- Sublime Physick by Patrick Madden
Should a second contract from a big press testify of talent, energy, verve? Yes, as it happens, in the case of Patrick Madden's Sublime Physick. This comes just six years behind his Quotidiana, which had been the first of Madden's contracts from Nebraska's university press. Quotidiana qualified in a final round of judging for a pen award and earned further recognition from ForeWord magazine and from the Association of Mormon Letters. On separate fronts, editors from the likes of The Best Creative Nonfiction and The Best American Spiritual Writing had also been taking his essays. We should all start out so well. His Sublime Physick looks like a strong second stage.
Now, by way of categorization: I said okay to this reviewing assignment, supposing that Physick would resemble the science and nature writing of David Quammen, or Mary Roach, or Lewis Thomas, or Sue Hubbell, or Loren Eiseley—all of whose stuff savors of a sweet, smoked salmon. Essayists are of two sorts, in my order of things. Some fall in behind their subjects, personae riding comfortably in back seats. Madden is not of that stripe. He puts persona first, subject second. I imply few preferences when I describe this other way of working. Annie Dillard and David Sedaris are two of many who make themselves their subjects. They mix in the wide world as a kind of thickener, cornstarch in a tart berry pie. Well enough. A good number of us have taken both pleasure and instruction from the congenial personalities beaming from behind those pronouns. If I dare to throw out a little backhanded encouragement, I would hold up Edward Hoagland and Joseph Epstein as two who balance their subjects and personae so perfectly that their scales sit dead-center still. But this perhaps is just food for thought.
In the meantime, Madden's essays have their ways of scribing arcs up from the mundane to the transcendent. A daughter's playground accident, Madden's own birthday, playing host to a famous foreign writer—all are spiritual grist work. Take the seventh essay of twelve: "Buying a Bass." Madden parts with an uncomfortably heavy sum for "a Fender Geddy Lee model jazz bass" (101). This is drama: his antagonist, the glib clerk; the setting, a franchise "Guitar Center"; the occasion, "a Black Friday"; the damnable goal, "a [End Page 120] 20 percent discount" (102). In a word, soul-sucking. The would-be Orpheus then gets further acquainted with himself as a "plunker" (103). Frustration is again epiphany's price. No miracle, he—Madden must be witness to the miracle—this in the person of Paul McCartney. Sir Paul made the world "a better place" when, seemingly inspired, he "[strung] up an upside-down Rosetti Solid 7 with piano wire" (104–05). (There are additional examples of pop music moving the soul, and they're quite a bit of fun to read.) The point is, Madden testifies of the spirit having worked in all kinds of ways. Mormons think along those lines. They're like this.
One more feature of the writing deserves brief comment: Madden's style is highly allusive. It seems the rare page that doesn't have an excerpt. More than half the chapters begin with excerpts. The fourth chapter has twenty-three hefty ones in just thirty-one pages. Add to the excerpts the smallish inset illustrations, numbering forty-eight in total, and we have here more of a commonplace book than a sustained and smooth exposition. Is this scrapbook style something lately out of our creative writing departments? If so, it's a revival of a popular subgenre from early modern Europe. John Locke wrote a how-to manual on piecing together commonplace books. I mention this because if abundant page breaks and discursive styles aren't for you, then Sublime Physick should give some pause. On the positive side, I find the excerpts well chosen. Indeed, they're erudite in their own right.