” The Duke was afraid of Now, but he tampered with the clocks to see if they would go, out of a strange perversity, praying that they wouldn’t.

Tinkers and tinkerers and a few wizards who happened by tried to start the clocks with tools or magic words, or by shaking them and cursing, but nothing whirred or ticked. The clocks were dead, and in the end, brooding on it, the Duke decided he had murdered time, slain it with his sword, and wiped his bloody blade upon its beard and left it lying there, its springs uncoiled and sprawling, its pendulum disintegrating.

In Tinkers, Paul Harding offers us the oldest kind of story known to humankind, a myth, or fairy tale, constructed out of many of the same elements as James Thurber’s The Thirteen Clocks. It’s the oldest kind of story because it is the kind of story we most need. It plumbs depths that naturalistic fiction never reaches; it challenges our feeble attempts to explain and understand the world in which we live and the people we love.

Fairy tales are built on a paradox. They are tightly constructed. Every detail is significant, but in ways that are hard to put into words. Every later event is foredoomed, but the hero’s freely-exercised will enables him or her to escape the foretold. They seem to have simple messages, but their real power, the reason they are retold and reread, lies under that simple surface, where the messages turn ambiguous, where the narrative undermines itself. Two-dimensional characters remain ciphers, and thus far more puzzling than the fully fleshed-out figures of realistic fiction; they live in a world of harmony and dissonance, line and color, rather than texture and volume. We may be enthralled and entertained by mythology’s adventure and pageant and majesty, but what remains in our souls is the white spaces, the blanks, the unsaid. Myths require us to work, they demand to be retold.

Tinkers brings us into a world in which time is frozen. Chronology lies elsewhere, in warmer lands. Weeds that try to reach the sun through the frost and snow are left desiccated and lifeless like the bones of prehistoric creatures. An Indian, a relic of times long past, ekes out a living on an island and reappears in a lake long after he is dead. A half-crazed and erudite man of the forest claims friendship with Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Yet the metaphor of timelessness and frozenness, which on the surface implies that nothing changes, is challenged and contradicted by this fictional world’s pervasive instability. Homes shudder at the slightest touch, fall to pieces, and some even move from place to place. Families disintegrate, and that strongest of all bonds, between father and son, shivers, dissolves, disappears.

The join holding together frozen time, unstable landscapes, and unreliable bonds of love is the metaphor of epilepsy, the grand mal and its aura, that condition of the mind in which time, place, and personhood vanish. It would be a mistake to take the fits described in this book as a clinical account of a real human disease, as an attempt to tell us what it feels like to be an epileptic or to live with one. Epilepsy in Tinkers is like the Golux in The Thirteen Clocks:

“I am the Golux,” said the Golux, proudly, “the only Golux in the world, and not a mere Device.… I resemble only half the things I say I don’t.… The other half resemble me.”

George Washington Crosby, hallucinating on his deathbed, has fought his doom by becoming a builder, a maker, a teacher of young men. He has become a husband, father, and a grandfather, the first in three generations of his line not to disappear. He has sought to fight frozen time by making clocks go again, by becoming an expert in the mechanisms of time, by tinkering with springs, escape wheels, and pendulums. Yet, in his final days and hours, the clocks in his workshop are stalled, unsynchronized, dismembered. His father, Howard, a tinkerer in another sense, an itinerant peddler and repairman, escapes at a great price, abandoning a family from which he was about to be ejected. He reestablishes a life, a loving and warm one, only to discover that he does not know his new wife, while he too has kept his greatest secret from her. Howard’s father is a tinker in his own right, that is a dabbler of the intellect, an intellect that betrays him and turns him into a wraith (please do not attempt to diagnose his disease—that is not the point and would rob it of its profound tragedy).

The epiphany with which the story ends, the encounter of father and son, long separated but constantly in each other’s minds, epitomizes the story’s central metaphors. George’s time, which on the surface has proceeded at the pace normal in the warmer lands of the south, turns out to have been frozen all along. The illusory stability of Howard’s piles of produce, of his loving wife, have been shaken, perhaps destroyed. And the grandfather seems to be there, too, between the lines. Perhaps those strange interludes of aura, the northern lights of words that intersperse the text are his, these the writings he scribbled in his study when he also sat at the dinner table with his wife and son:

When it came time to die, we knew and went to deep yards where we lay down and our bones turned to brass. We were picked over. We were used to fix broken clocks, music boxes; our pelvises were fitted onto pinions, our spines soldered into vast works. Our ribs were fitted as gear teeth and tapped and clicked like tusks. This is how, finally, we were joined.

Tinkers is an adult fairy tale, that is, a myth. No princess is rescued, no prince does great deeds. There is no happy ending, and the evil Duke is not a character defeated but something that remains, like the prince himself, deep within the book’s expired characters. Thurber, too, chooses to append, after his happy ending, a scene of primal horror:

A fortnight later, the Duke was gloating over his jewels in the oak room when they suddenly turned to tears, with a little sound like sighing.… Something moved across the room, like monkeys and like shadows. The torches on the walls went out, the two clocks stopped, and the room grew colder. There was a smell of old, unopened rooms and the sound of rabbits screaming. “Come on, you blob of glup,” the cold Duke roared. “You may frighten octopi to death, you gibbous spawn of hate and thunder, but not the Duke of Coffin Castle!” He sneered. “Now that my precious gems have turned to thlup, living on, alone and cold, is not my fondest wish! On guard, you musty sofa!” The Todal gleeped. There was a stifled shriek and silence.

I have deliberately not read anything about this book or its author. Nothing could be more detrimental to the primal experience of my two readings of Tinkers than to know the author’s biography or what critics have thought about it. Like all great literature, Tinkers stands on its own, and deserves to encountered unmediated, without biases and preconceptions.

I do not want to disparage realistic fiction, or fictional characters possessed of psychologies. They have their place, and can be sublime, instructive, and stimulating. But the realism of much modern fiction, with its characters built on psychological theories and the assumption that human beings and the world they live in can be explained, justified, categorized, diagnosed, and evaluated in the end misses the most real thing of all—the mystery of the universe, the beauty of how the world impinges on our souls, the terror of not knowing when and where and why we are, the wistfulness of love. It is all there in the connection and disconnection of Tinkers’ final words: “Yes, yes I will. Good-bye.”