Sunday, July 17, 2011
The Luminous, Illuminating Writing of Richard Powers
by Gary Berg-Cross
Summer is traditionally a season when we have time to add books to our lives life. There are summer reading lists for children, gardeners, fans of detective stories, light fiction, science and more. I’ve even lists put together for atheists or freethinkers. Susan Jacoby had a list of 10 in WaPO a year ago for example. The Minnesota Athiests have a nice list too . Perhaps readers of this blog will suggest some that we can put together and post on a suitable outlet.
Most such lists are made up of non-fiction works, but summer includes time for fiction. Edd Doerr already pointed in this non-fiction direction with his recommendation of Philip Appleman's latest book of poetry "Perfidious Proverbs and Other Poems: A Satirical Look at the Bible".
I want to nominate a candidate writer and his body of work to the summer pile. (Or for any season really.) His name is Richard Powers already a recipient of a MacArthur ``genius'' grant “when I encountered him in the 90s. He quickly became my favorite American under 40. His fiction is a wonderful mixture of agile sentences and tangled plots that gallop across time gaps with piercing intelligence and thicken into brilliantly imaginative confrontations.
John Updike put it simple, “Nothing less than brilliant.” To me Powers simply writes earnest, deeply moving and intellectually stimulating novels on importance topics. The most wonderful insight emerge from suffering often in mundane settings. Here is an example from Powers's Operation Wandering Soul (a difficult plot to follow I found) where Linda Espera, a rehabilitation therapist on a ward of desperately ill children, uses fables (Pied Piper of Hamelin is one) to ease the children pain’s and provide a Peter Pan type of hope:
"Read-alouds, the oldest recorded remedy, older than the earliest folk salves: these are her only way to trick her patients into downing, in concentrated oral doses, the whole regimen of blessed, bourgeois, fictive closure they have missed. Tales are the only available inoculations against the life they keep vomiting up for want of antigens."
Of special interest is that he is a remarkably secular, scientific and intellectual writer. People deal with their real problems in natural ways. He describes societies and its technological side vividly and makes historical points clearly. For example:
“The port of Fayal, in the Azores, turned whale oil into wine. A trip to the Sandwich Islands sufficed to change percussion‐cap rifles into sandalwood. Everyone everywhere wanted what was only to be had somewhere else…Yet the man who moved these goods around the globe could not sell to Ohio. The prospect had no profit in it. The nine dollars that moved a ton of goods from Europe to Boston moved that same ton no more than thirty miles inland….. “But above all else, he dealt in risk. Profit equaled uncertainty times distance. The harder it was to haul a thing to where it humanly belonged, the more one made.”
Powers has lots of fans. Margaret Atwood compares him to Herman Melville in his ability to paint a big, vivid picture while drawing analogies they illuminate fundamental tension arises from the relationship between some human construct/artifice/artifact and nature’s reality.
Like John Dewey Powers treats science as a construct with many similarities to art, music or poetry. They all arise from the human mind in human culture and serve as tools through which we can better understand the world. One problem they may also alienation us from nature.
There is no religious Deus Ex Machina, but there are wonders of the natural and artistic world, which are often fused. Starting with his 3rd novel it is easy to see themes from other works fused into an interesting whole. The title Gold Bug Variations suggests both Johann Sebastian Bach’s intricate musical composition The Goldberg Variations plays a key role in the book's intellectual structure, as does Edgar Allan Poe's short story mystery The Gold Bug which is about the solving of a puzzle.
In every work he leverages an extraordinary knowledge on a range of topics from history, art, music, science and technology (e.g. search for genetic coding, artificial intelligence and computer programming), mysteries of brains and language. When he gets on a subject be it music or art or Ai his language is luminous as sentence after sentence and paragraph upon paragraph has a quotable razor-sharp quality. Aphorism roll off his pen. For example. in his first novel we hear:
• "a man with moral cause stands outside the law"
• "foolishness went over better in public than gravity
• "Technology could feed dreams of progress or kill dreams of nostalgia."
In his 6th novel Gain he takes the reader through the fruits of American capitalism and industrialization of soap – What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and….
All are woven into sagas with sweep but yet have a foreground of characters you are interested. Here is a small, random sample of his prose from Gain talking about industrialization leading to the “Golden Age” of the robber barons.:
The country did itself over in steam. Steam: the world’s first new power source
since the dawn of time: so slight, so obvious, so long overlooked that no one could say whether the engine was discovered or invented. A separate condensing chamber and governor—twinned iron planets rising to dampen with greater drag the faster they spun—with these small changes, time took off. Life now headed, via a web of steamcut canals, deep into the interior. No later chaos would ever match this one for speed and violence: the first upheaval of advancement without advance warning. The backpressure of governed steam eructed in railroad. Rail threatened to render distance no more than a quaint abstraction. America at last split open its continental nut. Populace consolidated; the week vanished into hours. In turn, the energies released by this energy launched ocean steamships and set machine presses stamping out the tools needed to make their own replacements. Infant factories forged a self‐cleaning steel plow, which beat a reaper, which called out for vulcanized rubber, which set in inexorable motion a sewing machine that left half of Boston out of work, turning upon itself, poor against poorer.”
I picked up a copy of his first book Three Farmers On Their Way to a Dance sometime in the 90s, probably because the intriguing photo on the cover and the flyleaf described it as an intellectual history of the 20th century. The novel has 3 intertwined story lines starting with the narrator’s, Peter Mays, encounter with a photograph, exhibited in a Detroit Institute of Arts. This is a real photo by German August Sander taken on the eve of WWI. It was fascinating to learned that Sander was a real person famous for epic photographic collection later called "Man of the Twentieth Century." The novel alternates between fiction chapters and others that are like reading a Harper’s article on a topic (such as the role of Henry Ford in the 20th century). As the novel progresses the reader is encounters discussions on the subjectivity of history that stand in contrast to the seemingly solid reality of the art of photography. There is usually a tension along the subjective-objective dimension in Power’s books. I liked the style and was instantly riveted to the story that has Mays embark on an exhaustive search for any information that will help interpret it and account for its extraordinary impact on him. The novel jumps back and forth between the early 20th century the 1980s and events in between. As the stories intersect, we start to understand photograph unveils the interconnectedness of individuals that is history and demonstrates that the individual's search for self through the past is likely to pose more questions than it answers.
"The realities of the past become true only when they intersect the present. Then, only, they become present, known. . . Only when grief sets in - grief, like sound, that varies with the temperature of the air - does the past in fact die."
One final thing to mention that grabbed me in reading Three Farmers was the amazing way he portrayed the male-female relations, particularly the quiet way he has fall in love. He has reporter’s eye for the behavior and a poet’s touch of the interior life. In his early books we hear that interior voice from the male perspective. His later works provide a women’s perspective on the behavior and the emotions. All his works feature an overflowing cup inventiveness laced with sweet, sad and fun moments that I hope others can enjoy as I have.
"We must be able to endure seeing the truth, but above all we should pass it on to our fellow men and to posterity whether it be favorable or unfavorable to us." Richard Powers