Blindfolded, mummified, ankle-chained to a radiator in a white room in the bare ruined choirs of bloody Beirut, Taimur Martin in Plowing the Dark is about as political as a mattress or a prayer mat. He is a sadsack phantom in his own life, a teacher of English who ran away from love gone wrong in Chicago to civil war in Lebanon, and now finds himself, less as a hostage than a “collateral pawn,” held by Shi’ite guerrillas “for imaginary leverage in a game where no one can say just what constitutes winning.”
In five years of captivity, during which he misses the velvet revolutions, the disintegration of the Soviet Union, even the Gulf War, Martin will beseech his kidnappers for explanations (not forthcoming), conversation (instead of beatings), or at least books (preferably Dickens): “I can learn from them how not to be me…. Somebody else, somewhere else.” All he gets is an English translation of the Holy Qur’an. And try as he might to feed on the Cow, the Bee, and the Table, to feel his way through ten-verse mazes, to nest in the cave of the Prophet, a belief in God is “not the shape that my…astonishment takes.”
Thus abandoned to empty space in a white room on a latitude of terror, Martin must try to imagine his own missing density, as if Beckett’s Malone had been asked to furnish Matteo Ricci’s memory palace: “Surely,” he thinks, “some core must exist inside you, some essence that you haven’t simply sponged from a world of others. Some green oasis of wherewithal that won’t return to desert, now that its feeder springs are sealed off.” He recalls poems by Robert Frost, pages of Great Expectations, and bedtime stories his Persian mother used to read to him in Farsi:
There was and there was not a great nature painter who painted a landscape so perfect it destroyed him. Each person who looked at the scene saw something different. But all saw envy, and all wanted what they saw. And those who wanted the painting most decided to kill the maker and steal the thing he made.
Finally, with broken teeth in mouth and mind, wandering a psychic street map of his lost Chicago, entering a dream museum full of banned images, forbidden fruit, and stolen fire, Martin will discover “the look of thought”—perhaps the closest Western equivalent of that Zen garden of raked gravel—in a famous painting: soap, water, and a towel; straw-colored grass, the Provençal sun, and Vincent Van Gogh in Arles. After which, an “angel terror…beyond decoding” falls down on him out of the sky, and the walls of his cell dissolve.
Meanwhile, in the other half of this remarkable novel—the seventh astonishment in fifteen years by Richard Powers—on the Pacific Northwest campus of the TeraSys conglomerate, microsofties are acting up and acting out. Theirs is a latitude of play. In another sort of white room called …