“A quick ear and eye, an ability to discern the infinite suggestiveness of common things, a brooding meditative spirit, are all that the essayist requires.”
—Alexander Smith, “On the Writing of Essays”
So begins the first of eleven personal essays in Patrick Madden’s premiere collection, Quotidiana, and the truth of this statement comes to bear on the entire book. Here the author brings together meandering meditations on laughing, death, garlic, hope, gravity, family, asymptosy, singing, hepatitis, and finity. Nothing extraordinary as far as subject matter goes, perhaps, but apply the “quick ear and eye,” the discernment and meditation of a writer like Patrick Madden, and these essays form a collection that mines personal experience and leaves readers the richer for it.
The author’s exploration of ordinary subjects falls in with the tradition of essayists he quotes throughout the book, like Montaigne, Phillip Lopate, and Scott Russell Sanders, to name a few. For these writers, accidental and purposeful associations teased out on the page gleam with meaning. Though picky readers may grow weary of the author’s discursive meditations, replete as they are with tangents and parentheticals, I welcomed the diversions, trusting in the payoff of surprising connections and enduring imagery. Instead of reading straight through the collection, I found it best to read one at a time, fitting an essay in wherever I could throughout the day: one on the bus to campus, another as I lunched at a café, yet another at night when the house was quiet but for the sounds of traffic outside. It feels appropriate to savor these essays in such a manner, during the more mundane moments of the day.
It is certainly a satisfying read for someone like me, who spends most of her time as a student, teacher, and writer parsing out words and ideas and trying to reassemble them in meaningful ways, but if I am to account for the overall success of this collection, perhaps it is most prudent to judge it by Madden’s criteria as gleaned from his own words. From the first essay, “The Infinite Suggestiveness of Common Things”: “A successful commonplace essay will gather memories and researches, attach ideas and stories to build upward, toward meaning.” In this essay alone, Madden cites often from writers ranging from William Blake to William Hazlitt to William Gass. Amalgamating memories of childhood, complex etymologies, mathematical concepts, and stories on family, Madden constructs a scaffold sturdy enough to bear the weight of history, literature, music, religion, and philosophy.
When I discovered the personal essay just a few years ago, I was immediately drawn to this ability on the part of the author to cull items of interest from so many seemingly disparate disciplines and weave them together to create intricate and beautiful patterns. I also admired my favorite essayists’ refusal to rely on provocative subjects to make their prose worth reading. Again Madden’s own words: “The essay is an open, leisurely form, somewhat allergic to adventure, certainly opposed to sensationalism.” Readers of Quotidiana will find no tales of overzealous humanitarian efforts in Africa, no political thriller or grand attempts to “go green,” nor will they find any child abuse, violent crimes, or sexual confessions. What the reader will find, however, is a boy singing along to the Beatles with his father, a RUSH fan preoccupied with the band’s absence in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a father in prayer over his ailing son or musing over the laugh of his infant daughter.
Those who wish them may keep their stories of melodrama and scandal. I’ll hold fast to the moments in essays like these that delight and inspire me, like the last scene of the essay “Asymptosy.” Here we find Madden and his son pedaling their bikes through suburbs toward an unapproachable arc of rainbowed sky, when this father sees his son anew and asks us to do the same: “Look at my son: his orange shirt with blue sleeves, his blue-jean shorts, his sinewy arms and legs, the short socks his mother buys for him, the dog-bitten gray sneakers that he keeps tied and slips on and off. Look at his long curls poking out of his helmet, catching the sun, blowing in the wind…Look at his tanned arms, imagine the cilia-like blond hairs there. This is my firstborn; I am my father’s; my father was his father’s. We each bear the same name, like further iterations of the same attempt at humanity, some approximation, some approach at something more.” In Patrick Madden’s first book he is approaching something more: the place where the quotidian and the sublime intersect and leave us in awe at the subtle complexities of our existence.
Amanda Dambrink studies and writes creative nonfiction as an MA student at Ohio University.
University of Nebraska Press 2010
$23.95 hardcover, ISBN: 978-0-8032-2296-0