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Putting together a puzzling life

Margaret Drabble
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By Sara Sklaroff
Sunday, November 22, 2009

THE PATTERN IN THE CARPET

A Personal History with Jigsaws

This Story

By Margaret Drabble

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 353 pp. $25

If you're the kind of person who likes to do puzzles, especially complicated ones -- 3,000-plus-piece jigsaws of abstract paintings, say, or complicated cryptics from London newspapers -- please don't tell the others. Non-puzzlers will either be amazed and slightly horrified by your mental acuity, or amazed and more than horrified that you would bother to do them at all. Either way, it's probably better to keep this particular character flaw to yourself. A roommate once became indignant about my daily habit of working the crossword, which she declared a total waste of time. I calmly waited out her diatribe and then returned to my puzzling, thinking that she actually had it right: Yes, when we spend time on puzzles, we waste time or, more terribly, kill time, but that is absolutely the point.

The English novelist and scholar Margaret Drabble, a longtime jigsaw puzzler, comes clean about her own habit in "The Pattern in the Carpet." Part history, part memoir, it is at times frustrating, confounding and even, indeed, puzzling, but I won't make the obvious comparison. She doesn't give us the completionist satisfaction of a jigsaw, for one thing, nor do all the pieces quite fit together in the end. But the book offers readers the pleasing intimacy of following the meanderings of a gifted mind.

The memoir portion focuses on Auntie Phyl, a never-married, retired teacher who taught Drabble to complete the edge of the puzzle frame first, spoke "philosophically on the topic of the 'missing piece,' " and was a reliable puzzling companion over many years. Phyl was quite literally an old-school aunt, who Drabble recalls "taught us to peg rugs, and to sew, and to do French knitting, and to make lavender bags, and to thread bead necklaces, and to bake rock cakes and coconut fingers, and to play patience" -- most of these lost (or at least misplaced) arts that became satisfying pursuits for young Maggie during what was otherwise not a particularly happy childhood.

The rest of the book delves into the history of the jigsaw puzzle itself (she dates it back to 18th-century English "dissected maps"), along with examinations of related pastimes like board games (starting with the Royal Game of the Goose, invented, perhaps by a Medici, during the Renaissance), card games, children's books and even mosaics. Reviewing the various types of images chosen for jigsaws takes her into the realm of kitsch and authenticity. Comparing puzzles to other pursuits brings her to utilitarianism. Can anything so meaningless be said to be edifying? Drabble investigates two arguments in favor: that the study of great masters can be enhanced by close examination of reproductions of their paintings in puzzle form, and that educational toys like the dissected maps could be used to teach geography. That's fine as far as it goes, but for most of us, such educational ideals miss the point. The Sudoku craze proves as much: Those puzzles lack content but are extremely satisfying when the numbers come out right.

Drabble says that her plan was to write a straightforward history of jigsaw puzzles, the kind of inoffensive little book that gets sold in museum shops. Then her husband, the biographer Michael Holroyd, was diagnosed with cancer. During the painful months of treatment and recovery, "at the mercy of ill thoughts," she turned to jigsaws not as research material but as a refuge. This is when the book took on its bifocal structure. It also opened Drabble up to the idea of connecting puzzling to her own depression, paranoia and anxiety, and these are the most compelling sections of her story. Her description of the panic she felt as a girl at a school entrance interview, when she was asked to work a simple jigsaw that was missing some pieces, illuminates the workings of the child mind; the anxiety she feels even today as a jigsaw comes to an end with fewer pieces than spaces available is all too familiar.

Yes, jigsaws are "a way of getting quietly through life until death," which is perhaps the most damning thing that can be said of any pursuit (though I suppose you can be forgiven if you are a prolific and masterful author). At the same time, puzzles are a kind of mindful escape, not a mindless one; you need to be very present in the working of them, leaving your mind little room to scratch and pick and pull at its neuroses. Whether this is good or bad is up for debate. For Drabble, it certainly has been tonic.

Sara Sklaroff is editorial director of Diabetes Forecast.



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