Category Archives: Richard Powers

Dismal-Science Fiction

Responding to the news that Richard PowersGenerosity: An Enhancement has been nominated for an Arthur C. Clarke Award (a British science fiction prize) Ron Hogan has taken a look at the science fiction elements in that book and a couple of other Powers novels. Generosity is something of a slam-dunk on that front, as Hogan points out: “Not only does the science of Generosity have the abstract potential to change lives, the exploration of that science DOES change the lives of the characters involved,” Hogan writes.

The connections aren’t always so clear in other Powers’ novels, but Hogan brings up some interesting points in relation to 2006’s The Echo Maker and 1988’s Prisoner’s Dilemma—the latter of which reveals “Powers’ fascination with the mind’s role in defining our experience of reality, and the ways we seek to identify and push against the limitations of that experience.” That may be a loose definition of science fiction in general, but Powers is more concerned about the scientific details of “mind,” “reality,” and “experience” than many novelists. (The proof of that might be in the way publications turn the genre term into a pun when writing about Powers; the Nation‘s review of The Echo Maker was titled “Science Fiction,” and the New Yorker‘s review of Generosity was subtitled “The scientific fictions of Richard Powers.”)

Powers’ fixation on such details isn’t always to his credit: Prisoner’s Dilemma is one of two Powers novels I couldn’t finish, and as Hogan points out, the novel’s “characters read like templates rather than people.” A better turned example of Hogan’s argument might be Powers’ 1998 novel, Gain, which alternates between the history of Clare Corp., a small soap company that becomes a multinational chemical conglomerate, and a middle-aged woman whose ovarian cancer may be connected to the company’s products. There’s plenty of chemistry and oncology in the novel, enough to justify at least another punning “science fiction” tag, but the discipline Powers is mostly interested in in Gain, is economics, and its power to shape our mind, reality, and experience.

Laura Bodey, the hero of the novel and its cancer patient, is “a woman who has heard, yet has not heard,” Powers writes early on—somebody aware of what she needs to be as a mother, (ex) spouse, worker, and citizen, but disinterested in the larger forces that will ultimately affect her. When she hears a couple of farmers discussing details about agribusiness in the supermarket, she tunes it out; uncomfortable even with the question “paper or plastic?” in the checkout line, she punts and responds, “Whatever is easiest.” Still, Powers never makes Laura out to be either a Midwestern rube or a puppet controlled by larger geopolitical forces, though it’s clear that going in either direction would be easy. As the book’s reviewer for the Washington Post, (science fiction writer) Thomas Disch, put it, “Laura’s suffering as she soldiers through her prescribed regimen of chemotherapy is evoked in unsparing detail, but it is not blamed on Big Medicine. All the misery in the book is just part of daily life and death, and the moments of transcendence, while often spectacularly beautiful, are just that—moments.”

But though Powers declines to render Laura as a victim, her experience isn’t wholly disconnected from Clare Corp.’s work. As the novel progresses, Laura becomes increasingly aware of the company’s control over her life, the way it knows her better than she knows herself:

Who told them to make all these things? But she knows the answer to that one. They’ve counted every receipt, more carefully than she ever has. And wasn’t she born wanting what they were born wanting to give her? Every thought, every pleasure, freed up by these little simplicities, the most obvious of them already worlds beyond her competence.

The kicker to that passage reveals Powers’ understanding that however much we might resent these toxic chemicals and craven obsession with balance sheets, we are generally willing to succumb to it. Imagining that the corporation might invent a treatment called Cancer-Be-Gone, Laura thinks, “She’d sell just about anything but the kids to get it. If the cure lasted for only, say, ten years, at the end of which the vendor wanted the most unthinkable item in trade, she’d still sign.” He may have written no stronger argument for the way science changes lives.

Links: Across the Pond

“What the US provides, in a way that Britain doesn’t, are effective opportunities for young writers to develop their craft and to market themselves. The explosion of graduate writing programmes—which dwarfs that in the UK—has created an ocean of competent line-and-length word merchants from which a small pool of genuinely inspired writers can emerge.” (via)

The people who organize to ban books are getting better at getting organized.

Andrew Altschul, Hannah Tinti, and Joshua Ferris talk up fiction writing, the internet, small presses, and more.

Relating to Wednesday’s post on how it’s possible to overanalyze metaphors, Nicole Krauss: “Why do we love metaphors? Because, when we link or juxtapose two seemingly unrelated things to reveal a commonality that feels at once surprising and inevitable, it confirms in us a sense of the unity and connectedness of all things.” (via)

Jonathan Lethem settles in to life in California.

Dale Peck has had it with Daniel Mendelsohn.

E.L. Doctorow: “The thing that’s happening with eBooks makes me think of how disposable words are. You press a button, they’re there and you press another button and they’re gone. I can imagine, though, that people reading something they like would want to hold on to it. How can you hold onto an eBook?

A few clips from a forthcoming William S. Burroughs public television documentary.

On Charles Sheldon, the novelist who popularized the question, “What would Jesus do?

“The real fun begins with the third draft”: Charles Johnson on revision.

Michael Cunningham: “When someone hands me a 750-page tome, my first reaction is, oh fuck you. I don’t want to read your giant book. There has been a fixation in American letters on giant books that are usually written by men and that are usually a demonstration of the writer’s scope and precocity.”

“[O]ne reason people speak of wanting to become critics as opposed to reviewers is that they are allowed many more words with which to make big arguments; they are also allowed to put more of themselves into their pieces, since the critic is often a big personality, while the reviewer is often more of a service journalist.”

Richard Powers considers Watson, the supercomputer designed to compete on Jeopardy!.

Katie Chase on her Chicago-set post-9/11 story, “The Sea That Leads to All Seas”: “So much 9/11-related literature takes place, inevitably, in New York, but the effects of 9/11, in a very real and devastating way, reached much further, further even than the second city.”

Speculating on what Jeffrey Eugenides‘ forthcoming novel, The Marriage Plot, will be about.

Toward the end of this Q&A, Mary Gaitskill delivers a killer one-paragraph summary of why The Wire works.

A travel piece on Baltimore framed by Anne Tyler‘s work.

Lastly, links to a few recent pieces of mine: A review of Roger Rosenblatt‘s writing guide/teaching memoir, Unless It Moves the Human Heart, for aarp.org; a review of Barbara Browning‘s The Correspondence Artist for Washington City Paper; a few thoughts on the expansion of the National Book Festival to two days this year, also for City Paper; and a review of Ander Monson‘s excellent book Vanishing Point for the National Book Critics Circle’s blog, Critical Mass.

Something Almost Like Knowing

Because readers can’t make time even for their favorite authors these days, I propose that some kind of graphic be appended to Richard Powers‘ stories and novels. A good designer would be required to nail it down, but the graphic would allow you to see, at a glance, whether a Powers work features thoughtful, full-blooded portraits of human beings or just makes them playthings of a heartless god-author determined to remind us how we’re just cogs in a machine. That way, you could decide quickly whether a Powers work is right for you, depending on how sick at heart you are about humanity. The Echo Maker and Gain could have, say, a heart-shaped sticker, or some slickly Chip Kidd-ish smiley face; Plowing the Dark could have an image of, I don’t know, a DSL router or something.

“To the Measures Fall,” which ran in the October 18 issue of the New Yorker, is a DSL router-ish kind of story, one whose thoughtful conceit doesn’t quite cover up its cynicism. The story is a study of the fickle nature of literary reputations, as told through a woman’s relationship with a mythical novel, Elton Wentworth’s To the Measures Fall, a British World War I saga published in 1948. Scratch that: Though its main character is a woman, the story is written in the second person, to better underscore how we, the reader, are implicated in the rep-making system. Her subjective relationship with fiction is your subjective relationship with fiction.

The story’s protagonist first discovers Wentworth’s novel as a literature student in the 60s, poor enough that she has to decide which novels to keep and which to lose to avoid excess baggage charges. Her calculus back then is whether a book will actually matter in the years to come (“Who knows how long Updike will be read?”), though soon enough she’ll meet Wentworth on his own terms, discovering a charm, depth, and intelligence in To the Measures Fall she missed the first time; “You can’t read,” she discovers, awestruck, in a bone-dry but emotionally resonant sentence that Powers is especially skilled at deploying at the appropriate moment. It is decided: The rest of her life will be dedicated to defending Wentworth’s honor.

Which suffers quite a bit. British critics may love Wentworth, but he’s a nonentity in the United States (“the James Michener of the Midlands”), and by the 90s “scholars of all ranks show how Wentworth was the product of a thousand horrific cultural blindnesses and Eurocentric brutalities.” Powers clearly means to make a statement about how literature transcends all this, rises above the complexity of our outer lives, the merciless pokings of academics, and the bleating of book-club participants who can’t see the value of a book that doesn’t directly reflect their own experience. If only the main character weren’t relegated to a chill everyperson-hood herself, somebody whose life is a familiar assortment of turning points—courtship, marriage, children, divorce, attainment, death. If Wentworth’s novel is meant to illuminate this woman’s existence—our existence—throughout those decades, Powers isn’t especially concerned in showing how. To the Measures Fall is a novel that has a way of sticking around, but what it has to say to the reader who obsesses over it is constantly opaque. By the story’s close she rereads the novel and is filled with “something almost like knowing”—another very Powersian turn of phrase, in this case meant to dramatize the power of fiction. But the line comes off as condescending, as if this lifelong reader really and truly couldn’t read.

Perhaps as an attempt to complicate this, the story’s sections end with boldfaced questions relating to the novel’s value, spoken as if by God, or at least the author of an especially obnoxious reading-group guide. “How much do you offer the junkstore owner for the used book?” “How many [Amazon] aliases do you create to rate the book?” “What percentage of your pleasure has gone out of the book forever?” The questions are meant ironically—discussing the value of a book in quantitative terms is comically beside the point. But the questions come in like horn blasts well after the point is made, and its final appearance is mawkish, mechanized. Every Powers fan has to tolerate a certain degree of that mechanization; if he courts readers’ impatience by arguing that our lives are often diminished by others’ political and business decisions, well, our lives are often diminished by others’ political and business decisions. But Powers is usually generous enough to give his characters the intellectual capacity to consider their own place in the machine. This time Powers lets us know, in bold letters, that somebody else is fully in charge. How much pomo intrusiveness can you abide before it’s clear the author has lost faith in characterization and instead prefers to assert how he’s got our number?

Two Perfect Pages

The comment thread for my post last week on Richard Powers eventually turned to his 2003 novel, The Time of Our Singing. “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,” Richard Crary writes. That echoes my feelings about the novel, though of course the book has its defenders. I mentioned that I’ve dreaded reading Greil Marcus‘ essay on the novel in last year’s A New Literary History of America, a book he co-edited, because I wasn’t prepared to be told that I’d missed something important in Powers’ book and really ought to reread it.

I needn’t have worried. Marcus admires Singing, but his admiration is less about Powers’ writing and more about what other cultural objects Marcus, in his familiar cross-disciplinary way, can bounce against it: Bob Dylan and Robert Johnson, Sol Hurok and Harold Ickes, the history of interracial marriage laws and of music. All interesting points, but arguing for the novel being an interesting synthesis of various threads in American history and culture isn’t the same thing as arguing for the novel being great, or even very good.

Still, Marcus understands the flaws with Powers’ prose that Andrew Seal, Crary, and I mentioned, so his deep admiration of Singing‘s first two pages are of interest. The book opens, Marcus writes, “with two pages in perfect pitch—two complete pages where plain, barely inflected phrases somehow steal the magic of the music they are describing … It is no small thing to write two perfect pages—two pages where the reader cannot find the seams, the artifice, the vanity of art.”

You can read those pages yourself. “Perfect” is a hard word to casually sling around, but those first paragraphs are indeed lovely, hinting at the big themes the novel is going to take on without fervently pointing at them. His description of how dam breaks in the crowd after Jonah Strom finishes singing is at once elegant and efficient: “Silence hangs over the hall. It drifts above the seats like a balloon across the horizon. For two downbeats, even breathing is a crime. Then there’s no surviving this surprise except by applauding it away.”

“All of it is so rightly balanced on its own air,” Marcus writes, “that when the first false note breaks you feel it as if you had dozed off to be wakened by the phone ringing.” Thing is, Marcus doesn’t identify what that first false note is. It’s not this sentence (Marcus admires it): “In the soar of that voice, they hear the rift it floats over.” But it ought to be; even writers capable of writing two perfect pages should think twice about awkwardly deploying “soar” as a noun. Regardless, things get decidedly less admirable in the next paragraph, the big proclamation of the important times in which the novel is set:

The year is a snowy black-and-white signal coming in on rabbit ears. The world of our childhood—the A-rationing, radio-fed world pitched in that final war against evil—falls away in to a Kodak tableau. A man has flown in space. Astronomers pick up pulses from starlike objects. Across the globe, the United States draws to an inside straight…

And so on. “The continent is awash in spies, beatniks, and major appliances,” Powers writes, and his grip is loosened—it’s unclear whether he might be making a serious statement about a prosperous early-60s Cold War culture, or making fun of a Life-reading, self-satisfied middle class paranoid about the Commies. Not a disaster, in any event, but it’s the first hint of the difficult job Powers assigned himself, and how imperfectly he pulled it off.

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.

Picturing Welty

The new issue of Transatlantica, an American-studies journal based in France, seems to be thick with interesting reading. “Seems” is the operative word, because none of the six essays on Richard Powers appear to have functioning PDFs, despite the site’s suggestion to the contrary. (I’m particularly curious about Thomas B. Byers“The Crumbling Two-Story Architecture of Richard Powers’ Fictions,” since it addresses a theme that Powers gets dinged for a lot, not always fairly.) However, a collection of pieces relating to last year’s Eudora Welty centennial appear to have made their way online intact, including a handful of appreciations of her photography. As Alison Goeller notes in her commentary on the photo In the Bag, Welty had a relatively easy time being a documentarian of a tense subject:

“In the Bag” was one of dozens of photos of impoverished black women that Welty shot as a junior journalist for the WPA in the 1930’s. Although she was white and middle-class, she was not met with the hostility that some of her fellow journalists and photographers faced. In fact, Welty said her subjects seemed to trust her in ways that were unusual. “In taking…these pictures, I was attended, I now know, by an angel—a presence of trust. In particular, the photographs of black persons by a white person may not testify soon again to such intimacy. It is trust that dates the pictures now, more than the vanished years.”

But Louis Mazzari, in paying tribute to Welty’s 1936 photo Tomato Pickers’ Recess, suggests that her WPA work was about more than just capturing working-class lives:

Welty’s sense of irony is always active. She was capturing the end of what Sean Wilentz calls the “old, weird America” and its pre-electric folk during the rise of the recording industry, national radio broadcasting, and mass-media entertainment. In the pose of the guitar player, is there not the slightest mimic of the star? Is his expression and attitude—in the exact center of this folk culture—also not the face of the pop-music future?

Favorite Books of 2009

At some point today, barring technological and editorial hiccups, my end-of-the-year piece should appear on the website of Washington City Paper, including my top-ten list and a few brief thoughts on what e-books might mean for print books. I’ll likely be offline when the article goes live (following City Paper‘s coverage of the gun at the snowball fight should keep you busy in the meantime), but there’s no reason not to offer the list proper now. Update: Here’s the article. So:

1. Zoe Heller, The Believers
2. Ron Currie Jr., Everything Matters!
3. David Suisman, Selling Sounds: The Commercial Revolution in American Music
4. Peter Stephan Jungk, Crossing the Hudson
5. Pervical Everett, I Am Not Sidney Poitier
6. Carol Sklenicka, Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life
7. Richard Powers, Generosity: An Enhancement
8. Hans Fallada, Every Man Dies Alone
9. Yiyun Li, The Vagrants
10. Ward Just, Exiles in the Garden

All have their flaws (though The Believers has fewer than even most good books), and heaven knows this isn’t an exact science: There are a few books that could easily have made it on the list were I in a different mood while compiling it: Jayne Anne PhillipsLark & Termite, Robert Goolrick‘s A Reliable Wife, Wells Tower‘s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, Paul Auster‘s Invisible, and the reissue of Don Carpenter‘s Hard Rain Falling. And as usual, I could offer a much longer list of disappointments and failures, topped off by Pete Dexter‘s Spooner, Victor LaValle‘s Big Machine, and Colum McCann‘s Let the Great World Spin. What I can’t do is pull out some kind of common theme about the year’s best books, as I have in the past. I’m content to admire the books I liked for what they are, and hope that 2010 has better ones.

With that, I’m pretty much wrapped up for 2009. I may step in here once or twice before the new year, but I’m more likely to be on Twitter to the extent I’ll spend much time online at all. In the meantime, here’s hoping you have safe travels and good company in the final days of this year. Talk to you soon.