The finalists for the 2010 Pulitzer award were all unorthodox books. The winner of the 2010 Fiction Pulitzer was “Tinkers” by Paul Harding, with the other two finalists being “Love in Infant Monkeys” by Lydia Millet, and “In Other Rooms, Other Wonders” by Daniyal Mueenuddin. “Tinkers” is Harding’s first novel, and it largely slipped under the radar of the literary review world. It is one of the more obscure titles to win the Pulitzer. “Love in Infant Monkeys” is actually a collection of short stories revolving around the interactions between human beings and other animals. “In Other Rooms, Other Wonders” is also a collection of eight linked stories that revolve around one family and the many with whom it interacts. It is clear from these selections that the 2010 fiction committee was intrigued by obscurity and sought to praise the unique qualities of the literature they came across.
Though “Tinkers” won, I am not convinced that it deserves the award. The novel revolves around the protagonist, George Washington Crosby, a dying clock repairman. As he attempts to face his imminent death, he obsessively looks to the past and analyzes his personal history in the detail one would expect of a clock repairman. George reflects on his experience growing up with an epileptic father. His father was a traveling salesman and repairman, and despite his moderate professional success, George remembers most clearly his weakest moments. He describes sounds ringing and sights whirling and writes, “This was his aura, a cold halo of chemical electricity that encircled him immediately before he was struck by a full seizure.” It is clear that George could observe his father’s aura. He knew when a seizure was coming and needed only wait for the moment at which his father fell to the disease. As George suffers from kidney failure, he reverberates between life and death, and his reflections in the space between those two worlds—between the world and no world—are fascinating.
Though the layout of the novel is interesting, it suffers from fatal downfalls. Most importantly, in my opinion, “Tinkers” depends far too heavily on two of Harding’s literary techniques: metaphors and imagery. Beginning with metaphors, the clocks that flitter throughout the story are heavy-handed symbols for George’s way of life: watching the second hand tick, creating a web of gears that sustain each other to advance the system, breaking down over time and needing to be repaired. I appreciate the artful usage of metaphor, but it feels like Harding is hitting the reader over the head with a clock-shaped iron skillet. He relies far too heavily upon this symbol, and that cheapens the novel as a whole. He faces the same issue with his imagery, which is intense and often trying to read. Many critics have lauded Harding for painting a picture in the reader’s mind, but he does so at the expense of the reading experience. His lengthy, twisting descriptions of sights and sounds are boring. Though they provide detailed looks at every scene, I feel that the reader would be better off with a slightly less detailed scene and more substance in exchange. Relying too heavily upon technique—not having enough faith in the story alone—is a common error among first novels, but I believe it prevents “Tinkers” from being a reasonable candidate for the 2010 Pulitzer.
The other novels were also flawed. After reading them, I have to wonder whether the committee valued obscurity over talent. I am curious what other novels were in the pile of submissions. It is hard for me to imagine that none of those novels were more worthy of finalist nominations than the three the committee chose. “Love in Infant Monkeys,” though interesting, struck me as cute. It didn’t seem like the important piece of work one might hope would be nominated for this award. The collection revolves around human-animal interactions, and strives to make the point that we are too far removed from the animal world. But just like Harding, Lydia Millet, the author of “Love in Infant Monkeys,” goes too far to establish a sense of fraternity between human beings and other animals. At one point, Millet writes, “A pigeon might seem serene, but that was a trick of the feathers. The feathers were soft, but beneath them it was bloody. That was beauty, said Tesla: the raw veins, the gray-purple meat beneath the down.” This is a good representation of Millet’s primary downfall. She desperately tries to establish this relationship at the expense of being realistic. She hits her reader over the head with her thesis rather than artfully weaving it throughout her prose.
And finally, there is “In Other Rooms, Other Wonders,” which is likely the finalist I would have chosen. This collection of eight short stories revolves around the Harouni family and their sphere of life, which is rather large given their rich, powerful status in their Pakistani district. It is intricate and well-written, and the author, Mueenuddin, seems to effortlessly swap points of view and story lines. In fact, Mueenuddin does this so well that the reader is almost unaware of the fractures in the story.
Overall, I would choose “In Other Rooms, Other Wonders” from these three finalists, but even that excellent book did not strike me as Pulitzer-worthy. Perhaps this was a year of weak submissions, but it is difficult for me to imagine that these were the best three from the piles, and it is particularly perplexing to me that “Tinkers” was chosen as the best among them.