The Strange Powers of Richard Powers

Having mastered subjects as abstruse and varied as artificial intelligence, game theory, Flemish history, and the manufacture of soap, Richard Powers (The Gold Bug Variations, Galatea 2.2, and Gain, among others) is one of America’s best-informed novelists of ideas. He’s also one of its worst writers of prose. Few can match Powers for florid metaphor-making and puzzling epigrammaticity. Consider the masterpiece of italicized clunkiness which opens his latest novel, Plowing the Dark:

This room is never anything o’clock.Minutes slip through it like a thief in gloves. Hours fail even to raise the dust. Outside, deadlines expires. Buzzers erupt. Deals build to their frenzied conclusions. But in this chamber, now and forever combine.

Granted, Powers is trying to drum up interest in a room in which absolutely nothing is going on–a writerly challenge, to say the least. But still, a less overambitious novelist would have toned down the breathless grandiosity of “Deals build to their frenzied conclusions” or excised the cheap poetry of “now and forever combine.” The book continues in that vein, with overwrought lyricism giving way to something calmer and more workmanlike, only to have the emotions rise again whenever Powers starts in on a topic that excites him.

Powers’ strained style doesn’t seem to diminish his appeal all that much. As fans observed when Gain was published in 1998 to high acclaim–it was his sixth novel and his breakthrough book–Powers is among a very small number of American fiction writers with a broad yet deep understanding of the technological and industrial processes upon which much of this country’s wealth and a lot of its problems rest. He’s a student of the Thomas Pynchon and Don Delillo school of scientific allegory, but where their accounts of the forces thrumming unseen around us tend to add up to giddy, apocalyptic, paranoid goofs, Powers’ are informational. (Luckily, they’re also mostly shorter.) Another distinction between Powers and just about everyone else is that he’s obsessed with a subject notoriously difficult to treat in novelistic form–symbolic analysis. What is it we do when we work at our computer screens? Few novelists even try to describe it, mainly because, as New Republic critic James Wood has pointed out, from the physical perspective required by literary realism, deskbound day jobs all look alike, and yet they are actually so different that it’s almost impossible for a professional in one field to explain her activities fully to another.

Explaining what professionals do is what Powers does best. Gain, in part, is the history of Clare, a Proctor & Gamble-like conglomerate founded in 1830. With a precision more to be expected from a business historian than from a novelist, Powers explores the contributions of key individuals to the company’s evolution: the transfer of capital from shipping to manufacturing that gave Clare its start; the refinements in soap and candle-making that allowed it to dominate its regional market. This goes on through a century and a half of advances in cleansing agents, as seen through the eyes of the chemists who discover them; of revolutions in transportation, as viewed by the Clare board members who take advantage of them; and in brand marketing, as pioneered by one clever Clare executive. Eventually we learn about the efforts of people to incorporate the company, to take it public, and finally, to defend it against lawsuits and to conduct its public-relations campaigns, since Clare’s products are implicated in environmental poisoning and a high incidence of cancer.

The other half of the book recounts one woman’s losing war against that cancer, which lodges in her ovaries. Although the woman is granted more interiority than any member of the Clare family, she never quite springs to life: Powers invariably fails to give his characters a sense of independent existence. Rather, the woman provides the opportunity for a detailed account of the trajectory of the disease through her body, and how the medicines (some of them made by Clare) affect it.

Plowing the Dark is less successful than Gain, perhaps because it homes in on a subject and period–virtual reality in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when it looked like the future of technology–of less intrinsic interest than the vast, complex sweep of American capitalism. The book is laid out much the same way as its predecessor, with one half devoted to work and the other half, indirectly, to its consequences. The work involves a team of software designers at a Seattle-based company called TeraSys, who are out to re-create the look and smell and sound of the actual world–an immersion environment, they call it–in a cavern called the Realization Lab. Into their midst comes a conveniently clueless New York artist named Adie Klarpol, whose education in the arcana of hardware and software doubles as our own. The other story details the inner life of Taimur Martin, an American English teacher in Lebanon who is kidnapped by the Hezbollah and held in solitary confinement for more than three years.

The link between the two plots is strictly metaphoric, since the story lines never converge. Instead, there are parallels: Adie, the software engineers, and Taimur all dwell deep inside their own heads, the first two voluntarily, the last one perforce. All labor to fabricate from language (artificial or natural) and visual imagery a world that can be substituted for the real one–the engineers and artist borrowing from art and architecture for their alternate universe, the prisoner from any memory he can coax out of his battered brain. Toward the end of the novel, the Gulf War breaks out, and as Adie watches the first war waged more or less for television, she realizes in horror that the customer for her beloved project is the very military that is bombing Baghdad. Over on the other side of the world, Taimur is a casualty of the greater battle between Islam and the West, of which the Gulf War is little more than a skirmish.

What is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? It would be easy to skewer Powers by coming up with Biblical quips that would allow you to re-assemble the separate halves of his novels (almost all of them employ this dual structure). But then, you don’t read Powers for the originality of his larger themes. You read him to peer over the shoulders of people like the software engineers. For that task, Powers is equipped. Here’s how Steve Spiegel, the old friend and former poet who has lured Adie out to Seattle, explains why he switched to writing code after having devoted the first half of his life to trying to become the American William Butler Yeats:

Think of it: you just spell out a few descriptions. OK: a lot of descriptions. But still, you type some words, the inner name of the thing. You describe how you want it. You build a topical outline of its behavior. Then you run the description, and there the idea is. Actual, working, in all of its functional glory. Coming to life, on the terminal in front of you.[Adie looks puzzled, and gestures toward the image of a towel that the two of them have designed on her computer screen.]No, Steve said. You can’t possibly understand. There are too many layers now, between you and the artifact. Assemblers, compilers, interpreters, code generators, reusable libraries, visual programming tools. It wasn’t always like this. You have to imagine looking at this towel, this beautiful, woven, cotton towel, falling in natural folds, as good as cloth. Have to imagine looking at it and seeing the realization of your own words, your own perfect, workable essay about the way that cloth looks and feels and falls.Pygmalion? [Adie asks.]He’s in there somewhere. Orpheus might be closer. I’m telling you, writing my first subroutine was … like causing huge chunks of unravished bride to rise up, just by singing to her. A good polished program was everything I thought poetry was supposed to be.Stevie. You must have had a very peculiar idea of what poetry was supposed to be.No different than any person who ever wrote it. I was going to get inside of reality and extract its essence, write down on paper the magic metrical words that, read aloud, would do their open sesame.

No one talks like this, of course, not even lapsed poets. Powers’ characters don’t have verisimilitude; they have ventriloquism–the tendency to deliver grandiloquent disquisitions that the author has obviously slaved over for days. But what disquisitions!  It’s quite an insight: that code has all the rigor of poetry, demanding an equally precise control of language, but with a more powerful outcome. Code doesn’t just mimic reality, the way literature does. It generates it, in the form of answers, programs, representations, even virtual existence. Ultimately, the novel will turn on the unintended consequences of manipulating reality in this way.

Insights like that are all around us–in business, medicine, law, politics, and all the other professions into which most of the available human ingenuity is currently channeled–but if you’re a fiction writer, you have to do a lot of scut work before you’re in a position to have them. Powers does the scut work, and while he may not bring to the resulting observations the full measure of elegance of which English prose is capable, at least he’s out there making them.