Formal patterning has always been a predominant feature of Richard Powers's fiction. Powers doesn't so much tell stories (although his fiction has plenty of narrative power) as allow them to emerge from the interplay of buried forces, illustrated most fundamentally, perhaps, by the DNA molecule, the quest for the structure of which is dramatized in The Gold-Bug Variation (and in turn is associated with the formal patterning of music, represented by J.S. Bach's use of counterpoint.) Typically a Powers novel connects two narrative "strands" together in such a way that the result--the novel itself--exceeds the effects each story might have produced separately, creating something "new." (Gain, for example, poses the story of a woman fighting ovarian cancer against the history of the company that very likely produced the fertilizer that caused the cancer, offering up a more complex perspective on the depicted events in the process; Plowing the Dark accomplishes the same effect by juxtaposing the development of an advanced version of virtual reality with the plight of a man taken hostage in Lebanon, who has, of course, only the "virtual" reality he can summon up inside his head.)
The Time of Our Singing is every bit as ambitious as Powers's previous novels in its themes (history, the nature of time itself), but in this case his treatment of these themes is at least as heavy-handed as the themes are profound. It's not that Powers lacks insight or sensitivity in his approach to the novel's most incendiary theme--race--but his insights seem too explicitly telegraphed, the formal patterning and its suggestiveness too pat. I agree with Sven Birkerts: ". . .Powers also wants to fathom the root brutalities of race, and at this he is less successful. If he has always fallen short in the presentation of viscerally compelling characters (his are too often fleshed-out tendencies, personalities conveniently narrowed around their obsessions), he has generally compensated with the intricacy of his designs and with sentences rich in ideas. But his previous subjects. . .lent themselves more readily to his formalism." The Time of Our Singing either points up the limitations of Powers's kind of formalism, or it reveals Powers's ambitions in this instance to be leading him in a direction not well-suited to his strengths as a novelist. Or both.
To say that Powers "has always fallen short in the presentation of viscerally compelling characters" is to say only that he has attempted to exploit the possibilities of fiction in a way that doesn't rely on "viscerally compelling characters" to engage the reader's interest. He wants the reader to involve him/herself in the "intricacy" of design, to find in the tracing out of the incremental, spiraling pattern a source of interest at least as compelling as character identification, if not more so, since Powers's novels make it clear that the writer's job is not merely to tell stories and evoke characters, but to use such things as story and character to make something fresh from the form, to find the means to unite story, character, and theme with form in a way that is mutually reinforcing: character is tied to the evolving revelations of form, formal ingenuity itself embodies and discloses theme. It is said that Powers is a novelist interested in "ideas," especially scientific ideas, but even here Powers uses science--in The Time of Our Singing, quantum physics--to help construct formal patterns that, while illustrative of the ideas and their implications, are also themselves aesthetically provocative.
But in The Time of Our Singing, Powers seems to want his overlapping episodes and cross-narrative echoes to do more than reverberate with implied or suggestive meaning. He wants his complex construction to carry a heavy thematic load indeed, no less than the racial history of the United States in the twentieth century. He wants to sum up that history through his emblematic characters (a pair of biracial brothers attempting to make it the all-white world of classical music) and his narrative stops at key events in postwar history (the Emmett Till murder, the 60s riots, the Million Man March). He wants the novel to dramatize the intractability of racial attitudes, the consequences of struggling with those attitudes (or, in the case of one of the brothers, Jonah, depicted in the novel as a musical prodigy of gargantuan proportions, of attempting to avoid them), the fate of idealism in such a morally compromised country as the United States. These themes come off as, at best, obvious, if anything even more banal because of the elaborate structure supporting them; it's a needlessly labored way of proffering "ideas" that don't require such circuitous treatment.
In my opinion, the most intriguing theme Powers pursues in this novel is the putative conflict between high art (as represented by Western classical music) and folk or popular art (as represented by various forms of African-American music). Is Jonah guilty of betraying his race by attempting to distinguish himself as a singer of the white man's music, or is he demonstrating that serious art is beyond race? But I have to say that, at best, Powers equivocates on the matter. On the one hand, Jonah's musical performances are almost always described in a rapturous manner (over the course of a 630-page novel, this actually become rather tiresome), as if he had indeed found himself in a realm that denies cultural markers. On the other, Jonah acquires a tinge of moral dishonor that he never really loses. That he dies of injuries sustained during the Los Angeles riots unavoidably implies he only gets what is coming to him. There is finally a tone of political correctness in Powers's portrayal of these matters that sounds some disappointingly flat notes.
On the other hand, I cannot agree with Daniel Mendelsohn, who in his review of the novel writes that Powers's "weakness as a writer is the weakness of all conceptual artists: you may admire his elaborate installations, but you sometimes find yourself missing the simple pleasures of good old-fashioned painting. (Beautiful brushwork, for one: Powers has never been a writer of lovely sentences. . . ." If Mendelsohn means by "lovely sentences" the kind of safe, pseudo-poetic figurative language that passes for "good writing" in too much literary fiction, then I would agree that Powers's prose is not "lovely." But if Mendelsohn is suggesting that Powers has no prose style, that he sacrifices language to the contrivances of his "elaborate installations," then I have to say that Mendelsohn is not reading Richard Powers very attentively. Take, for instance this remarkable bit of Cubistic prose::
"My brother's face was a school of fishes. His grin was not one thing, but a hundred darting ones. I have a photograph--one of the few from my childhood that escaped incineration. In it, the two of us open Christmas presents on the nubby floral-print sofa that sat in our front room. His eyes look everywhere at once; at his own present, a three-segment expanding telescope; at mine, a metronome; at Rootie, who clutches his knee, wanting to see for herself; at our photographing father deep in his act of stopping time; at Mama, just past the picture's frame; at a future audience, looking, from a century on, at this sheltered Christmas creche, long after all of us are dead."
Or this passage, evoking the narrator's struggle to understand his own musical experience:
"The game was leverage, control. Speed and span, how to crack open the intervals, widen them from on high, raise the body's focus from finger into arm, lengthen the arm like a hawk on the wing. I'd coat the line in rubato, or tie every note into a legato flow. I'd round the phrase or clip it, then pedal the envelope and let it ring. I'd turn the baby grand into a two-manual harpsichord. Play, stop, lift, rewind, repeat, stop, lift, back a line, back a phrase, back two bars, half a bar, the turn, the transition, the note, the thinnest edge of attack. My brain sank into states of perfect tedium laced with intense thrill. I was a plant extracting petals from sunlight, water wearing away a continent's coast."
Powers's prose style may not be conventionally "lovely," but its rough spots are part of what makes it compelling. It has an exuberance, a headlong rush of energy, of determination to describe as vividly as possible the phenomena under scrutiny, that makes most workshop-derived "loveliness" seem desiccated in comparison. Powers provides plenty of arresting images--"My brother's face was a school of fishes," "a plant extracting petals from sunlight"--but his prose is distinctive for its stop-start rhythm, its unrestrained alliteration, its use of lists and various kinds of cumulative phrasing.
It is precisely his style, his immersion in language, combined with his formal imagination, that has made me an admirer of Richard Powers's fiction. Unfortunately, in The Time of Our Singing (as he also did in Operation Wandering Soul), Powers too tightly harnesses both style and form to the exposition of "theme" in a manner that is much too earnest for my taste.