Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Power of Richard Powers: Act II

Maybe you don’t read literary or experimental novels. Or you think novelists should leave poetry to the poets and lectures to the nonfiction writers. But. If you care  how your sentences sound, or have facts or beliefs to convey, Richard Powers can teach you lots. While you read.

All his novels have heft, but some are more digestible than others. Here’s why:
 One of my pleasures as an artist is to reinvent myself with each new book. If you’re going to immerse yourself in a project for three years, why not stake out a chunk of the world that is completely alien to you and go traveling? — from a Kevin Berger interview with Richard Powers, The Paris Review
What a great way to think about the writing of books, and what variety his readers get. Why not start with The Time of Our Singing? It links music with race relations and physics. At a concert on the Washington Mall by the black diva Marian Anderson, German Jewish physicist David Strom falls in love with Delia Daley, diva in training. In the racist world they inhabit, can music keep them united? Who will their three interracial children become? And, most crucially, what didn’t you know about your own racism? Not to mention physics.

The Echo Maker is also fairly conventional—except for its huge themes and heavenly voice. Here’s the opening:
Cranes keep landing as night falls. Ribbons of them roll down, slack against the sky. They float in from all compass points, in kettles of a dozen, dropping with the dusk. Scores of Grus Canadensis settle on the thawing river. They gather on the island flats, grazing, beating their wings, trumpeting: the advance wave of a mass evacuation. More birds land by the minute, the air red with calls.
This novel explores the brain injury resulting from an automobile accident, a plot which raises questions about “real” or “natural.” Then why cranes? As Margaret Atwood observes in  “The Heart of the Heartland” from New York Review of Books, Native Americans named these birds “echo makers” because of their call. For the protagonist’s brother, who thinks a stranger inhabits every familiar person, only an echo of the past remains. The novel conveys a moving story interspersed with psychology, neurology, and larger-than-life symbols. 

Orfeo has less plot. But if you’ve ever wondered why music affects us as it does, this is where to find out. The novel plumbs the mystery of music, the impact of silence, and the secret of creativity. Typically, Powers can’t restrain his sense of humor:
Bonner leans his forehead against hers. Zig when they think you’ll zag. Creation’s Rule Number Two.
     What’s Number One? Els asks, willing to be this bent soul’s straight man.
     Zag when they think you’ll zig.” 
So many brilliant novels by Richard Powers, so little space. Galatea 2.2 tackles Artificial Intelligence. Can a computer produce an essay indistinguishable from a scholar’s? As that computer becomes increasingly human, how does it feel? And what about the human teaching the computer to be something other than itself?

The Gold Bug Variations is the Powers novel I love best. Not much plot, but enough story and suspense to enliven passages about DNA, philosophy, and the history of science. Who wouldn’t love the synthesis of Bach’s Goldberg Variations with Edgar Allan Poe's “The Gold Bug”?  Here’s a sample. 
The loss of a great library to fire is a tragedy. But the surreptitious introduction of thousands of untraceable errors into reliable books, errors picked up and distributed endlessly by tireless researchers, is a nightmare beyond measure.
Tip: Want to stretch your horizons as a writer? Stretch your horizons as a reader.

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