Patrick Madden’s is a new voice sounding in the West, and if it is quiet—which it is—it is not because what he has to say lacks gravitas. On the contrary, in Quotidiana, his high-minded collection of essays, Madden reminds us how an essay, when well written, can be a mode of true human communion. The subject matter need not be grand in scope (Madden has given us some remarkable essays on ordinary matters like garlic, laughter, and singing) for the readers to find themselves considering grand notions. This is what essays allow us to do: we find our way to the extraordinary by meditating on the ordinary, the everyday—those quotidian aspects that make up the human condition. From his opening essay, which borrows its title from Alexander Smith—“The Infinite Suggestiveness of Common Things”—Madden posits his aims and intentions: “I want a genre that allows for the staid, mundane life [End Page 437] of a loafer, that reaches for new connections, that recognizes ‘the world in a grain of sand’” (6).
Madden is not from the West (he is from New Jersey), but his essays are grounded in his adopted state of Utah. What is remarkable about his handling of the Utah landscape is that it mirrors the functionality of the essay as a form. That is, when he engages Utah, he doesn’t wax sentimental, or lament, or brood. Instead, he gives us everyday glimpses of Utah and then renders those glimpses so they resonate on a global, which is to say universal, plane. In an essay titled “Finity,” Madden begins, again, with the ordinary: “There are 172 grapes in the bag I bought from my local Smith’s supermarket” (164). Madden goes on to deconstruct grapes, their prices, marketing, weight, and number before reaching off the page toward the infinite.
The grapes, according to their bag, had traveled all the way from Chile, where it was now summer, to my Smith’s supermarket at the crossroads of Main Street and Redwood Road on the border of Lehi and Saratoga Springs, Utah. Smith’s is a Utah grocery store franchise, but it was recently subsumed by Kroger’s, an Ohio chain. The Kroger’s conglomerate owns 2,515 grocery stores in the thirty-seven states. All of them sell grapes … no matter the season.(166)
Madden’s deft deployment of something so common as grapes at a local grocery store in Utah, hinged on the calculated use of the word “crossroads,” not only suggests a kind of personal crossroads he faces but a larger cultural crossroads in a globalized, consumer-driven society. Further, we can read his usage of the term “border” as a literal locator and as a word that suggests, or at least points to, broader implications of what borders signify in the West as well as in a globalized world. In just a few words, we are whisked from Chile to Utah to Ohio to the entire nation. The essay, which begins with a counting of grapes in a bag continues to edge outward into the world, expanding and enlarging its meaning as it goes.
Perhaps one of the most dazzling aspects of Madden’s Quotidiana is its remarkable melding of the classic and postmodern forms of the essay. When we read Madden, we know that we are in the hands of a writer who has read (and re-read) Montaigne, Addison, Steele, Hazlitt, Lamb, Wolfe, et al. We see the inner workings of a mind in a freewheeling state of wonder. Curiosity is the essayist’s first allegiance, and there is no lack of curiosity in Quotidiana. But if Madden is of the tradition, he also draws a good deal of ink from contemporary pop culture and pulls off a number of postmodern backhand springs to good effect. In his essay “Laughter,” for instance, we are invited to “add [our] own laugh aphorism (laughorisms?) in the space provided. Use the fly pages if necessary” (12). Photographs, woodcuts, mathematical equations, and quotations from everyone from Heiddeger to Neil Peart, the...