Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Sublime Physick by Patrick Madden, University of Nebraska Press.

Review by Ryan McIlvain

In just one page of one essay in Patrick Madden’s new collection Sublime Physick, the author chisels away at a block quote of Nietzsche, lines from Dante as translated by Longfellow, a verse from the Psalms, and a remark from Solon, the Greek reformer who reprimands Croesus in book one of Herodotus’s Histories. A few pages later we hear from Jeanne Calment, the Guinness Book of World Records holder for longest life lived, at 122 years—then Robert Louis Stevenson is called on, Stephanie Meyer, the Catholic mass, lessons from Latin declension, the sixteenth-century French father of the essay Michel de Montaigne, and more. This is typical Madden, it turns out—wide-ranging, wandering, playful, and radically democratic.

A neo-Montaignean by his own description, Madden treats the personal essay as an "umbrella" category: it can do just about anything in his hands, fit anything under it. Madden is always learning in his essays, curating, exploring, searching, though not for a final or unifying theory. "I don’t really believe one exists," he writes early on in the new book, "nor would I want one." Sublime Physick instead ennobles and elevates variousness, disunity. Quantum mechanics, probability theory, physics, theology, the minor dramas of a large family, the Beatles, an unnatural attachment to the band Rush, an encyclopedic knowledge of the classical essay tradition—all this and more keeps Madden very busy in these pages, peripatetic, a tourist of the mind. "Anyone who knows me," he writes in "Independent Redundancy," the long essay that anchors the collection, "will consent to my conception of the essay in the Montaignean sense of the French essai: an attempt, a try, a thought experiment."

Indeed, Madden’s life, or at least what he discloses of it in these essays, begins to feel like a continuous Montaignean try, and it’s often difficult and probably beside the point to try to determine where the living ends and the essaying begins. In his life, Madden listens to the Beatles and reads the classical essayists obsessively, so it’s natural for him to wonder, in "Independent Redundancy," if George Harrison’s "My Sweet Lord" is too close a riff on "He’s So Fine," a 1962 hit by the Chiffons. Or to wonder if Hazlitt is aping Thomas Browne’s prose style unduly. Where is the line between riffing and copying, anyway, between "duly" and "unduly"? Madden sets himself up as the chief example, stretching out and holding remarkably still on the experimental slab. He does a kind of forensic analysis of the influences on his own prose. "Only the ignorant and bumptious believe that they’re uninfluencedly original," he concludes. "Only from a vast and insular cluelessness can one attain the bravado necessary to claim independent genius."

By the end of this almost ninety-page essay, Madden has enacted and participated in a thorough and playful critique of so-called ex nihilo creativity. True creativity is wily, competitive, communal, an irreducibly untidy thing, and Madden shows no inclination to clean up the mess. He embraces it. He adds to it.

Other life/essay experiments: Madden begins thinking about spit after his daughter lands a dainty loogie on his forehead, apparently by accident. Soon enough the author sends out his own saliva for genetic testing and discovers a distant relative in Canada, a man who’d been given up for adoption at birth and who now informs Madden that he is "the closest person that has similar dna that i have ever talked with." "Take care cuzz," this man signs off the first of many friendly emails. Or here is Madden in another essay on Time, big T and little, in which he wears a track coach’s stopwatch around his neck the better to measure out his life in hours, minutes, seconds: "Most mornings, I get the toothpaste on, in, dispersed, lathered, rinsed, etc., in 57 seconds. That’s an average." Madden is at once funny, self-mocking about the zeal of his reporting, and also desperately serious, conscientious, sincere.

It’s hard to think of a writer at work today who better practices what he preaches than Patrick Madden. He may not be looking for a particular unifying theory, a universal skeleton key, but he has clearly found, and joyfully refined in this excellent second book, a method of investigation: it is the essay as life experiment, life as an experimental essay.