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Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism. Published by Cow Eye Press
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11/17/2005

Comments

Mr. Waggish

Great review. Powers thinks (and writes) like a scientist or engineer, not a lateral-thinking writer who works by suggestion and insinuation. He has a lot more in common stylistically with Douglas Hofstadter than Faulkner. I don't think he sees his towering architectural edifices as "artificial" any more than most writers see their work as specifically "literary." Powers specifically injects social concerns into these edifices in a much more overt way than most of the Oulipo writers ever did, and so runs the danger of coming off as simplistic and schematic. I think he does, but he's still an interesting archetype.

ed

Very interesting review, Dan. And I'm very sorry to ramble here, but I'm a big RP fan.

I think you're likely to be disappointed by future Powers offerings. Because it seems clear to me that Powers has been gradually shifting away from his conceptual dual narratives, hoping to evolve in order to convey life with a more human voice, one in which language and Powers' remarkable erudition take a back seat to the human experience. It's a highly ambitious development, particularly interesting given that it comes uncharacteristically mid-career. But, as far as I'm concerned, it does makes Powers one of the most exciting novelists to watch at the present time.

I share some reservations myself about whether the twain can meet, but you overlook one pivotal part in The Time of Our Singing in which Powers DOES succeed at merging the conceptual with the human. And that's the whole episode with Joseph working as a small-time piano player in an Atlantic City casino. Powers plunges deep into Joseph's loneliness and the sad routine that keeps him functioning. But part of Joseph hasn't completely acquiesced. Joseph begins playing specific tunes, almost sending out a code of novelties in desperation (this is juxtaposed with Powers describing the transformation of Atlantic City during off season). Eventually, these efforts attract a girl. Rather interestingly, once Joseph and the girl become more involved, race becomes more of an issue to Joseph personally.

There are several fascinating subtexts going on during this sustained section: (1) loneliness transcends all races, (2) Joseph cannot completely escape into the possible race trappings of being a small-time piano player, and (3) when Joseph becomes involved with the everyday world around him, racial identity becomes actuated. But where Powers stops short is exploring precisely HOW Joseph can adapt. And this is the glass ceiling that Powers needs to push himself through to be completely at one with the emotional jugular he clearly wants to strike.

Now before this novel, we saw Powers, as prodigious as his powers are with language and concepts, offering such complex human issues in spurts. The man who calculates his tip based on how frequently the waitress talks to him in Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, the fascinating family dynamic of Prisoner's Dilemma and the love and betrayal (interestingly enough, enmeshed with the burning zeal for knowledge) within The Gold Bug Variations. But Gain, was the first real attempt to tie in the conceptual with the explicitly personal. Powers' Dreiser-style expose may not have entirely suited his metier (indeed, it was considered by some to be one of his most reviled novels), but he did manage to shift the dual narrative to something more tangible, nay more existential, than previous efforts in comparing the decay of a soap company to the decay of a woman dying with cancer. The woman's backbreaking efforts to prepare a potluck dish, the like.

Then at the end of Plowing the Dark, we not only have that incredible section devoted to how geeks feel about the game "Adventure," but that surprise ending which suggests that, no matter how devastating our intellectual challenges, human experience marchs forward. The one interesting thing about this motif, which I suspect has been embedded in Powers for quite a while, is that, like the lengthy Joseph section I cited above, we have everything up to the point of when humans make the decision to adapt. But here, Powers either stops short or, in the case of The Gold Bug Variations, the hero (Stuart Ressler) is reduced to a humiliatnig defeat. I'm not certain if Powers is explicitly rejecting the accepted idea of a protagonist changing to a certain moment, whether his narratives are more designed to convey the crushing blows of mundane life, or whether his narratives are more like interchangeable engines to propel Powers' inexhaustible gas, the schematic misperception that Waggish suggests above.

But one thing I'm pretty sure about. Powers WILL get beyond this point. Because every novel he turns out is a evolution of this struggle. And it seems to be getting easier for him to work this problem out in a sustained narrative.

Dan Green

There are any number of good moments in The Time of Our Singing. I just think that, taken as a whole, it's overwrought.

I actually liked Gain quite a lot. I didn't in this case find that the "explicitly personal" wore out its welcome or that the architecture of the novel was inappropriate to its content. It was schematic, but exploited its scheme adeptly. I don't think TTOOS does.

Ultimately I'd have to say that a deliberate attempt on a novelist's part to put more emotion into his work is doomed to fail--doomed to sentimentality. If such emotion has to be conjured up, pretty clearly it's not something the writer does well, anyway.

R  A  Rubin

Lit critiques are so cryptic now, they read like art criticism, unreadable. I think I'll read the book.

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