Skip to main content

Pat Madden

Disparates: Essays

University of Nebraska Press, 2020

In English disparate means “different” or “miscellaneous”—apt descriptors of these essays by Patrick Madden. In Spanish, however, disparate means “nonsense,” “folly,” or “absurdity,”—words appropriate to Madden’s goal of undercutting any notion that essays must be serious business. Thus, in this collection, the essays are frivolous and lively, aiming to make readers laugh while they think about such abstract subjects as happiness and memory and unpredictability.

In this vein, Madden takes sidelong swipes at weighty topics via form, with wildly meandering essays, abandoned essays in honor of the long tradition of essayists disparaging their own efforts, and guerrilla essays—which slip in quietly under the guise of a borrowed form, abruptly attack, and promptly escape, leaving laughter and contemplation in their wake. Madden also incorporates cameos from guest essayists, including Mary Cappello, Matthew Gavin Frank, David Lazar, Michael Martone, Jericho Parms, and Wendy S. Walters, much like a musician features other performers.

Disparates reflects the current zeitgeist by taking on important issues with a touch of cleverness, a dash of humor, and a little help from one’s friends.

Review by John Bennion at Faculty Book Lunch

When I visited the Sun Yat Sen garden in Vancouver BC, I learned that demons walk in a straight line, so the architects constructed a crooked hallway next to the central pond, in order to thwart malevolent beings. It’s clear that Patrick Madden III is no demon. He is incapable of putting five words together without being enticed by an illuminating tangent, one that transforms the reader’s apprehension of the subject. In short, his new collection of essays Disparates (which I continually want to pronounce Desperados, like a band of bandits) jumps the shark of capriciousness.

Which is why I keep it on my shelf between Lewis Carroll and Jerome K. Jerome’s Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow.

But every night Pat’s book transports itself to a different place on my shelf, sometimes next to Tristam Shandy, most often next to Phillip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay, skipping across my bookshelves in a random manner that is a little like the disorder in his table of contents, which a parenthetical expression at the top says has shifted in transit.

Looking at this table of contents just before one which lists the essays “In Order of Appearance,” I knew there would be an element of performance in the essays and I felt permitted to make my own crooked pathway through the book.

Disparates is full of found forms: an eBay auction listing in the form of a Q & A, OED entry on the word disparate, in which Pat quotes himself 59 times, a literary translation, a word-find puzzle, a pangram haiku, an imitation (parody) of a Baconian or Emersonian essay, an essay with a found lyric essay inside it, a Q & A with Montaigne, illustrated proverbs, a send-up of style manuals in which Pat uses examples of great writers breaking rules set down by grammarians, a false apology written right after the James Frey fiasco in which Pat lists, proudly and ostentatiously, all the falsehoods he has put in his essays. Mea culpa, my foot, and hidden amongst this garden of extravagant experiments in form are a few seemingly normal essays. I say seemingly normal because all the essays are tricky beasts.

The collection also includes 46 pictures, listed as illustrations but that serve deeper functions in the text than mere illustration, by artists as diverse as Goya and Pat’s own children.

Desparates, like Quotidiana, is a word that Pat fell in love with first in Spanish and crooked it to make an English word. Desparates, little flawed pieces. Like a cabinet of curiosities.

Or like standup comedy, if the comic is allowed to be not only funny, but sincere, philosophical, poetical, insightful, and even wise.

In Disparates Pat shamelessly uses/abuses his friends, proving that the author is not dead, he just invited his friends over for a party. Fourteen of Pat’s friends have sneaked into the essays—tricky, playful, crooked sneaking. These are not co-authors with Pat, because how can two people write one personal essay? What does it become then? An impersonal essay? A duo-psyche essay? No, not that. But something else. Something that playfully ignores how an author should conduct business. Leaving me to wonder who this author is, certainly not the straightforward man who walks the straitened hallways of the JFSB, but a six-foot-six coyote trickster, an imposter. It’s also an argument against the solitary nature of the author and of identity, so an experiment in community, as is made explicit in “Acknowledgments” which functions as an Introduction. And the book itself frays at the edges, as part of it exists online on the Quotidiana website, as an invitation to write “additional Botnik-powered predictive-text essays seeded with my books or other source texts.”

My favorite words in the book:

  • Juddered, a mechanical and rapid vibration, applied to laughter
  • In “Alfonsina y del Mar” Pat writes, “To cut the sadness” which at first I thought was a mistake but instead is a reference to drugs (OED, “to dilute or adulterate”). Or it might be a reference to castration, which Pat probably didn’t think of but I did. I love the image of a writer castrating sadness.

My favorite playful moments:

  • He ends an essay on plums with “This is just to say, nothing is simple: nothing is finished; nothing is alone.” Threaded through the whole essay is William Carlos Williams’s poem, backwards.
  • Essay about the game of switching the words “Thumb” and “Some.”
  • “Thumbthing in the way she moves/ Attracts me like no other lover.”

My favorite hypocritical moment: Pat writes, “I’m going to stop myself here, for your sake, before I get ‘too far out in the branches,’ as my wife, Karina, likes to say of my habitual method of argument, and which I find to be a beautifully apt phrase for what I like to do in my thinking and writing, which is the way of all the great essayists, it seems to me.” Which is all right as an insincere confession, but he immediately goes “out in the branches” by using the rhetorical device of apophasis, saying “I could, for instance,” and “I could” and “I could,” digressing shamelessly, right after he said he wouldn’t. The phrase is a tidy reference to this picture which Pat presents earlier in the book as an image (Disparate Ridiculo) of how essayists operate, holding forth to an audience out on a branch.

My favorite pangram haiku: Whenever I fix/ my quips to the jazzy world,/ I come back agape.”

As further and final proof of his shameless meandering, I offer an outline of “Alfonsina y del Mar.”

  1. Before the writing of this essay, Pat had never listened to the song “Alfonsina y el Mar” by Mercedes Sosa all the way through.
  2. In four parts, Pat describes the circumstance of his hearing the opening of the song but not the whole song; most importantly, his wife downloaded songs from her youth, and Sosa’s song was one.
  3. Thinking about those who haven’t heard the song, he defines the word “ignorance” in the Spanish sense and ponders humanity’s vast ignorance.
  4. This leads him to ponder a bit on his own humility, which leads him to remind all of us how to “remind ourselves how small we are.”
  5. Which is a phrase from “Nightingale Song” by Toad the Wet Sprocket.
  6. Pat admits being deeply influenced by the singer Glen Phillips’s “melancholic vision of love and kindness and the noble impossibility of human understanding.”
  7. Pat then meanders through some other songs by that band, ending with “Walk on the Ocean” which gives Pat an excuse to get back to “Alfonsina and the Sea.”
  8. He then asks a rhetorical question, “How could I not have put it all together? I had all the ingredients, though distant, disorganized.”
  9. He then describes Alfonsina Storni, an Argentine poet who committed suicide by either jumping or walking into the sea.
  10. Pat describes the hopeful melancholy of the song, imagining that Alfonsina has a continuing existence, calm and even peaceful.
  11. He writes, “It seems that this essay has taken an unexpected turn.” Oh really! He starts thinking about celebrity in opposition to “real life.”
  12. Two experiences with musicians: one when Pat wrote Glen Phillips (formerly of Toad the Wet Sprocket) about the grammar of a song and Glen’s reply about bad mixed metaphors,
  13. and another asking Ben Huggins (Galactic Cowboys) about a reference to a movie in a song.
  14. A meditation on the idea that art is not life.
  15. A meditation on whether we can know anything about anybody.

A map of the book, or of each essay, is like a dot-to-dot picture where the child ignored the numbering system, sometimes inserting letters or images. Sometimes artists hide clues to deeper or more often tangential meaning, such as when the Beatles’ music and cover art implied “Paul is Dead.”

If you look at this map crookedly, meaning divinely, it perfectly matches a picture of Montaigne, that playfully serious writer of little flawed pieces.

Coincidentally (or is it not a coincidence) this map of the essay also matches the picture of GK Chesterton, that master of caprice, which proves that Pat Madden III is Montaigne and Chesterton’s love child.

But none of this is exactly a review of the book. So here’s a better one: I had the most pleasure reading this playful book since I read—I don’t know. There’s nothing like it. It’s as if William Hazlet, Max Beerbohm, and G.K. Chesterton got together and rewrote Alice in Wonderland as a segmented essay. It’s a sly, sophisticated, crooked treat. I am the better for reading this book by a writer who ardently makes connections, primarily with other people, which is the point of all the cameos by his friends, other essayists. He writes at the end of the Alfonsina essay, “What can we really know about anyone? What damage do we do when we presume to, when we ‘calculate others from ourselves’ and find too late or too seldom that we’ve calculated wrong? How, then, is the world we perceive a distorted reproduction of ourselves? How is an act such as this, the writing of an essay, both futile and essential?”

In this year of sadness and isolation, and which will not ever be over in any normal sense of the word, we desperately need a book like this one. It’s a diversion, sure, an esthetically thrilling diversion. This morning as I write this, I am sad about my son’s impending divorce, my daughter’s terror at her new job—teaching art in the time of COVID, my other daughter’s anxiety about the burden of working while trying to help her children with school, my other son’s lungs which have not yet recovered from his bout with COVID. All these specific anxieties are laced with a general dread over climate, racial violence, and the possible demise of democracy as we know it. Of course, I’m not alone, all of us feel it. But for a while, reading this book, the dread was cut with pleasure and illumination, and I feel better able to face my own demons.