The Futile and the Essential: A Review of Patrick Madden’s Disparates

Patrick Madden’s latest essay collection, Disparates, embraces tradition and experimentation. The title comes from the Latin disparātus (separate, divide) and the Spanish disparate (nonsense, foolishness) and disparar (beyond reason, to throw violently). The message is playful, but clear: enjoy and don’t take any of this—or yourself—too seriously. This book celebrates the essay in the classic sense, then goes farther.

Disparates features plenty of recognizable aspects of an essay collection, such as recurring, reverential mentions of Montaigne, and a smattering of shout-outs to others: Aristotle, Lamb, Hazlitt, Dillard, Borges, and Nietzsche. And then Horace, impossibly credited with the quote, “Whoever smell’t it dealt it.” Here, as he does throughout the book, Madden uses humor to show his hyperconscious wielding of the essay form. He acknowledges but resists hierarchies. For every standard reference, Madden also has a Wikipedia entry, YouTube commentary, or Rush lyric ready.

Madden champions an essay’s typical moves, such as interrogating memory. He can, for instance, remember the exact words said by a lady handing out free sausage samples years ago, but not his wife’s first words to him. He revels in associations, invokes the OED, and uses titles like “Laughter,” “Nostalgia,” and “Happiness.” Madden wages a grammar war on grammar wars in “The Arrogance of Style” (in which he develops an appreciation for the word “then”), and takes enormous pleasure in the trivial and the quotidian. He also employs a bold narrator, characteristic of the genre, but with heightened transparency:

You’re expecting some narrative of that moment, I presume, but first allow me a bit of background, some character development.

Where was I going with all of this? I’m not quite sure. Perhaps it’s sufficient (he says after a three-page linguistic detour sparked by his own choice of the word erstwhile!) that we’ve explored connections, learned a thing or two, found some metaphors to keep in the bank for possible future use.

[This] resonates with the title of the essay, so now I’ve partially resolved that little (perhaps unformed) question you may have been carrying since you started reading. I will cut short here, abort the essay before we solve the world’s problems, because I do not believe that such solutions exist, and if they do, they will not be found in an obscure essay...

But he refuses to be content with the conventional.

For starters, Madden welcomes conceits. Disparates opens with an essay that borrows a Q&A form in which a potential eBay buyer is bidding on a half-drunk, leftover Dasani bottle from a fellow writer at a conference.

Q: Does Martone floss?

A: Allow me, instead, to answer the questions I think you’re really asking: 1) Did Martone floss soon before drinking, thereby limiting the quality of the valuable food morsels floating in the water?

A conceit appears again in “Mea Cupla,” a supposed legal answering to account for tiny discrepancies in his first book—issues pointed out by his wife, father, and mother-in-law. This essay offers an exaggerated apology in the full “spirit of penance” and clarifies where he actually bought a CD, whether a nickname was credited to a grandmother or a parent, and if a character was an alto or a soprano. “I only hope these revelations will not alter my readers’ faith in the book’s central message, whatever that may be,” the speaker jests.

Madden also uses a wide range of hybrid forms, everything from erasure, proverbial mashups, and pangram haikus juxtaposed with picturesque photos. I have two favorite experimental pieces. The first, “Repast,” is structured like a word search, a powerful tribute to Madden’s late mother as he searches for the right words following her death. (Don’t be fooled by the lightness of most of the collection—Madden swerves into deep, serious territory at many turns). The second, “Unpredictable Essay,” is the unexpected result of Madden feeding a bot all of his essays before coaxing out a coherent piece. This form, Madden claims, “began as a frivolous exercise” that became “a kind of self-actualizing...not to suggest that the essay drives itself, but that the essay and I are symbiotic, as I both write and read into meaning.”

The fifteen “aborted” essays in the collection feature a unique, collaborative writing process. For each aborted essay, Madden appears to have sent off an abandoned draft to a fellow essayist, who added another dimension. The final, resurrected essay appears with layered voices, indicated through italics, disrupting the solitary notion we have of the lonely essayist at work. This active collaboration underscores essays as something to participate in and share, a gesture as much outward as inward.

Perhaps best of all, Disparates not only engages with other writers—it also interacts with the reader. Not some distant, vague reader, but the you reading now. This becomes clear through frequent addresses:

While we’re here, let us take an associative jaunt together, reader, understanding that there is no whole to be comprehended, no essential destination, and that what you read is only a shadow and approximation, a selection and translation of the memories I have reviewed or the thoughts currently and recently swirling around my head, so that it is no detour to think linguistically instead of narratively. It is the inevitable path of the essay. 

I’m glad [Paracelsus] found his way into our essay today...

This is the part where the essay veers, requires both my and your consciousness to care and to make something of the past.

The book is “an invitation to the right hearer or reader.” Perhaps as a thank you to these “our”s and “we”s mentioned, Madden has gone so far as to create free, online bonus content for others to write their own pangram haikus or bot essays.

For all the novelty, Disparates never forgets to sing praises of the essay genre and, whenever possible, pay tribute. For folks constantly wrestling with the exciting and unruly form that is the essay, there are a few gems of wisdom (and imperatives):

[Y]ou can essay about anything, find some small hook in the overlooked or takenforgranted.

[A] memory may arrive of its own accord, it seems, without warning, without apparent cause, and leave us silent as its vibrations resound in harmony with our whole unfinished lives, necessitating an essay, which itself will not finish anything either. This is just to say that nothing is simple; nothing is finished; nothing is alone.

Alas, all essays, it occurs to me, should be...without persnickety certainties, which are usually conditioned and contextual anyway, and often survive well past their usefulness....

This, friends, is an essay, a translation of memory into words and an attempt to find something of significance without preaching...

What can we really know about anyone? What damage do we do when we presume to, when we ‘calculate others from ourselves’ and find too late or too seldom that we’ve calculated wrong? How then, is the world we perceive a distorted reproduction of ourselves? How is an act such as this, writing of an essay, both futile and essential?

Disparates honors the futile and the essential in both content and form. Don’t read this collection if you hate essays, especially lyric essays, or dislike being reminded that you are reading an essay. Nor should you read this book if you demand a point and feel slighted to learn that “life doesn’t always happen in the best order or with the best details.” This is a book for those who appreciate amusement and “raucous play.” As for me—a life-long student of essays, and a teacher of them—I’ll be turning to Disparates as a model for a long time to come.

Rachel Rueckert is a nonfiction MFA candidate and writing instructor at Columbia. More of her work can be found at