Disparates is Patrick Madden‘s third collection of essays and, in my opinion, his best. But if you pick the book up expecting to find a predictable, boilerplate work similar to what other authors often churn out every few years, you’ll be disappointed. If you’re looking for an easy read, something you can open when you have a few minutes to kill, a mindless romp through familiar territory, you’ll be disappointed. However, if your goal is to expand your horizons, for your mind to be taken on new and surprising journeys, to have your thought patterns twisted and challenged with every sentence, causing you to sit up and pay attention, you will be rewarded: with insight, laughter, and compassion.
The tone of Disparates is set immediately with the initial essay. The premise of “Writer Michael Martone’s Leftover Water” is that a writer (Michael Martone) is auctioning off 8.3 ounces of Dasani water (plus backwash) left by Prof. Michael Martone at Brigham Young University. Martone has gotten into the habit of finishing off water left by visiting writers, thus “securing decades’ worth of literary genius.”
The bulk of the essay is a hilarious Q & A between the seller of the water and a potential buyer, with comical questions such as: What is the color of the water? Are there any tears in the water? Does it have an interesting smell? Justifying the sale of this water, the seller notes, “There’s those painting elephants and sign-language-using gorillas, so why not!?” Exactly.
A lover of language first and foremost, in “Freewill” Madden invites the reader to accompany him on a detour (“let us take an associative jaunt together, reader”), writing about the word “erstwhile” and “ersatz”, and “early”. Then, as he refers to it, shuffling his mind linguistically to remember a college English professor: Erskine Peters. He makes these enjoyable linguistic forays frequently throughout the book.
As the title indicates, it’s a collection of diverse elements, not just thematically, but also in form. There are haikus, photographs, illustrations, found poems, puns, riddles, word searches, wordplay, numerous band, song and lyric references, lots of humor, new words to master (lowerarchy?!) and of course, the essays. There’s something for everyone. Just when you think you’re reading the highbrow work of an erudite intellectual, with references to the history of the pompadour, the Furies, the Botnik Predictive Writer, and of course his beloved Michel de Montaigne, the spiritual father of the essay, he changes direction or inserts a malaprop or bit of humor or comical reference.
One of my favorite examples of this is the chapter entitled “The Proverbial”, in which he cleverly butchers proverbs by combining them inappropriately. For example, “If you can’t beat a dead horse, join him”, “A bird in the hand is worth beating around the bush”, “We’ll burn that bridge when we come to it”, and “A barking dog never bites off more than it can chew”. A bonus is that these amusing distortions of worn-out clichés are accompanied by sketches drawn by members of his family.
Speaking of his family, they are the frequent subject of these essays. He devotes one essay to his daughter Adriana’s comment at the age of seven that she had never seen the top of her own head. After noting that he, of course, has seen the top of her head since the day she was born, he wanders off into his ability to see part of his own head in a mirror, somehow ending with the finesse of a prima ballerina at Emily Dickinson’s explanation of what constituted poetry.
Another essay in which family members are featured prominently is, “Insomnia”, in which, after analyzing the meaning of his neighbors’ surname, the Aguilars, he transitions to the meaning of his wife Karina’s maiden name, Cabrera, his son’s nickname (Pato), and his own last name, Madden. It’s a delightful stream-of-consciousness stroll through language and creative detours.
Disparate ridículo, Francisco de Goya, c. 1823. National Gallery of Art. (courtesy of University of Nebraska Press)
Unpredictable, he takes us along with him on a journey with riffs that range from playing the board game Balderdash to thumb humor. He comments on a colleague’s French “peccable” accent (“Somewhere between Inspector Clouseau and Pepe le Pew), then comments on the current US president. Stories of his mission work in Uruguay are followed by numerous references to language and its idiosyncrasies. And then he shares a somber story about a sexual assault.
A conversational tone is woven throughout Disparates as he brings us along on his thought journey: “Do you distract yourself from important tasks with YouTube videos like I sometimes do? I ask because if you’re going to do that anyway, you might as well look up some Peter Erskine videos like I’ve been doing,” he writes, ending with, “Where was I going with all this? I’m not quite sure.” We, the readers, don’t know, either, but we don’t care. It was fun.
His comment that software has made him sound like “a valley girl, I suppose” made me laugh out loud, as when he frequently broke the fourth wall, as in his parenthetical comment to readers: “See how I did that? I hadn’t intended to…” or, when commenting about a strange musical coincidence, he shared with a friend, and interjects, “Isn’t that cool/weird? I certainly think so.” Through much of the book, I had the sensation of being in a room with the author as he told me — perhaps a group of readers — his interesting stories, his meandering, thoughtful mental processes.
A universality prevails, despite the specificity of time, place, and circumstance of his essays. I often found myself remembering that something similar had happened to me. Maybe in a different country and in a different time, and different circumstance, but I felt the linkage, nonetheless. When he tells the story about the fellow churchgoer miscalculating where his chair is and landing on the floor, it reminded me of the time my leg fell asleep — dead to the world asleep — during a prestigious speech contest for adolescent boys. (I was one of the “eminent” judges). I had to be carried from the venue.
Montaigne. Unknown painter, 17th century. (courtesy of University of Nebraska Press)
Or his description of the rudimentary bathroom he was using during his missionary work in Uruguay, when he used a particular towel to dry off his face, only to learn that it was intended to be used post-bidet. It took me back — in a roundabout way — to a “luxury” cruise I’d been on on the Amazon River in Brazil where a dishrag wrapped around the kitchen faucet was the “modern filtering system” advertised in the travel brochure.
And, of course, how could any parent not identify with the essay featuring the “crotchety priest” on a long flight with the author and his family. The priest is annoying, to understate it, and the Madden family (with four children, seven years and younger) are doing their best to co-exist. Near the end of the essay, though, Madden chooses the moment “Father Cantankerous” is in the plane’s bathroom to change his daughter’s diaper, “the caked-on mess” producing what Madden referred to as “the nasal equivalent of deafening.” Justice is served when fellow passengers, unable to see the rightful producer of said odor, believe the priest, returning to his seat at just the right moment from the bathroom, caused it. I laughed out loud.
An added bonus of Disparates is that a dozen or so guest writers weigh in for a number of the essays, lending their voices to the topic at hand: Jericho Parms, Mary Cappello, Elena Passarello, Joni Tevis, and Amy Leach, for example. Their contributions only add to the interesting mix of ideas, in the age-old spirit of “point” and “counterpoint”.
“Disparates” are “things so unlike that there is no basis for comparison.” There is surely no basis for comparison of these essays to any other book I’ve read.