“I learned that essays were not stories, did not focus on great adventures or recoveries, were not extraordinary in their subject matter at all. Essayists are keen observers of the overlooked, the ignored, the seemingly unimportant. They can make the mundane resplendent with their meditative insights” (4).
In this first essay, “The Infinite Suggestiveness of Common Things,” Madden goes on to further elucidate the qualities of a “successful commonplace essay.” Such essays should “[reach] for new connections,” recognizing, as William Blake once wrote, “the world in a grain of sand.” Then, building upon the quotidian experiences and observations of everyday life, the essayist will “gather memories and researches, attach ideas and stories to build upward, toward meaning” (6).
Throughout Quotidiana, Madden proves he is a master of the ruminative, exploratory style of essaying he champions in this first chapter. These essays are not invitations to journey with Madden as he tells us the story of his life (as is customary in so much of the memoir-influenced creative nonfiction published currently). Instead, we are taken on a different kind of trip, roaming with Madden inside the corridors of his mind.
And what a fascinating mind it is. Essays might begin in seemingly mundane places (“As I was changing my daughter’s diaper, I began to sing a song I had just been hearing from the children’s television show The Backyardigans” (94) is the first line of the essay “Panis Angelicus”). But then these essays veer off into such unexpected and surprising terrain that I often found myself thumbing backward through the pages, wondering how in the world an essay could begin with the line “There are 172 grapes in the bag I bought from my local Smith’s” (“Finity,” 164), then wend its way through subjects including (but not limited to): metaphysics, the Abrahamic covenant, Pindar the Greek poet laureate of the Olympics, Madden’s own mathematical calculations estimating the number of grains of sand on earth (Madden has an undergraduate degree in physics), Apollo’s herd of sun cattle, Lao Tzu, Archimedes, Brigham Young, Genghis Khan, the birth of Madden’s fourth child, Uruguayan taxi drivers, Desperate Housewives, Madden’s LDS mission, Avogadro’s molecular hypothesis, Eddie Van Halen and Valerie Bertinelli’s son Wolfgang, knee-high running socks, the rock band Rush (I think Rush manages to make it into almost every essay in this collection), Julius Caesar, the Kinetic Theory of Gases, Enrico Fermi, the population of metropolitan Chicago, Madden’s grandfather, Madden’s father, Madden’s son, WWII, the problem of evil, and—finally—Madden’s father’s first memory: sitting in the back of the family Ford, taking his first bite of a “roundish purple” fruit, enjoying its “delicious juice” (204). The fruit he’s savoring? A plum. Almost—but not quite—the fruit that sent us off on this wild journey in the first place.
Madden is extraordinarily smart and observant, and his prose deftly handles the witty and light as well as the complicated and dense. And although I admit to skipping some of the math (and for a collection of personal essays, there’s a surprising amount of it), after finishing the book, my mind felt the same way my body does after a long yoga session: tired, but pleasantly so, humming as if plugged into an electrical current.
My only quibble comes in response to a line Madden quotes in his opening essay. According to Theodor Adorno (Wikipedia tells me he’s a German-born sociologist, philosopher, and musicologist, and don’t you dare tell me you already knew that), “the bad essay tells stories about people instead of elucidating the matter at hand” (6). Well, maybe German philosopher/musicologists aren’t much interested in reading about other people’s lives—in fact, such a trait might be a prerequisite to actually becoming a German philosopher/musicologist—but I admit that, for me, in a contest between reading about people and reading about ideas, people always win.
Although I loved watching Madden’s mind at work, learning things from the definition of asymptosy to the identity of the probable originator of atomic theory (it was Democritus, the “Laughing Philosopher”), the moments that affected me most deeply and will stay with me the longest are from Madden’s own life. I loved the stories of his childhood, his father, his mission, his wife, his children, and I found myself wanting more. Yet, the most heart wrenching and beautiful moment of the entire book occurs at the end of the essay “Gravity and Distance,” and it’s an experience that is touched on quite briefly and never resolved. Madden writes of his infant son who must undergo surgery to correct a fused sagittal suture at the base of his skull. We’re with Madden and his wife in the hospital as his tiny son is wheeled into the room, a “writhing screaming tangle of wires and tubes lost propped by pillows red in the middle of a stark white stretcher big enough for adults” (92). But when Madden’s next paragraph begins, “I would write about the distressing pain, the helplessness, the impotence, the rage, the prayers, the fasting, the priesthood blessings, the ineffectuality of all I or my wife or medicine could do as my son screamed . . .” and then continues, phrase after painful phrase, not separated by period or comma until it finally exhausts itself with ” . . . tears rage why stop this stop this if it be thy will let this cup pass from me,” and then nothing, just the white space at the bottom of the page, I understand that the scant four paragraphs Madden devotes to this experience are more than enough.
Quotidiana is a smart, engaging, engrossing, startlingly unique work of creative nonfiction. The fact that Madden is LDS probably shouldn’t make me more enthusiastic about it than I already am, but I can’t help it. It does. Because the more I learn about the work being done by Mormon artists like Madden, the more excited I get about the future of a literature by, for, or about Mormons—be it written for the LDS market or, as is true in Madden’s case, a national audience. But don’t simply buy Madden’s book because it’s written by a member of our church (although I’m all for supporting Mormon writers whenever I can). Buy Quotidiana because it’s unlike anything you’ve ever read before. You’ll be glad you did.