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 the Cavern, a research team of engineers, mathematicians, and graphic designers, a freelance fellowship of computer program coders and hackers as weird and fuzzy as the orcs and elves in a fairy tale by Tolkien, have been licensed by their corporate masters to model the mysteries of the world. “Tranced over their keyboards, their carpal tunnels hollowed out for maximum brainfinger throughput,” they dream in 3-D pixels. They are creating virtual realities and “total immersion environments” that counterfeit everything from weather climates, ecosystems, and global economies to such wonders of Western art as Henri Rousseau’s psychedelic jungle and Egon Schiele’s knotted Embrace. Their most whimsical project, and the least likely to make serious money for TeraSys, is the grand embodiment in banked data of a virtual reality Hagia Sophia, which is what they imagine the “Byzantium” in the poems of Yeats to look like.
We are introduced to the orcs and elves through the skeptical eyes of Adie Klarpol, an art-market dropout who is persuaded to sign on at TeraSys by her old college chum, the renegade poet Stevie Spiegel. To Stevie, “Code is everything I thought poetry was back when we were in school. Clean, expressive, urgent, all-encompassing.” For Adie, who abandoned her “ghosted high realism” after galleries in SoHo voted down the very idea of beauty, the Cavern comes as a revelation: “This was the way the angels in heaven painted: less with their hands than with their mind.” One of the orcs will actually analogize their programmed VR dreaming to the “Ur-tech” of the wall painters at Altamira and Lascaux: “Art explodes at exactly the same moment as tool-based culture.” Those prehistoric magic arrows and red handprints “were simulations to begin with. Consciousness holding itself up to its own light, for a look. An initiation ceremony for the new universe of symbolic thought.”
Of course, TeraSys has other plans for its new technology, from theme parks to grief-seeking missiles. Adie, Stevie, and their cohort of misfit boys like Jackdaw and Spider—“remote avatars in a wizard’s romp of their own devising,” who grew up playing “smart” games on a computer screen as if it were “the wishing lamp that all children’s stories described…the storybook that once expelled us and now offered to take us back in”—were naive ever to think otherwise; they are as innocent of corporate science and the real world as Taimur Martin in Beirut. They appreciate their mistake when the Gulf War shows up on their television monitors:
Babylon became a bitmap. Pilots took its sand grains apart, pixel by pixel, their soldier bodies tied to weapons systems by electronic umbilical, their every joystick twitch duplicating moves over-learned in years of now-consummated simulation. Nightscopes revealed minute movements, at impossible distances, in pitch-dark. Robot stalkers chased living targets. Formal edge-detecting algorithms told heat from cold, friend from enemy, camouflaged caches from empty countryside. Human intelligence migrated wholesale into its artifacts.
So much for the new universe of symbolic thinking. As in the Persian children’s story, the perfect painting will be stolen, and the artists who painted it disposed of. But if you have ever read a Richard Powers novel—each contrapuntal, each a double helix—you already know that Adie Klarpol is likely to meet Taimur Martin in Van Gogh’s bedroom.
On the road, on the raft, on the lam—ours is a culture of Shane-like vanishing acts, an agitated itchiness from Huck Finn to the Weather Underground, with intermediate stops at the Last of the Mohicans, the Lost Generation, Dean Moriarty, Billy Pilgrim, Rabbit Angstrom, and Henderson the Rain King. It’s no big surprise to find lonesome rangers on every page of Powers—teachers who leave hospitals to wander in the atomic desert; scientists who desert their labs for nightshift scutwork, secretly composing music; librarians who quit their decimal systems to look for the human genome; doctors running away from war crimes and nightmare third-world childhoods; novelists hiding out in a neuroscience research project; single-mother real estate agents marooned in metastatic randomness; Adie who has lost her art.
What does startle is the urgent longing of these pilgrims to go home again, if they can figure out where home is. In one of his novels, Galatea 2.2, Powers describes another, The Gold Bug Variations, as “a songbook of homesickness.” But so are they all. And history keeps getting in the way. In each novel, he seems to hope that by striking out in two directions at once, then rigging a convergence, he can circle back to sanctuary. But to the east in Plowing the Dark is terror, and to the west is make-believe, so where are we? Stranded on both latitudes at the same time, in two different genres.
Simulations of 3-D space are a hoary science-fiction staple. Aldous Huxley had “feelies,” Robert Heinlein a “waldo,” Philip K. Dick an “empathy box,” James Morrow “dream beans,” John Varley “memory cubes,” and Ray Bradbury interactive soaps and an illusory Africa called “The Veldt.” Even William Gibson, the dean of “cyberpunk” sci-fi novelists, did drugged time in holographic “simstims” before shooting the digital rapids in Neuromancer (1984), Count Zero (1986), and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988). But Gibson, by dreaming up a parallel universe on the reverse side of the glowing screen, a sort of circuit city he was the first to call “cyberspace,” upped the ante. Whether we were novel-readers, moviegoers, e-mailers, or even Silicon Valley hackers ourselves, if we tried to picture computer “space” at all, we saw it on Gibson’s terms, as a “consensual hallucination,” a digitized Xanadu. Slugabed in our romper rooms, tethered to a war porn website, flatlined by an adman/music video consumer grid, crouched at our software console as though it were a harpsichord, we imagined pyramids and shopping malls of data; green crypts of offshore banking secrets, periwinkle esplanades of corporate security, the logarithmic spiral arms of military intelligence, and that “fluid neon origami trick” of levitation by which the new age mutant ninja hacker navigates this dreadful deep of meat/machine interface.
Briefly, cyberpunk was a sci-fi genre. (My personal favorites include Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, with its VR “Metaverse” where you go in goggles to play with avatars of Gilgamesh. And Pat Cadigan’s Synners, with its account of the on-line manipulation of our parietal lobes via sockets drilled directly into the limbic system, and its rock-and-roll mantra: “If you can’t fuck it and it doesn’t dance, eat it or throw it away.” The Star Fraction, by Ken MacLeod, is also nifty: Lucy in the Sky with class contradictions, starring Leon Trotsky as the Big Pixel.) Cyberpunk was also an outlaw culture. (Against late capitalism and its marketing of commodified emotions, the Grace of Hip: industrial noise, gangster chic, film noir, crystal meth, performance art, Max Headroom.) And cyberpunk was a fashion statement. (Black leather, mirror shades, nose studs, nipple rings, the photoscan sequence in Blade Runner, and the vector graphics in Disney’s Tron.)
Now that we are one big World Wide Web of IPOs, all this posturing seems as old as disco. In one sense, by reminding us of what computer programming was like in 1989 for those who really did it (and why they did it, and what it did to them), rather than those who used it (either for obscene profit or as baroque filigree in dystopian fables), Plowing the Dark is an allegory of a fall from grace, from the joyful innocence of geeks in flannel who write and crack magic codes to the blithe arrogance of venture capitalists headed on Harley hogs for a Nasdaq systems crash. We go from a smiley face on an Apple icon to the Microsoft antitrust trial. But in another sense, equally important, Plowing the Dark is about how angels paint.
Because Powers is not a punk. He writes fiction that includes science, not science fiction. He has told an interviewer that what absorbs him is “a perpetual, precarious, negotiated trade-off” between “the life of the private self and the life of the public hive.” He had first intended to become a physicist or paleontologist. As early as 1978, while studying for an MA in English, he taught himself to program computers. Appalled by the “shrill solipsism” of literary theory, he left graduate school to earn a living writing the very code that Stevie in Plowing the Dark substitutes for poems. While science in his fiction is used to provide sensuous metaphor, it is never disrespected. It seeks system, symmetry, and coherence in the picturing of deployed matter; order in nature, essence in number, beauty in reason, and proof in the abstract pudding. Not only is Galatea 2.2 the best novel anybody has so far written about artificial intelligence, and Plowing the Dark the best about virtual reality, but after a careful reading of The Gold Bug Variations, I am inclined to think that I could crack the genetic code myself.
Terror and its Siamese twin, state violence, have a longer literary pedigree. Picking up where Dostoevsky, Conrad, and Malraux left off, heavyweights like Arthur Koestler, Heinrich Böll, Mary McCarthy, Alberto Mo-ravia, Doris Lessing, Paul Theroux, Nadine Gordimer, John le Carré, and Don DeLillo have also tried to read the mind of the ultra—“the lunatic of one idea,” Victor Serge called the terrorist Sergei Konstantinov in a Wallace Stevens poem*—as it shape-shifts from Belfast to Beirut to Jakarta; from skyjacking a jumbo jet to bombing an abortion clinic; from land mines, thumbscrews, death squads, and ethnic cleansers to Pol Pot and Shining Path. Terrorists and torturers tend, in fact, to be more interesting in novels, where they have complicated rationales, than they are in person, mouthing thuggish slogans. In order to think about horrific behavior, novelists need to imagine minds as nuanced as their own. And so they pile organic culture, aesthetic patterning, and gaudy mythomanias on top of abstract grievance. They gussy up these kamikazes of Kingdom Come with Oedipus, Freud, Marx, Fanon, Dante, and Bluebeard, as if seeking a subjective correlative for the fabulous derangements of Gonzalo Thought.
In DeLillo’s Mao II, a go-between in a hostage situation challenges the novelist Bill Grey:
Through history it’s the novelist who has felt affinity for the violent man who lives in the dark. Where are your sympathies? With the colonial police, the occupier, the rich landlord, the corrupt government, the militaristic state? Or with the terrorist?
To which, as if anticipating Powers, Grey replies:
When you fill rooms with innocent victims, you begin to empty the world of meaning and erect a separate mental state, the mind consuming what’s outside itself, replacing real things with plots and fictions…. This poet you’ve snatched. His detention drains the world of one more thimble of meaning.
But horrific behavior doesn’t need a novelist. It is perfectly capable of spinning its own excuses for abduction, torture, rape, and murder, out of a spidery bowel and a smoked brain. Its cold, invariable, contemptuous purpose is to dominate and humiliate; to create, as in the nightmares of Kafka and Foucault, a lab-rat labyrinth, a “total immersion” maze, where our private histories, personal beliefs, and multiple motives are beside the brutal point. Which is why we should be grateful to Richard Powers, all of whose sympathies are with the snatched poets and the Taimur Martins; who feels no affinity whatsoever for the violent man who lives in the dark; who worries instead about “the outside’s killing abundance and the inside’s incapacity to know”; who insists on “the siege of concealed meaning” in science, music, art, politics, literature, and the “dialects of desire”; who reminds us that we are ends, not means.
Boy, is he smart. See him in Boston in the early Eighties, a freelance programmer with a Dutch girlfriend, who just happens to be reading Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” when he wanders one Saturday morning into a Museum of Fine Arts retrospective on German photography, and sees a picture called “Young Westerwald Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, 1914.” He returns home immediately and starts writing his first novel, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance (1985). Of course, the dance to which Adolphe, Hubert, and Peter are headed, with detours through the history of photography and Flanders, is the danse macabre of World War I. And then Powers moves to Holland, where love, as usual, goes wrong.
But not before he’s written a second novel, Prisoner’s Dilemma (1988). On the surface, it’s a more conventional Freudian-Fifties family romance in the Salinger/Brodkey misery mode, about a father who keeps getting fired from his high school history-teaching jobs, a mother who worries about her husband’s periodic seizures and the model utopia he’s building in the attic, and four children who hate always having to move to another, drearier town. And yet it is also a gloss on game theory, a reminder of the internment camps for Japanese-Americans in World War II, an inquiry into the controlled environments of Walt Disney, a flashback to scapegoating in the witchhunt years (“another case of Hiss and Tell”), and a visit to the New Mexican desert where the physicists broke light like a yellow pencil and then quoted the Bhagavad-Gita at us. Eddie Hobson could be dying of history, loneliness, or radiation poisoning. His children won’t find out which until they’ve gone through T.S. Eliot and Alan Turing.
After which The Gold Bug Variations (1991), perhaps the most daunting American novel since Moby-Dick, a Grand Canyon of a detective story deep enough to swallow Pynchon’s Rainbow, Nabokov’s Pale Fire, and DeLillo’s Underworld, with lots of room left over for Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men. In 1957 Stuart Ressler, a lonely Midwestern molecular biologist, seems on the verge of cracking the genetic code, but falls suddenly in love with a married member of his research team and disappears forever from science and recorded history. In 1982, two young lovers—a librarian who can look up anything and an art-history doctoral candidate who’s lapsed into software hackwork—determine to find out what became of the biologist.
Before they discover Stuart Ressler’s secret, Jan O’Deigh and Todd Franklin will tour not only self-replicating molecules, differential engines, Klein bottles, polypeptides, and Pythagoras, but also Pascal, polyphony, and the Unicorn tapestries at Cluny. Rainer Maria Rilke shows up, and so does a singing ATM. And I haven’t even mentioned Brueghel and Vermeer. Or Paul Robeson, who climbs “Jacob’s Ladder” like a protein chain. Or the teaming up of the “Gold Bug” of Edgar Allan Poe and the “Goldberg” of Johann Sebastian Bach to read “the tetragrammatonic golem recipe” of DNA. By awesome metaphor, Powers suggests that in Bach’s polyphony, as in the double helix, as in kabbala, variations on just four notes, four nucleotides, and the four letters in the name of God spell out everything we need to know about “that string of base-pairs coding for all inheritance, desire, ambition, the naming need itself—first love, forgiveness, frailty.”
Thus the human program is debugged.
Although I ran away from organic chemistry in college as if it were conscription, my brother was a math major, my son is the technology editor of the on-line magazine Salon, and my son’s mother is a neuroanatomist who once explained the synaptic cleft to me. So I’m a little less freaked by hard science than many of my peers. For pleasure as well as instruction, I read Peter Medawar and Stephen Jay Gould. Like the character who calls himself “Richard Powers” in Galatea 2.2, I try for the gist and take the rest on faith. Still, Gold Bug hurt my head. The question is, why shouldn’t a novel hurt a head that needs it? We’ve spent too much time worrying about the social construction of science and not enough worrying about the scientific construction of society, its rewrite of the social text. Powers, who turns intellectual activity into imaginative literature, is under no illusion that scientists are a better class of bivalve than artists, teachers, librarians, composers, or poets. But neither are they worse. Science itself “is about reverence, not mastery.” Its purpose, according to Gold Bug biomole Ressler,
was not the accumulation of gnostic power, fixing of formulas for the names of God, stockpiling brutal efficiency, accomplishing the sadistic myth of progress. The purpose of science was to revive and cultivate a perpetual state of wonder. For nothing deserved wonder so much as our capacity to feel it.
Such a science thrills every bit as much as art and a lot more than politics—unless the politics are those of Powers, whose next, grimmest, least theoretical, and most neglected novel was Operation Wandering Soul (1993). Three books in one, it is first of all a harrowing account of medical malpractice, or “Kiddie Karpentry,” in the children’s ward of a public hospital in the Watts section of Los Angeles. A child dies of poverty every two and a half seconds. If pediatric therapist Linda Espera and surgical resident Richard Kraft can’t save these children—orphans of the housing projects; stick figures from the Southern nations; two-pound preemies, three-year-olds “like a fish on a barb,” the little girl who refuses to talk except by pulling the string on a Chatty Cathy doll, and the little boy who sticks cafeteria silverware into his prosthetic limb—then the children will have to save themselves.
The second book of the three in Operation Wandering Soul is an anthology of all the violence the world has ever done to children, and the dreams they dream to escape that violence. For every Secret Garden, Wonderland, Neverland, or Oz, every Hansel, Gretel, Lost Boy, or Peter Pan, there is a Pied Piper and an Anne Frank, a Ghost Dance and Taiping Rebellion, a Children’s Crusade in France, a child prostitute in Thailand, a slum kid in London’s Blitz, and “a fly-fanged, glazed-eyed, successionist, baby Ibo exoskeleton” twisting its stick limbs “to reach a mother’s teat no larger or moister than a shriveled mole.” Against so much school-age death on the revolutionary calendars of so many maddened nation-states, against such a folklore background of child abuse, of what consolation are the stories of deliverance, the promise and curve of the fairy-tale fables that Linda Espera reads aloud in the pediatric ward: “You are going somewhere. You are going somewhere.”
Operation Wandering Soul’s third book is the third world inside the head of the surgeon Kraft. It rushes back, this repressed memory. Kraft grew up in transit terminals, at customs checks, blowing a French horn in Lahore, Tehran, Buenos Aires, Jakarta, and Beirut, speaking a street jabber “of Farsi, Korean, Urdu, and bastard lingua franca Carib,” capable of counting to one hundred in three different Chinese dialects and of praying “without comprehension in Arabic.” Since Bangkok, he has wanted to be a bodhisattva, to make guilty amends for his Air America father, a diplomat and war criminal. Can it really be that all those atrocities, all those napalmed children, have followed him to Los Angeles, have found him in the middle of his reading of Musil’s The Man Without Qualities? How else to explain “tiny, terrified” Joy, the twelve-year-old “refugee princess” from Laos, with the bone disease he can’t fix?
Joy has read everything. Joy knows she’s not going anywhere. Joy is among the wounded children who just vanish one night from Angel City. You don’t want to know what happens next.
With Galatea 2.2 (1995), his most popular novel, Powers reverted to hard science and lofty abstraction. He seems also to be questioning his own vocation. “Richard Powers,” the thirty-five-year-old novelist trying to finish a fourth book (“a bleak, baroque fairy tale about wandering and disappearing children”) returns as the “token humanist” and “resident alien” to the Center for the Study of Advanced Sciences at the Midwestern university where “I first saw how paint might encode politics, first heard how a sonata layered itself like a living hierarchy, first felt sentences cadence into engagement,” and first betrayed his “beloved physics” by shacking up with literature. Now, contemplating “the emergent digital oversoul” on his office link to the Internet, he’s begun to wonder “who in their right mind would want to read an ornate, suffocating allegory about dying pedes at the end of history”?
Besides, love has gone very wrong indeed.
But before he can whistle the middle movement of a Mozart clarinet concerto, he will be coaxed and bullied by the center’s neuroscientists into an experiment to create a network of software programs capable of passing an oral exam for a degree in English literature. He will ghost a machine! Never mind the usual dazzling Powers footwork with “cluster analysis,” “back-propagation,” and “isomorphic contour mapping.” The real questions needing answers are: What is memory? Where, if anywhere, does it reside? Does a memory of memory constitute consciousness? How does an idea look? What if meaning is an interval, not a pitch? Can machines dream? Are you who I think you are? Am I who you think I am?
And who, especially, does “Helen” think she is? For “Helen,” an artificial intelligence, a sentient machine, is the ghost these Frankensteins catch in their neural net. Well fed on Curious George and Mother Goose, La Fontaine and the Ramayana, the Brothers Grimm and the Admirable Bede, Helen wants to know: When is now? “Where did I come from?” “What races do I hate?” She has trouble with metaphors and similes, like “A pretty girl is like a melody.” Or, “A people without history is like the wind on the buffalo grass. How?” She has been reading William Blake: “The rose is sick because the worm eated it.” She will see “how the mind makes forever, in order to store the things it has already lost.” In a remark so wonderfully gnomic Wittgenstein might have made it, she will decide that “the life we lead is our only maybe. The tale we tell is the must that we make by living it.” And not only will Helen burst into song, but after learning more than she wanted to know, she will also go away and come back: “I’m sorry. I lost heart.” And when they finally ask her to explain Shakespeare’s Caliban, she will shut herself off forever, after this last message:
You are the ones who can hear airs. Who can be frightened or encouraged. You can hold things and break them and fix them. I never felt at home here. This is an awful place to be dropped down halfway.
Clare International, the “limited-liability” corporation in Gain (1998), is another kind of artificial intelligence, almost a divine being with its symbolic logo and its hymnlike theme song and its priestly caste of lawyers in their bulletproof class-action suits. Although incorporeal, it has nonetheless evolved, like Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive, Lever Brothers, Dow Chemical, and Monsanto, from a family-owned soap and candle company in the early 1800s with a commercial interest in chemistry and botany to a multinational research-development-and-marketing conglomerate in the megabusiness of fertilizers, cosmetics, shampoo, grout, low-fat chips, fresh breath, and slow death. It might even be said to have its own eschatology, according to which profit is a whole lot more than merely how the culture keeps score. Profit rationalizes nature, spiritualizes surplus value, and is its own purpose, like consciousness. Soap is a metaphor. Metacapitalism is all about longing.
The least demanding and most accessible of Powers’ novels, Gain also tends to trudge, as if on a forced march across our optic tract, through a couple of centuries of potted company history—protectionism, civil war, labor strife, and major-market advertising; junk bonds, leveraged debt, shotgun merger, hostile buyout, poison pill; detergents, deodorants, mouthwash, antacids, weather stripping, and a product line so brightly branded that it’s as “as easy to flesh out as any phantom, as real as the Shadow, Jack Armstrong, Jack Benny, Ma Perkins, or Kate Smith.” But the air and the water in Clare International’s company town of Lacewood, Illinois, turn out to be chock full of formaldehyde, benzene, dichlorodifluromethane, and epichlorohydrin, and a surprisingly large number of people have something seriously wrong with them.
One of them is Laura Bodey, a single mother, a real estate agent, and a cancer patient so ingenuous as to resist joining a suit against Clare because “cancer’s not something that I really want to profit from.” Imagine that. Laura wants to take responsibility for her own life. And death. Whereas a limited liability corporation is responsible only to its shareholders. As if by Greek choral ode, the novel proceeds from strophe to antistrophe. Thus, for Laura: dual-agent therapy, Taxol plus cisplatin; dexamethasone, an anti-inflammatory and a steroid; Zantac, an anti-ulcerative; Zofran, to keep the nausea at bay; manni-tol and gel tablets that “stink like rotting squirrel meat”; Neupogen, a registered trademark of filgrastim, a granulocyte-colony-stimulating recombinant DNA drug; calibration, after peritoneal phosphorus and concentrated chemo washes are no longer options; chalk milkshakes, swill of barium, and yet more CAT scans—until at last the IV morphine drip.
Whereas, for Clare: Snowdrop, Gristo, Tar Baby, FlapperJack Pancake Mix, and Mentine Gargle and Breath Repairer; Clarity Pore Purifier, Blue Spruce Vapogard, No-fume Enamel, Lok-Toppers, Gastrel Caps, and Partifest Non-dari Treats; not to mention Germ-Guard for your floors, Cleer-Thru for your windows, Slickote Surface, Leather Lifts, Heat ‘n’ Eat, Multi-pli Maxiwipes, and, of course, deniability. The odd impression is that, somehow, Erin Brockovich had gone to bed with Henry Adams.
There will be a surprise twist at the end of Gain. There is almost always a surprise twist at the end of a Powers novel, as if irony were a noose for lynching. Meanwhile, Laura marvels at an instant camera: “A disposable miracle, no less than the least of us.”
So consider the account so far an isomorphic contour map of the Powers-That-Be. It omits dozens of characters, all of them with something to think. And a surprising amount of sex, for people whose heads must usually be hurting. And a personal ghost or two, like his alcoholic father and his trauma-surgeon brother. As well as his scattershot humor, like a twitchy reflex. (In the middle of Los Alamos, for instance, we are asked: “Which came first, the Chicken McNugget or the Egg McMuffin”?) But homesickness is the horizon of his world.
In Prisoner’s Dilemma, Eddie Hobson tells his children: “What we can’t bring about in no way releases us from what we must” and “Do what you can while you can before you cannot.” But what those children really need to know is: “What are we running from? How do we get back? Why are you leaving us?”
In The Gold Bug Variations, Stuart Ressler believes that “all longing converges on this mystery: revelation, unraveling secret spaces, the suggestion that the world’s valence lies just behind a scrambled facade, where only the limits of ingenuity stand between him and sunken gardens.”
In Operation Wandering Soul, Richard Kraft suspects that “home too is a way of leaving. It is about leaving, a departure as certain as any urge, longer even than the sense of having come from there.” And he’s absolutely positive that
What happens is not a thing but a place…. No one this side of childhood exile, not a single memoir or condescending picture book, has ever gotten it right. But no one has ever lost it either: that first house, where want and terror, the toy soldiers of self itself, have not yet split off and solidified on contact with air.
And while the therapist Linda Espera can do nothing to fix “the parts irrevocably lost” in her children, she does have “something to leave in the dark reaches, the space in each one where the earliest, inviolable fable of self still stands intact, ready to respond to a little food, workout, heat, and play. She can plant a start in that place waiting to be proven wrong, a plot that will still heal at the first touch of fresh, outrageously naive narrative.”
In Galatea 2.2, we are told that “love is the feedback cycle of longing, belonging, loss.” And that “books were about a place we could not get back to.” After Helen decides that “I don’t want to play anymore,” the novelist who programmed her wants to believe that “we could love more than once,” but first we must know “what once means.” And then there are Helen’s famous last words: “I never felt at home here.”
What if Adie is right in Plowing the Dark: “Even the myth of elemental loss somehow misses the point. It may not be in you, ever, to believe in a home of your own devising.” What if her make-believe Byzantium, her Hagia Sophia, is just another empty shell?
The room of holy wisdom is a ruin. The world’s largest, as large as the ruinous world. And propped against the striped arcades, amnesiac, illiterate in the unreadable wreck, you pitch your home.
And now just listen to what Joy, the heartbreaking refugee princess, has to say to her fifth-grade class before going to the hospital, in a “Brief and True Report of the New Found Land”:
There are no natives here. Even the resident ambers and ochers descended from lost tribes, crossed over on some destroyed land bridge, destined to be recovered from the four corners of the earth where they had wandered. She tells how a shipwreck survivor named Christbearer Colonizer washed up on the rocks of the Famous Navigators’ School with a head full of scripture and childhood fantasies. And she shows how these elaborate plans for regaining the metropolis of God on Earth led step by devastating step to their own Angel barrio.
Everything she relates she has already lived through: how that first crew survives on promises of revelation. How the Christbearer mistakes Cuba for Japan. How he makes his men swear that they are on the tip of Kublai Khan’s empire. How, in the mouth of the Orinoco, he tastes the fourth river of Paradise flowing from the top of the tear-shaped globe. How he sets the earth on permanent displacement.
Her American history is a travelogue of mass migration’s ten anxious ages: the world’s disinherited, out wandering in search of colonies, falling across this convenient and violently arising land mass that overnight doubles the size of the known world. They slip into the mainland on riverboat and Conestoga, sow apple trees from burlap sacks, lay rail, blast through rock, decimate forests with the assistance of a giant blue ox. They survive on hints of the Seven Cities, the City on the Hill, the New Jerusalem, scale architectural models of urban renewal, migration’s end. At each hesitant and course-corrected step, they leave behind hurriedly scrawled notes: Am joining up with new outfit, just past the next meridian.
It has been awhile, but perhaps you are wondering about Taimur Martin, in Plowing the Dark. One day, for no better reason than he was snatched to begin with, he is abruptly released by those who seized him, a paramilitary unit of God’s Partisans calling itself the soldiers of Sacred Conflict. Something happened in his dream museum; he’s not sure what. Never having met Adie Klarpol, who has meanwhile vanished from TeraSys, he can’t explain the “angel terror” that fell down on him in the “measureless room.” He only knows he has no choice “but to live long enough to learn what it needed” from him. Abduction and captivity have taught him a cheerless lesson: “There is a truth only solitude 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.”
How to get from this abandonment, these abductions and displacements, the atomic desert, the cancer ward, the internment camp, the children’s hospital, corporate greed, and machine dreams, to Arles and Eden, base harmonies and pentimento, sanctuary and the meaning of the code—this is the brilliant project of Richard Powers. Everybody else just talks about alienation, estrangement, and the unbearable lightness of being. He actually does something about them. And what he does isn’t to take a hike or a powder or a rain check or a pharmaceutical, not even a God pill. He will use everything we know from our higher brain functions about mind and body and art and longing, to find patterns and to close distances. That we are around in the first place to contemplate our abandonment is pure luck and odd chance, no thanks to divine madness, and all the more reason to cherish every minute, mote, and note of it—the banned image, the forbidden fruit, the stolen fire, the random neuron. In an interview in the literary journal Conjunctions, Powers spelled out his own tetragrammaton:
Art is a way of saying what it means to be alive, and the most salient feature of existence is the unthinkable odds against it. For every way that there is of being here, there are an infinity of ways of not being here. Historical accident snuffs out whole universes with every clock tick. Statistics declare us ridiculous. Thermodynamics prohibits us. Life, by any reasonable measure, is impossible, and my life—this, here, now—infinitely more so. Art is a way of saying, in the face of all that impossibility, just how worth celebrating it is to be able to say anything at all.
This anti-faith has its own awe and book of wonders, opacity and dark side, ambiguities and transfigurations. His novels express all these, plus a palpable yearning for the healing light of beauty and intellect. In The Gold Bug Variations, Stuart Ressler is as fearful as he is heroic:
I review the record of care we’ve given a spark we once thought was lit for our express warming. I feel sick beyond debilitation to think of what will come, how much more desperate the ethic of tending is, now that we know that the whole exploding catalog rests on inanimate, chance self-ignition. The three-billion-year project of the purposeful molecule has just now succeeded in confirming its own worst fear: this outside event need not have happened, and perhaps never should have. We’ve all but destroyed what once seemed carefully designed for our dominion. Left with a diminished, far more miraculous place—banyans, bivalves, blue whales, all from base pairs—what hope is there that heart can evolve, beat to it, keep it beating?
To which, by way of reply—not an answer but a promise—there is the perception of Jan O’Deigh, the feisty librarian, who loves the old man and the younger, and who daydreams:
There is only one way for day to pass into dark; today has done so along a predictable sliding scale since the Precambrian. There are only a few barometric pressures, a narrow band of allowable temperatures. But however reducible to parts—degrees, pound per square inch, lumen, hour by the clock, latitude, inclination and season—however simple and limited the rules for varying these, something in the particular combination of elements is, like twelve notes and ten durations compounded into a complex cortex-storm, unique, unrepeatable, infinitely unlikely. Today in History: Bach knocks out another cantata.
And so has Richard Powers. Like Adie’s angels, he paints with his mind.
January 11, 2001