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.