I am 17 when I first read Tinkers. I have only a few weeks left before I graduate high school, before I move off to college, before I become whatever I am going to be. And then I read Tinkers—quite by accident—and I decide that I will major in English. I read Tinkers all the way through in the Starbucks in the Barnes & Noble where I pick it up. It is glorious.All this to say: if there is an ideal reader for Enon, Paul Harding’s new novel, it is me. So let me tell it to you straight, as one who is predisposed to love this book, to love anything Harding touches: Enon is a good book. It is also wholly unremarkable.
It is the curse of a lauded artist that one great work might overshadow other good—but somehow lesser—works. Such is Harding’s fate.
Enon is the psychological investigation of a man, Charlie Crosby, who loses his daughter to a car crash and his wife to a divorce within the span of a few weeks. In its best moments, Enon lifts the reader out of herself and places her into a grand cosmos of lyrical, emotional language—a cosmos that emerges out of nothing, like a grand planetarium when the lights are off and the stars seem as if they are just within the reach of our miniscule human fingers. These moments are transcendent; but they are also, unfortunately, merely moments. When they end, the lights of the planetarium come up and we see once more the wires connected to the planets, the projectors creating the images of stars. The veil is lifted and the magic is lost.
Which is not to say that these other moments—the majority of the book—are bad. They are, rather, merely flaccid. Harding has a great handle on the oscillation between this elegant lyricism and what Mary Oliver has called “cold language,” the humdrum language of the banal. But it seems to me that too often his humdrum language is a bit too hum. In the hands of another Pulitzer-winning novelist—Michael Chabon, say, or Richard Russo—this oscillation between the lyric and expository modes would be less noticeable, both because Chabon and Russo have a better grasp on the banal, and because their lyric abilities don’t come close to Harding’s. But Chabon—and, to a lesser degree, Russo—have something that Harding does not: an impulse towards plot.
That Enon is a plotless novel is no offense; that it is a motionless one, however, is. There is the vague silhouette of an emotional journey, but it exists only as suggestion. It merely imitates the sounds and shapes of a journey without the heft and emotional bulk of one. Take this paragraph, for instance, which is simultaneously a perfect outline of the entire “plot” of the novel (“spoiler alert” doesn’t even begin to be a salient concept in the realm of this novel); an example of Harding’s enchanting, lyrical, winding sentences; and a perfect encapsulation of the type of shading-without-substance narrative Enon trades in:
Paragraphs like this—and there are many, many paragraphs like this, especially in the second half of the book—drove my reading of this novel. They are soft and beautiful and lighter than air. And though there is no real substance of a plot, I must admit that I was, at times, moved by the honesty that Harding occasionally manages to capture from his first-person narrator. To wit: at one point Charlie, the narrator, contemplates suicide but decides against it “because the thought that her own death caused her father’s suicide would be too awful for my daughter to bear.”
But while the novel’s elegant lyricism is strong enough to support its motionless structure, it still has one glaring flaw: dialogue.
When he allows his minor characters to pontificate, Harding has an amazing ear for euphonious, idiomatic voice—take, for instance, this sample from Doug Draper, a kid from Charlie’s childhood trying to sell him a used bike: “This kind of banana seat is the best; you can fit two people on it and the guy on the back can lean back against the sissy bar. And these ape hanger handlebars are the best; if you move them up, then you can stand up and lean way forward when you pedal and go wicked fast. Or you can move them down and lean way back and just cruise around, like a chopper. This is the best kind of bike except for my new one.” There are several passages like this, all from minor characters who make well executed appearances and fade back into the darkness.
Unfortunately, the dialogue—any actual exchange between major characters—falls flat. In a graveyard, near his daughter’s grave, Charlie thanks two high-school-aged girls he comes across for helping him pull himself together. The following dialogue ensues:
‘That’s what we’re here for,” Lilly said.
‘Well, your secret’s good with me, you guys. Just—ah—be careful, okay? Take it easy with the booze and those smokes, all right?
‘Okay, Mr. Charlie.’
A high-school-aged girl saying “no problem, my man” to a disheveled man in his forties who has suddenly come across her smoking and drinking alcohol in a graveyard? Fingernails on a chalkboard. Admittedly, one imagines that the awkwardness of the dialogue might be attempting to enact the awkwardness of the situation, but the novel doesn’t display any self-knowledge of its own awkwardness—and, what’s more, there are many, many more examples of poorly imagined dialogue in this novel. But having to trek through these particularly hackneyed moments—and there are, unfortunately, several of them—is a small price to pay for the lyrical gems Harding gives us. Perhaps we should not begrudge art its mess.
Enon is not the best book you will read this year. It is not Pulitzer material. But it is, following the fanfare of Tinkers, a fairly well executed second novel. Enon is not perfect, but it has the feel of a larger painting of a place and a person—the feel of, say, Russo’s Empire Falls, without all those garrulous pages—that make it an ultimately fulfilling read.
J.M. Gamble is a student at the University of Alabama. His poems and essays have appeared most recently in Word Riot, Specter, PANK, and Ninth Letter (online). His chapbook, And This Blank Card, is out now from Chantepleure Press.