In 2002, I published in a now defunct literary magazine this lengthy review of Richard Powers's Plowing the Dark. My review of Powers's latest novel, The Overstory, appears in the new issue of The Quarterly Conversation, and in that review I make reference to this older review as counterpoint. I am here making the earlier review available for fuller context.
Richard Powers clearly signaled in his auspicious first novel, Three Farmers On Their Way to a Dance (1985), that his fiction would not conform to the then-emerging conventions of literary minimalism or participate in the full-scale return to the values of traditional realism that would characterize much literary fiction in the 1980s and 1990s. But neither would it share all of the assumptions nor necessarily employ the most ostentatious of the strategies associated with "postmodern " or "experimental" fiction of the 1960s and 1970s against which minimalism and neorealism were clearly, if quietly, a reaction. Although innovative in narrative structure, insistently self-reflexive, and often stylistically extravagant, Powers's novels nevertheless would hardly be inaccessible to readers who still expect fiction to foreground compellingly portrayed characters in habiting o world recognizably drown from the familiar world of ordinary experience.
One might presume that an approach neither wholly conventional nor radically experimental, with seeming allegiances to both camps, would risk being accused of splitting too many differences and thus would not be enthusiastically received either in mainstream literary circles or among the partisans of the offbeat and innovative in contemporary writing. Yet, by the end of the 1990's, Powers was being hailed by numerous reviewers as worthy of the designation "best living American writer." While this kind of attention from the popular press is no doubt gratifying to Richard Powers, and certainly seems entirely appropriate to those of us who admire his work, it is difficult not to suspect that such praise arises as much from a lack of understanding--in some cases, outright misunderstanding--of Powers's fiction as from real sympathy with his aims and methods. Indeed, it would not be surprising if his very strengths as a writer eventually come to be cited by many of those now warmly applauding as a source of discontent when they find themselves explaining their otherwise perplexing loss of enthusiasm for his work. At least one reviewer of Plowing the Dark, Michael Ravitch in the New Republic, does seem confused by his perception of difference-splitting, noting on the one hand that Powers's "linear associations and neat structures are reassuring to those seeking clarification and organization" and on the other that "too often his verbal associations run amok, without any purpose except self-display."
That Powers is an abundantly gifted stylist is undeniable—even Ravitch acknowledges that his “verbal fireworks can be delightful”—but as with other contemporary American writers who seem especially attuned to the figurative and rhetorical possibilities of language, such as John Hawkes and Stanley Elkin, style in Powers’s fiction counts for much more than the occasional ornamental flourish, nor can it be taken as merely the vehicle of poetic “insight.” For these writers, style is not something added to the work, or through which its implicit “subject” is expressed, but is itself inseparable from the work their texts literally enact and must in some fundamental way be acknowledged as the most compelling subject—certainly the most compelling for the authors—of those texts. Powers is thus a writer whose fiction is easy enough to admire as “well-written,” but such a locution doesn’t come close to describing either the ambitions animating his style or the formal effects it makes possible for the attentive reader, and in fact can just as easily be used, as we have seen, to belittle a writer otherwise judged by the inattentive reader to be too self-consciously literary for his own good.
Gain (1998) begins in this way:
Day had a way of shaking Lacewood awake. Slapping it lightly, like a newborn. Rubbing its wrists and reviving it. On warm mornings, you remembered: this is why we do things. Make hay, here, while the sun shines. Work, for the night is coming. Work now, for there is no work in the place where you are going.
May made it seem as if no one in this town had ever sinned. Spring unlocked the casements. Light cured the oaks of lingering winter doubt, lifting new growth from out of nothing, leaving you free again to earn your keep. When the sun came out in Lacewood, you could live.
Even the casual reader, of the sort most likely with any novel to be "reading for the plot," would probably find this an evocative passage, setting the scene for us (even if it will be the setting for only one strand of the novel' s twin plots) in an imaginative and energetic way and in images and phrases that signal an author able to use language with unusual skill and facility. It is indeed well-written. Perhaps the casual reader will also notice, although not necessarily in any direct way, the more subtle effects of such a passage: its insistent alliteration--"Slapping it lightly like a newborn. Rubbing its wrist s and reviving it."--its immediate equally assertive assonance--"Day had a way of shaking Lacewood awake"--its ingenious tropes and overall euphony, both of which are manifestly appropriate to the phenomenon the passage essays to represent, as these paragraphs themselves mimic for the fiction they begin the process they simultaneously describe, a coming-into-being, of a spring day in Lacewood and of the novel Gain.
Yet this is precisely the kind of stylistic self-consciousness and hyperformalism attributed to postmodern fiction--at least with that version thought to be preoccupied with artifice and wordplay--that has gained notoriety for some American writers over the past forty years or so, and in a few cases a grudging respect if little enthusiasm, but has otherwise never led to any of these writers being recognized as one of "our" most important writers in publications not already well-known for their sympathetic consideration of this group of writers (journals such as Critique or The Review of Contemporary Fiction, for example.) Although Hawkes and Elkin, Barth, Gass, and Coover have by now garnered their share of attention from academic critics, and as a group certainly have produced the most accomplished body of work in postwar American fiction, they are not the writers most highly esteemed by the current arbiters of literary taste and reputation. And surely it will not escape them for long that as a stylist Powers belongs in their company rather than with those acceptably conventional but earnest writers usually associated with "fine writing."
But Powers is not a stylist for style's sake alone. Indeed, he has spoken in a recent interview (1998) of his essentially utilitarian view of style: "I've tried to approach each book as an experiment in finding the style that best supports and exemplifies a particular story's themes." If Powers's prose style is more than merely pretty, it, is also never less than functional, although to read his novels profitably it is necessary also to rethink the relationship between function and form that our ways of speaking about works of fiction generally assume to obtain but that Powers puts into question as keenly as any contemporary novelist. Which is not to say a novel like Gain cannot be read with a certain degree of pleasure even while remaining unaware of its formal innovations beyond its signature intertwining of related but separate narratives, only that, in keeping with the theme these narratives mutually reinforce, a gain in the direction of accessibility entails a loss in sensitivity to the full range of effects-to all of the potential sources of meaning-made available by a writer so thoroughly attuned to these possibilities. It is not so much that in novels like Gain and Plowing the Dark (2000) Powers privileges one over the other, settling either for an unqualified aestheticism or an untroubled rhetorical transparency, but that, like the braiding strands of DNA that provide the structural figure in The Gold Bug Variations, form and function are inextricably joined, their interaction producing the basic principle, simultaneously structural and thematic, by which each novel takes its shape.
The Gold Bug Variations (1991) makes most explicit a metaphorical linkage be tween the role played by the genetic code in organizing the processes of life and that played by language in organizing narrative, the latter in turn mediated in this novel by an even more explicit analogy between DNA sequencing and music. Gain is built in a perhaps even more thematically compelling way around this trope, as somewhere in the unfolding story of Clare International, a multinational chemical manufacturer, lies the innate defect responsible for the cancer affecting Laura Bodey, the protagonist of its parallel plot. The juxtaposition of the chronicle of Clare's ascendancy in the world of American business with the tale of Laura's ultimately unavailing struggle with her dis ease led numerous reviewers to highlight what they took to be the polemical implications of this dialectical pairing, thus reducing the novel to a rather obvious critique of capitalism run amok. But nothing in Power s's other novels suggests an interest in this kind of direct political commentary, and in fact an attentive reading of Gain could not find evidence that such crude didacticism is in any way one of its significant features. If anything, one is likely to find the history of Clare International to be related in a surprisingly dispassionate, even respectful, manner, an impression that, far from producing an easy outrage on behalf of Laura Bodey, only lends to her story a more genuine pathos. An unwitting victim of what begins as an exercise of initiative and ingenuity, she seems not a martyr to the American business ethic but an otherwise ordinary, though ultimately strong-willed, woman forced to confront the unintended consequences of such ingenuity, as Adie Klarpol will have to do in Plowing the Dark.
The dialectical relationship that truly structures Power's fiction can be seen, in fact, as precisely the perpetual conflict between the inescapable contingencies of existence and the apparent human need to resist, if not overcome, those contingencies. Since The Gold Bug Variations at least, the embodiment in Powers's fiction of this ingrained need has generally taken the form of technology-the potential applications to be derived from scientific research in genetics, medicine (Operation Wandering Soul), artificial intelligence (Galatea 2.2). While Powers has acquired a reputation as a writer conversant with science--a characteristic uncommon enough among writers of literary fiction to partly account for the heightened attention paid to his work by reviewers--his concern seems not to be with science per se, which Powers represents as an essentially esthetic endeavor, but with the place of technology in our lives--a place, on the one hand, taken up via an entirely natural human impulse that, on the other, licenses a technology the inner logic of which might only partially encompass other distinctive values. This clash of values, at work provocatively in both Galatea 2.2 and Gain, is highlighted perhaps most emphatically in Plowing the Dark.
If Gain reveals the unforeseen and intangible costs exacted by our long-term investment in "progress" (without suggesting we can merely renounce the idea, or that it can’t be harnessed for beneficent purposes), Plowing the Dark portrays the process of technological advancement much more directly, and as much more clearly sinister. Again a dual stranded narrative, it begins with the story of Adie Klarpol, a commercial artist prevailed upon by an old college friend to move to Seattle to work in "The Cavern," a virtual reality "immersion environment" operated by a high-tech company called TeraSys. Convinced the Cavern is a site for pure research--allowing her to indulge in a kind of free-form creativity--Adie joins the team being employed to explore the Cavern's possibilities, an effort that involves Adie in virtual recreations of Van Gogh's portrait of his room at Arles and of the Hagia Sophia cathedral in Constantinople. To her horror, Adie ultimately discovers that the technology she's helping to develop is destined to be used by the U.S. military in the creation of ever more sophisticated smart weaponry.
The opposition between aesthetic sensibility--here shown to be possessed by almost everyone working on the Cavern project, all of whom seem to share a capacity to take delight in the sheer expressive possibilities of their chosen media--and mercantile expedience could not be more sharply drawn, and again one could easily enough sett le for the obvious, but not for that reason trivial, political interpretation of Plowing the Dark. That Powers means to raise questions relevant to politics would seem to be confirmed by the second of the novel's narrative strands, which hearkens back to the era of hostage-taking by Lebanese militants and relates the grim particulars of the capture and captivity of Taimur Martin, an American teacher in Beirut. But this story only illustrates the perils and the ultimate futility of politics, as Taimur's ordeal can in no way be justified as a necessary consequence of political struggle, even if inflicting such suffering could be shown to further an otherwise worthy political cause. Although Adie Klarpol's resignation from TeraSys after discovering the ugly truth is likely to be a fruitless political gesture, it at least confirms Adie ' s own moral integrity. Such cannot be said for the acts of Taimur Martin 's abductors, who, of course, are just as little concerned with the human lives affected by their actions as the most mercenary purveyors of lethal technology.
What both Adie Klarpol and Taimur Martin learn about political conflict is that it is ubiquitous, potentially hazardous, and finally completely inadequate to the needs of a seriously considered, satisfying life. But this insight into the limitations of politics is by no means the only, and certainly not the most important, knowledge acquired by the twin protagonists of Plowing the Dark through the experiences the novel relates. And while it might seem to discount especially the sheer misery that is the essential quality of Taimur's time in captivity, it is nevertheless appropriate to focus on what--and how--these characters learn from their experiences, for it is the nature and provenance of knowledge itself that serves as both the novel's structuring conceit (reinforcing the underlying figurative translation of the double helix into a form of storytelling) and its overriding theme.
TeraSys’s "Cavern" is clearly enough a version of Plato's cave, a technologically updated representation of the potentially confounding interplay of reality and illusion, a place where, in Plato's allegory, a delineation of the boundary between what is real and what illusory is shown to be not only possible but objectively necessary if human beings are to liberate themselves from the tyranny of appearances. Adie Klarpol is thus in the position of the individual in Plato's cave who manages to free herself of the fetters restricting her attention to the shadows that pass for the real things, and to make her way out of the cave of projected phantasms to a clearer perception of the existential truth. However, where the truth for Plato lies outside ordinary human reality, for Adie Klarpol (and one presumes for Richard Powers) truth is to be sought within, through a more scrupulous understanding of what is most compellingly human about human reality. The knowledge she eventually embraces (and that in a sense embraces her in turn) is an aesthetic knowledge that the Cavern's virtual world can inspire only inadvertently, by reminding her of its source in an unconstrained openness to one's experience in the world, not in a flight from it.
Taimur Martin unfortunately finds himself confined to a cave of his own, a bare room in which his captors keep him literally in chains, releasing him only for the most necessary of natural functions and, eventually, a minimal amount of exercise. Unencumbered by the simulated illusions Adie Klarpol is forced to dispel, Taimur nevertheless is compelled by his circumstances to review the course his life has taken, to examine his assumptions and to test the limits of his own consciousness. Significantly, the act of reading comes to have special value for Taimur. Deprived of books, Taimur tries to recreate the now-precious experience of reading:
You reach the opening sentence, the fresh start of all things possible. Modestly boundless, it enters bowing, halfway down that first right-hand page. You lie back against your paradise wall, your pillow. You make yourself a passive instrument, a seance medium for these voices from beyond the grave. Politics has taught you how to read, how to wait motionless, without hope. To wait for some spirit that is not you to come fill you.
This emptying out of self that Taimur now realizes is the necessary condition in which to answer the claims of literature (Taimur tries to reproduce the experience of reading Great Expectations) is the more general state he is finally able to reach, an emptying-out of distractions that is paradoxically the most profound source of self-knowledge:
There is a truth only isolation reveals. An insight that action destroys, one scattered by the slightest worldly affair: the fact of our abandonment here, in a far corner of sketched space. This is the truth that enterprise would deny. How many years have you fought to hold at bay this hideous aloneness, only now discovering that it shelters the one fact of any value.
To abide "without hope"--to respect the integrity of experience in its own right—and to acknowledge the limitations of "enterprise"--before human actions transcend themselves to become fantasies of total control--are imperatives both Adie Klarpol and Taimur Martin come to affirm. That these imperatives can be realized most purely, although not exclusively, in the experience of art is provocatively suggested by the lone, and very surprising, encounter between Adie and Taimur in Plowing the Dark. Before leaving the Cavern for good, Adie steps one last time into the cyberspace cathedral (attempting to recreate the original has proven to be Adie's profoundest education in e sources and the aspirations of art) and after a virtual ascent "all the way into the uppermost dome, now inscribed with its flowing surah from the Qur'an" she begins to fall back "like a startled fledgling, back into the world's snare."
. . .The mad thing swam into focus: a man, staring up at her fall, his face an awed bitmap no artist could have animated.
From his side, Taimur Martin has fallen into his own hallucinatory state, "soft-landed in o a measureless room . . .the dementia of four years solitary . . .where all your memorized Qur’an and Bible verses ran together jumbled."
Then you heard it, above your head: a noise that passed all understanding. You looked up at the sound, and saw the thing that would save you. A hundred feet above, in the awful dome, an angel dropped out of the air. An angel whose face filled not with good news but with all the horror of her coming impact. A creature dropping from out of the sky, its bewilderment outstripping your own. That angel terror lay beyond decoding. It left you no choice but to live long enough to learn what it needed from you.
If Taimur wants to know what the "angel" needs from him, it seems equally certain that she--Adie Klarpol, confronting Taimur in a kind of apotheosis of their mutual abandonment to the demands of living "without hope"--will require the kind of knowledge Taimur has so painfully obtained as well if she is to pick herself back up after her fall. Adie has come to recognize the illusory appeal of participation in "worldly affairs" (as opposed to an authentic engagement with the world), but perhaps she has not yet appreciated the "hideous aloneness" Taimur has discovered to be the only indispensable truth. That Taimur desires to bring this truth to bear on the affairs of a newly recovered world is understandable enough. In fidelity to Plato's allegory one can only question whether in the customary world neither Adie nor Taimur can ultimately avoid inhabiting very many of their fellows can adequately understand what both of them have truly learned.
Yet Powers' s title suggests a significant revision of Plato's tale. The process of acquiring true knowledge is portrayed in the novel not as something that culminates in a flash of insight, a coming-to-see- the-light, but as a long and arduous task of "plowing the dark." Powers's version ultimately subjects what has arguably been historically the most resonant philosophical account of the nature of knowledge--which continues to provide the conceptual paradigm for most of modern science--to an implicit critique through a counternarrative in which both the reality that human beings can only flourish in a social association with others and that they are capable individually of arriving at the profoundest kind of self -knowledge are vividly illustrated. If these twin truths are, after a fashion, inscribed in the genetic code, so too are they illuminated most brightly in the kind of narrative fiction Powers has devised to convey the experiences of Adie Klarpol and Taimur Martin. But this fiction, unlike Plato's, does not direct us to a world of aesthetic perfection outside the contingent human world; instead it leads us even more firmly back into the human world, exploring those possibilities of enhancing and clarifying experience that ought more properly to be attributed to the aesthetic. This fiction, although possessing its own sort of luminosity, ultimately shares in the labor of plowing the dark, inviting us to make our own way through the furrows created by Richard Powers's resourceful prose and probing intelligence.