In a Word: A Review of Patrick Madden’s Disparates: Essays
University of Nebraska Press. 2020. 153 pages.
Reviewed by Cicily Bennion
If you asked me to describe Patrick Madden’s third essay collection Disparates in a single word, I might choose whimsical. But on second thought, I might go with whimsical’s plain but more assertive cousin: playful. To my mind, whimsy is decorative, but play is more substantive and active. Of course, I could also call the book collaborative, and if I did, it would be because it’s true in the most literal sense––Madden collaborated with fourteen other writers in this collection including David Lazar, Mary Cappello, Elena Passarello, and Amy Leach.
If you’re not familiar with Madden’s previous work, let me just tell you that he’s a sort of Montaignian evangelist. Few people today have done more to immerse themselves in the tradition of the essay. Madden knows his stuff, and as a result, his essays feel like essays in the true sense of the word. If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a million times: essays are attempts, experiments of the mind. As Cynthia Ozick once wrote, the essay “mimics that low, electrical hum…of perpetual noticing.” She goes on, “To seize the hum and set it down for others to hear is the essayist’s genius.”
Seizing and setting down the hum of perpetual noticing has always been the central motivation of Madden’s work. In his first two collections, the results of his attempts were the sort of capable, traditional essays you might expect from a person so steeped in the essay’s history––they were smart, braided, associative, ruminative, and funny. And while Madden’s essays have always been a little untraditional, Disparates marks a clear departure from the more traditional form of the essay.
Here, Madden plays with form like he’s never played before. The book contains essays of various forms: eBay auction, predictive text, wordsearches, an interview with Montaigne, proverbs, and pangram haikus (that is, haikus containing every letter of the alphabet: “Extra wisdom feels / boring, each jerk of pique lives, / every wink a zero”). You see why I was tempted to call the collection playful. When you finish an essay in Disparates, you never know what you’ll find when you turn the page. It’s a delightful aesthetic roller coaster to be on.
Now I must confess a personal, writerly failure of mine. I am deeply suspicious of writing that plays with form. I try to overcome my prejudice, but something inside me always wonders what the author has to hide, why we’re playing these games. Such play, I think, is something the essayist must earn, and too often they do not. I often want to ask, what are you saying in this form that you can’t say better––more efficiently, more beautifully––in a good, old-fashioned series of paragraphs?
I tell you this so that it will mean something when I say that the playfulness of Madden’s essays feels earned. My favorite piece in this collection is “Repast,” an essay in which Madden mourns the loss of his mother. It’s in wordsearch form. The wordlist makes up the text of the essay. Our first impression may be that this is a frivolous form, but in Madden’s hands, I find myself convinced that there could be no other way to write about grief––the way we fumble through life after the loss of a loved one is perfectly expressed through these wordsearches. The form of the essay, too, forces us to slow down and, if we choose to, engage in some searching of our own. To read the essay