The Best Bad Novelist

Having finished Galatea 2.2, Andrew Seal considers Richard Powers as a good novelist with a habit of writing bad prose:

And there is a fair bit of frustration to be had in this novel. As a sort of homeopathic effort to prevent myself from getting too angry at the extraordinary awfulness of many passages, I tattooed the margins of this book liberally with “ughs” and “wtfs.” (E.g., “We made interstellar contact, paralyzed by the mutual knowledge that any attempt to communicate would be culture-bound” or “I was so far out on a narrative limb that I knew I was ripe for amputation.”) Very little, however, could diminish my irritation with Powers’s glib depictions of theory-mad English students and his winsome reduction of humanism to remembering famous lines from famous poems and a constant “can-you-identify-the-allusion” memory game.

So what’s to like? Seal figures that Powers’ appeal is in his skill at finding “an appropriate linguistic middle ground” between “scientific lingo and humanistic sentiment.” That sounds about right—it’s certainly a more charitable assessment than James Wood‘s characterization in the New Yorker of Powers’ work, which gave the impression that his books read like pages of Harlequin novels pasted inside advanced physics texts. True, Powers’ earliest novels made a fetish out of the split that Seal mentions—you can’t read Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance or The Gold Bug Variations without reckoning with their structure, designed to consider people as both products of scientific functioning and as, well, people.

It’s been years since I read Galatea 2.2, but I recall it as the moment where Powers stopped thinking about those two aspects of human existence as cleanly split and began to merge them. In time, I suspect Powers will wind up more admired for the novels where he more seamlessly merged those two halves. It might not be an accident that in his three best novels, 1998’s Gain, 2006’s The Echo Maker, and last year’s Generosity: An Enhancement, the central characters are confronting a medical condition. For Powers, that’s not an easy way to gain empathy for his characters, though it doesn’t hurt; mainly, it’s a way to embed his scientific concerns within characters, instead of making them ominous, ponderous outside forces as he has in other novels. Powers hasn’t given up on that strategy: The Time of Our Singing is his exhausting, important Novel About the Meaning of Race, and Plowing the Dark is his exhausting, important Novel About the Meaning of Imprisonment. But those other three novels are where the life in Powers’ writing is—they’re the places where the lingo and sentiment are free to tangle with each other.

9 responses to “The Best Bad Novelist

  1. Mark,
    I haven’t read the rest of Powers’s books (and I’m very glad to hear that you liked Gain, which is certainly next on my list), but I can see the truth of what you say about Galatea 2.2 being a point where Powers starts to merge jargon and sentiment, and not just get them talking to one another. Powers draws most of the scientists in the novel as surprisingly well-read dilettantes–in the best sense of the term.

    I can’t help but wince, though, at how little the humanities folks in the novel know or care about scientific discourse; there’s definitely not mutuality in the process of merging jargon and sentiment. I think Powers still has a sort of polemical point he’s making about the possibilities of bridging the “two cultures.”

    But also, I just want to say that I really liked Galatea! I think wonderful prose is wonderful, but resolutely abstaining from bad prose is so over-valued among “serious” readers, as if contact with it might contaminate one’s brain or something.

    • I should probably reread it before making such a proclamation, but I think “Gain” is one of the best novels of the past 15 years, up there with “Gilead” and “The Believers.” But your post and this comment gets me to wondering why I tolerate more bad sentences from Powers than I do from other authors. I think part of it is that I kind of instinctively lower the bar a little for postmodern and postmodern-ish writers—reading DeLillo, Pynchon, Wallace, etc, requires putting up with more horseshit than I would out of, say, Robinson, because they’re more interested (and by extention *I’m* more interested) in what they’re doing at a structural level. As one commenter here pointed out recently, it’s a little ironic to read about how Wallace would browbeat his students about clarity when his writing could be so caked in theoretical, inelegant gunk. What I increasingly admire about Powers is that he does seem be more considerate about what’s happening at the sentence level—I would hesitate to put “Galatea 2.2″ in the hands of anybody who wasn’t already attuned to read DeLillo and Wallace, but I could comfortably put “Gain” in the hands of any reader with even a passing interest in literary fiction.

  2. (Re: Andrew’s comment)
    I was listening to an interview with Ian McEwan on XM Radio today (The Bob Edwards Show). McEwan talked about doing research for “Solar” by spending time with physicists. He noted that they were very well read, and were well informed about musicians such as Schubert. Is it possible that scientists tend to have more interest in the humanities than people in the humanities have in science? (Sorry — I know this raises the spectre of C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures lecture. Sigh.)

  3. It’s been a while since I’ve read Powers, though I remember parts of Galatea 2.2 and Plowing the Dark with fondness. I think the reason we’re willing to put up with the clunkers is that there’s some wonderful prose there as well. Powers is more willing than most to take chances. Perhaps what he needs most is a more discerning editor (to whom he’ll listen). I think the risks are often worth the rewards.

  4. Reed has it. There no doubt are bad sentences in Powers, but I rarely noticed because there is a ton of great writing, esp in Galatea.

    I also agree with Bat of Moon, re: Andrew’s comment. In my experience “humanities” types are not very well read in the sciences.

    Also, there’s nothing ironic about Wallace’s approach to his students’ writing as compared to his own. His prose is often difficult, but it’s really not unclear.

    I would also like to suggest that Robinson is very interested in her structure. She’s just a better writer.

    And I know I’m fighting a losing battle, but “postmodern” needs to be retired as a label. It is utterly meaningless.

  5. Oh, I also meant to address this point:

    “I would hesitate to put “Galatea 2.2″ in the hands of anybody who wasn’t already attuned to read DeLillo and Wallace, but I could comfortably put “Gain” in the hands of any reader with even a passing interest in literary fiction.”

    I had a friend who was as huge a Powers friend as I was (my admiration is much lower now) and he always said much the same thing. I vehemently disagreed then, and do now. I do so because I have given Galatea as a gift to several people: my father, who reads mainly crap science fiction, but also Cormac McCarthy; my brother who reads John Calvin and Stephen King; a good friend who tended to read Oprah novels, if the better ones, but also loved Vonnegut; and two other friends who were not readers, at all. Typical “literary types”, whatever that might mean, might struggle with Powers, but every single one of these people absolutely loved Galatea 2.2.

    • Interesting that you’ve had such success recommending Galatea 2.2. My two attempts to push it on people crashed and burned. So what happened to lower your estimation of Powers?

  6. My dissatisfaction with Powers began with my experience with The Echo Maker, which I struggled to finish. Then I began reading Proust and Beckett and Josipovici and others, experiences which totally changed my perspective on literature. Then, when I thought back over The Time of Our Singing, which I would have told you I loved at the time I read it, I now saw a book straining for significance. I’m always pleased that Powers takes risks, and a big book on race from a white writer carries some risks, but there’s also a sense in that book of trying to cover all the bases, straining to not mis-step. And I’m increasingly suspicious of writers who try to take on the whole world. Whenever I pick up his books with an eye toward re-reading, I find that I can’t bear the thought of it, especially as his books have become more mainstream, as he seems to have accommodated his style to meet the market. The exception is still Galatea 2.2, which unlike his most of his other work seems to question the validity of writing itself, and to question that ambition towards totality.

    Sorry, that probably doesn’t answer your question.

    • Mark Athitakis

      It’s a great answer, actually. And I share your misgivings about “The Time of Our Singing,” which I thought strained much too hard to deliberately cover as many bases as possible regarding race relations in the 20th century. I remember some beautiful sections of the book (particularly the depiction of Marian Anderson’s performance on the National Mall in the novel’s early pages). But that book is a case where the prose was overwhelmed by its structure, which was much too you-are-there for my liking. (Not as obnoxiously so as Kurt Andersen’s awful “Heyday,” but failed in a similar way.) There’s an essay on “The Time of Our Singing” by Greil Marcus in “The New Literary History of America,” which he co-edited. But I’ve avoided reading it, because I worry he might give me a reason to read the novel again—something I don’t have time for.

      It’s interesting that you struggled with The Echo Maker. That novel goes down a lot more easily than Powers’ others books, I think. But perhaps that was exactly the problem?

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