Jul/Aug 2021  •   Reviews & Interviews

Guilty/Not Guilty: A review of Patrick Madden's Disparates: Essays

Review by Martha Petersen

Disparates: Essays.
Patrick Madden.
University of Nebraska Press. 2020. 186 pp.
ISBN 978-1496202444.

The following is a record of the bench trial before the Honorable Michel Eyquem, Judge Pro Tem, commonly known as Michel de Montaigne, beginning with the examination of the witness Martha Petersen. This proceeding involves Judge Eyquem, Mr. Madden, Ms. Petersen, and Prosecutor, who will be conducting the questioning.


Prosecutor: The Defendant PATRICK MADDEN is charged with grave misrepresentions. This offense arises from the publication of his collection of essays entitled Disparates. The charge contained in the Indictment is merely accusation, and the Defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.

Judge Eyquem: The prosecution may proceed with questioning this witness.

Prosecutor: State your name.

Witness: Martha Petersen.

Q: Can you explain to the jury who Mr. Madden is?

A: I perhaps can begin by explaining who he is not. He is not the Irish footballer. He is not the Irish abstract painter. There is something Irish about him. He claims to have an Irish coat of arms showing a helpless duck being seized upon by a falcon. And he is a writer, but not like James Joyce or Samuel Becket, you know, famous Irish writers. He calls himself a "frivolous... writer of no real consequence," which is possibly true, because he is rather unfamous, although he has lots of Facebook friends.

Mr. Madden: I've made my bed, now let sleeping dogs lie in it.

Judge Eyquem: Mr. Madden, I am instructing you to avoid interrupting this proceeding. You will have the opportunity to speak later. But we'll burn that bridge when we get to it.

Prosecutor resumes...

Q: Are you familiar with Mr. Madden?

A: That depends on what you mean by familiar. I have read his essay collections Quotidiana and Sublime Physick, along with his latest, Disparates.

Q: Can you speak to Mr. Madden's character personally?

A: Personally, I have eaten a sandwich with him, although I do not remember whether his was turkey or roast beef, or what his choice might have portended, or the meaning inherent in either of these meats, and whether that moment was meaningful in itself, or whether it was meaningful because we decided it must be, which may or may not have led him to write the essay "Memory," in which he recounts eating the entirety of beef stick samples at his local FoodTown with his friend, John.

Q: In his book, Mr. Madden claims to be a "truth-telling essayist." Since he is charged with gross misrepresentations, we shall examine this claim. First, are these "essays," as Mr. Madden so brashly asserts?

A: Perhaps I can begin by explaining what these pieces might be. They might be amalgamations. They might be word search puzzles. They might be pangrams.

Q: But are they essays? Yes or no?

A: That depends on what you mean by essay. To assay is to determine the composition of a substance, or to test this substance, which these pieces might do. But are they essays in form? They have purpose, but they lack clear theses. They promise one thing yet deliver another, which leads us to question the idea of form itself. [Turning to Mr. Madden] Patrick, maybe you should take my Writing 101 class.

Prosecutor: Your Honor, please instruct witness to avoid addressing the Defendant.

Judge Eyquem: Ms. Petersen, you will refrain from speaking to the Defendant directly, even if you are friends.

Ms. Petersen [Turning to Judge]: That depends on what you mean by friends. I have eaten a sandwich with Mr. Madden, but I have never stolen sausages with him.

Prosecutor: Your Honor, how is this relevant to the proceeding?

Judge Eyquem: Agreed. Ms. Petersen, please just answer the questions. Resume.

Prosecutor resumes...

Q: I will move on to the accusation against Mr. Madden. His assertion is included in his very title, Disparates: Essays. But you cannot say whether these pieces are essays or something else. Define "essay," Ms. Petersen.

A: I can explain what an essay might be.

Judge Eyquem [interrupting]: I have defined this very thing! I have said myself, an essay is an attempt! A trial! To essay is to weigh, to try. Like this very trial we are engaged in, which is, in fact an attempt at truth, or in other words, an essay!

Ms. Petersen: An attempt to assay or an essay in form?

Mr. Madden: If you can't beat a dead horse, join him.

Prosecutor [to Mr. Madden]: Objection! Defendant will keep silent. Ms. Petersen must keep silent. [To Judge]: With all due respect, your Honor, please! The State is entitled to prove its case.

Judge Eyquem: The Court apologizes. But I must say, curiosity killed two cats with one stone. Resume.

Prosecutor resumes questioning...

Q: Again, Mr. Madden calls himself a truth-teller. A claim such as this is far different from a general jabber toward truth. Mr. Madden is in fact a shameless liar, correct?

A: That depends on what you mean by liar, and shameless should also be questioned.

Q: A liar presents untruth as truth, which is exactly what Mr. Madden does. He admits to misrepresenting facts. Take his own words from "Mea Culpa," one of his so-called essays: "I admit it: I fictionalized key parts of my supposedly nonfiction collection... As a longtime committed nonfictionist, one who teaches his students not to lie, to select and shape their real experiences into literature, I feel so ashamed. I sincerely apologize." He admits his deceit right here, and also his shame, correct?

A: Perhaps I can explain what Mr. Madden might be doing. He might be alluding to truth. Or he might be lying. Or perhaps irony is the objective.

Q: How can one "allude to truth?"

A: Perhaps one alludes to truth when everything seems connected while nothing seems resolved.

Q: Ms. Petersen, as a reminder, you are a witness for the prosecution. We are trying to get to the heart of Mr. Madden's misrepresentations. Mr. Madden admits to forgetting the most basic events, such as his beloved's first words to him, and then admits to webbing others together, even apologizing for his hubris. Mr. Madden remakes truth. As such, he is a liar. Do you agree?

A: All things work to the good of those who love the essay.

Q: Are these essays truthful or untruthful?

A: They ring of truth.

Q: Do his misrepresentations show deliberate deception?

A: Deception? The truth is, we don't really know.

Prosecutor [tossing Disparates on a table]: I'm afraid we have gotten nowhere with this witness. No further questions.

Judge Eyquem. I have one further question. Ms. Petersen, if you were to write a review of Disparates, what would you say?

A: Mr. Madden takes a remembered incident, an idea, or an image and wears into it, breaking and reforming the pieces, testing its composition. Through looping, wordplay as world-play, always elegant prose, these essays attempt to find understanding, but the understanding they find is not self-evident. These attempts ask questions but resist answers. Disparates, finally, is a book of questions that cross-examine themselves...

Prosecutor [interrupting]: Your Honor, I must remind you Mr. Madden is an avowed deceiver, and he is on trial for such. He admits to revising truth, to not knowing what truth is, even, which is heinous on its face. For this, and as an example to his friends, he must hang. The State rests.

Judge Eyquem: Mr. Madden, would you like to speak in your defense?

Mr. Madden: Out of sight, out of the mouths of babes.

Judge Eyquem: Very well. Defendant, please stand. Mr. Madden, I have read Disparates. Having considered all the evidence, I find you guilty of misrepresentations; you yourself have admitted this very thing. But for this, you will not hang. As I have written, we do not correct the man we hang; we correct others by him. I do the same. These are worthy essays, attempts at truth, or at questions. But que sais-je? What do I really know?

I very humbly kiss your hands, sir, and pray God to give you a long and happy life. Court is adjourned.


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