Patrick Madden’s Quotidiana: A Review

A few pages into BYU English professor Patrick Madden’s collection of essays, Quotidiana, he describes what his graduate study of the essay form taught him:

“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.

About Angela

(Advisory Board) grew up in Utah, then moved to Minnesota, then came back to Utah, then packed up her husband and four kids and moved to Minnesota--again!-- in the summer of 2010. Although she loves the Land of 10,000 Lakes, she dearly misses Slurpees, Sunday dinners at her Mom's house, and eating a whole entire Cafe Rio pork salad while lunching with her Utah-based Segullah sisters. And yes, she finds it telling that everything she misses about her hometown is somehow related to food. She has an BA in English from BYU, an MFA in creative writing from Hamline University, and has taught writing to high school and college students.

12 thoughts on “Patrick Madden’s Quotidiana: A Review

  1. Van Halen, Rush, and Math? Sounds perfect for my husband! Sounds great for me too, it isn’t often that we can enjoy the same book.

  2. Excellent review, Angela. You make it look easy. (And thank goodness we’re not all German philosophers/musicologists.) The collection sounds more cerebral than my preferred creative nonfiction fare, but I’d still like to get my hands on it.

  3. Jendoop, after my last post I felt sheepish about the fact that I’d described this collection to friends as “male.” But it is male. Not in a testosterone-driven way, but both in the subjects it explores and the way in which the exploring happens. (Although Madden does include domestic, fatherhood-related scenes, along with the theoretical physics and analysis of Rush lyrics.) And women will like this book, too—I’m sure of it. But if any of you have husbands or male loved-ones who might enjoy such a read, it would be a great gift.

    And Kathy, you’d really like this book, your overwhelming girlishness notwithstanding. (See, I want to put a smiley-face emoticon after that last sentence to make sure you know I’m kidding, but then I’m afraid the smiley-face will make ME look to girlish, and now I feel compelled to explain the lack of the smiley-face emoticon). Your cerebral friends at BCC would like it too. Which is another reason I’m reluctant to use the smiley-face. I know I would immediately lose credibility in their eyes.

    :-)

  4. As you described how an essay could start at one place and wind so surprisingly through other worlds, yet maintaining flow and continuity, I was reminded how much I love the writing of David Sedaris for just that reason. His stories never lead where I’m sure we’re going when we set out. It is that surprise that makes each essay a treasure, as if the author has truly opened your eyes to the connectedness and magic in the most mundane and seemingly unconnected events in the world. It’s like a road trip on the scenic route.

  5. Segullah = always adding to my book list!

    Intriguing review Angela, looking forward to reading it (also to find out why there’s a kookaburra on the cover!)

  6. I have already read this book and I love it! And I think this is a splendid review. Turns out Madden quotes only the Bible more than he does Rush in it, which I kind of love.

    I wonder about the Adorno quote, though. Now that I’m reading it in this context, I think I’d take it differently than you have, Angela. (And though I don’t believe you meant to imply the opposite, I think it worth pointing out that most people would choose people over ideas–probably even Adorno. At least I certainly hope so.) The way I see it, bad essays are about nothing MORE than people, which are only the dust of the earth, while good essays are all about the things that make us little lower than the angels, those things that connect us and make us more than just people–memories, sadness, love, wonderings, laughter, food, etc. These are the “ideas” I think/assume/hope Adorno is talking about, and which Madden fills is writing with.

  7. Amanda, good point. I probably should have been more clear that I was talking about literature, not life. Maybe I’ll even pop back up there and edit it to read “German musicologist/philosophers aren’t much interested in reading about other people’s lives” and “for me, in a contest between reading about people and reading about ideas, people always win.”

    I do know, though, that some people prefer reading about ideas over reading about people. And it’s also true that poorly written essays about people are all over the place, but so are poorly written essays about ideas. The point I was trying to make is that if I had any quibble about Madden’s book, it’s that I enjoyed the “people stories” in Quotidiana so much that I wished there were more of them. This is personal preference, though, and I’m sure there are all sorts of readers who are hungry for an idea-driven book of essays rather than a story-or-personality driven one. These readers might skim over the stories of Madden’s childhood and linger over the math, while I did the opposite. The point is, there’s something in the book for both of us.

  8. It is probably gauche for me to comment here, but I want to first thank Angela for writing such a lovely review of my book. I’m humbled by your kind reflections on the essays. Also, thank you to Segullah for creating a forum for LDS literature by and of interest to women. I teach creative nonfiction at BYU, and the majority of my students are women. I’m glad to see the lively conversations happening here on the Segullah blog, too.

    And I’m tickled to see some discussion going on about essays! I don’t know a lot of Adorno’s work, but I do know pretty well “The Essay as Form,” from which I borrowed the quote in question. Truth be told, the essay partially conflates “essay” with “criticism,” which is not quite the way I view things. I trace my interest to Montaigne’s work, which was idea-driven but also peppered with personal anecdotes or stories from the ages. So I think that essays, generically, ought to use stories in service of ideas. When I read Adorno saying that “the bad essay tells stories about people instead of elucidating the matter at hand,” I focus on the “instead of” (though the terms are not mutually exclusive) and interpret “bad” to mean that a work that focuses on stories to the exclusion of ideas makes a poor essay. Now, it might make a great story, and stories might be preferable to essays, so the endeavor would be a great success. But if genre is meaningful, and “essay” is a genre distinct from “story” (as I believe), then such a work should be called a “story,” not an “essay.”

    For my own writing, because I prefer the thought-wandering of essays, which seem to reconstitute a writer’s soul more fully than stories, because they contain stories as well as thoughts occasioned by stories…for my own writing, I hope to balance both stories and ideas. Sometimes the result seems more narrative (as you’ve noted); sometimes it seems more theoretical. But I think that even those long essays (“Finity,” “Remember Death,” “Asymptosy”) with all the math in them contain (use) stories. At least I think they do!

    Once more: I humbly thank you, Angela, and everyone associated with Segullah.

  9. Patrick, I’m so glad you commented! And thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on the essay. I do think you have a great point that “essay” is distinct from “story,” and the essays in your collection are as true to the genre as it gets, especially when we’re referring to idea-driven, associative essays in the tradition of Montaigne.

    I also think the creative nonfiction “umbrella” that encompasses so much personal writing nowadays is, well, a problematic umbrella. You know, like one of those umbrellas that has a tough time in a stiff wind and ends up inside out with the spokes poking the wrong way? There’s the essay, the “personal essay” (are they different? I’m assuming you think they’re different since you don’t seem to use the term, or if you don’t think they’re different, you don’t like the connotations of the term?), the memoir, and all sorts of stuff in-between, from prose poems to travel writing to biography to “new journalism.”

    At any rate, I’m all for defining the lines of demarcation between different types of creative nonfiction, and explaining these differences to folks who are interested in writing (successfully) in the genre. Perhaps I’ll do a post about creative nonfiction one of these days and interview you on the subject? So many of our readers at Segullah are also writers (be they published memorists or fiction writers or poets or bloggers) and I’m sure they’d love your insights. I know I would!

    Thank you again for participating in the conversation, and thank you, too, for your fascinating book.

    p.s. I agree that the way I frame the Adorno quote might not get at the heart of Adorno’s actual views (but I haven’t read anything else he’s written so I can’t say for sure) . . . but it was such a provocative quote I couldn’t resist including it in the review!

  10. Ooh! Professor Madden’s was my favorite class. I swear we listened to a Rush song once a week, or were supposed to interpret their lyrics or compare them with something or another. But one thing is for sure: Rush was used, cited and enjoyed many times by Prof. Madden in more classes than not. Very enjoyable class. It cemented my desire to study English and learn how to write better essays.

    I’m excited to read this book. Especially to see the integration of math into an essay.

  11. Glad to see Tay enjoyed my class. Thanks! As for Rush in class: it can’t have been every week, right? And speaking of Rush, for those who live in Utah: August 5th, 2010, Rush in concert at the USANA amphitheater!

    Angela: I guess I’m trying to reclaim the word “essay” to mean what most people mean when they say “personal essay,” which is much truer to the Montaignean origins of the genre. I’ve written of this before (recently at the Huffington Post, here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/patrick-madden/are-essays-viable-in-the_b_518797.html). In any case, I cringe at what I see as a misappropriation of the word “essay” to denote argumented or coldly impersonal writings. I understand the urge/need to subdivide types of essays, or types of creative nonfiction, because so much of the nonfictional writing people do doesn’t fit either Montaigne’s idea or an academic’s misunderstanding of “essay.” I guess I see “essay” as a kind of uber-genre or ante-genre, something that pre-exists even the question of genre. This is a big claim, I know, but I think it’s a way of apprehending the world (curious, humble, associative, etc.) that can find its way into poetry, novels, short stories, biographies, blogs, and, of course, essays. And in this sense (among some other senses), I’m happy to think of genres not as separate categories with clear demarcating lines, but as parts of a hazy continuum, maybe like colors, which we recognize and even define, but which run into each other (and beyond the visible spectrum) to form “visible light.”

    Anyway, I’d love to talk about this more; thanks for the invitation. I’m passionate about the subject (and I read about it excessively). One last idea that came to me too late to post above: perhaps we might think of Adorno’s (and my) argument about essays in terms of sports: to say that a hand pass makes for bad soccer is not to say that basketball is a bad sport or that it’s less appealing than soccer, just that soccer is recognizable by certain traits (in this case, rules). And you can find even hand passes in soccer in the right circumstances (from the goalie or an out-of-bounds player).

  12. More great comments. And I like the sports analogy, too. Thanks, Patrick.

    I guess that’s what I meant by “lines of demarcation.” As one who’s spent most of her time as a student & writer & editor & teacher of writing focusing on *story*, there are things I would tell my students who are attempting to write a more narrative-centered piece of creative nonfiction (a memoir) that would be quite different from what you would tell students who are attempting to write an idea-driven, associative essay. The tricky thing, though, is BOTH of these potential pieces of creative nonfiction might be labeled a “personal essay,” and that can get confusing. We can take one look at a person’s uniform and tell if he’s playing basketball or soccer. But not so with creative nonfiction!

    In the end, I think it’s great that the genre allows for so many different kinds of expression. The problem comes when some are held up as “good” or “proper” ways to write a piece of personal writing at the expense of other, equally valid variations falling under the creative nonfiction umbrella. I certainly don’t think you’re doing this–in fact, it seems to me that what you’re trying to do with your own work is carve out a space for idea-driven essays in a genre often dominated by narrative-driven work.

    Anyway! I think it would be great to continue this conversation, and I’ll send you an email soon with some questions about the essay. I know those of us here at Segullah would love to benefit from your insights into and experience with the genre.

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