Richard Powers Essay - Critical Essays

Richard Powers American Literature Analysis

Powers has a consuming need to understand his world. He has been driven by the necessity to define—for himself and for those who read his novels—his own century, its shift from agrarianism to industrialism to modernism. His books, demonstrating the unique range of his knowledge and reflecting his experimentation with literary style and structure, consistently pose barbed questions that lead readers to serious contemplation and eventually, perhaps, to deepened understandings.

Powers’s first published novel, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, illustrates the complexity of his literary structure. The book’s twenty-seven chapters are arranged in triplets. One chapter of each triplet carries and sustains the story lines of the book. Another chapter is essentially a philosophical essay relating to the times and their intellectual and historical underpinnings. Yet another chapter presents a historical vignette that helps to relate the basic story to a broader sociopolitical perspective, enabling readers to understand each interlocking plot in its historical context.

Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, a multiplot novel, ambitiously—and deftly—sustains the three basic stories developing outside the interchapters while simultaneously interweaving them ingeniously into the whole. The first-person narration, introduced in the first chapter and used elsewhere, lends immediacy and credibility to the stories Powers unfolds.

Powers’s subsequent novels use interchapters to place their stories outside the confined milieux within which most storytelling occurs and to key the stories to their broader reference points in Western culture. Powers’s ability to relate the plot structure of his novels to what philosophers have called the “Great Chain of Being” distinguishes his work and enhances its artistic impact.

For Powers, such historical events as Henry Ford’s organization of a “Peace Ship” to convey well-known Americans to Europe at the height of World War I in his effort to negotiate a peace, or the World War II internment of Japanese Americans, or the evacuation of children from London to Canterbury during World War II are secondary but telling dollops of history that help to explain the confounding century upon which he focuses. They also enable Powers to relate his stories to the broader contexts in which they occur.

Some of Powers’s historical vignettes reach to the thirteenth century (the children’s Army of the Crusades, to which a chapter of Operation Wandering Soul is devoted); others extend beyond a single chapter to create a fuller impression of their subjects than could be gleaned from a single chapter (the Henry Ford vignettes in Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, for example).

Prisoner’s Dilemma’s vignette about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II enables Powers to develop a continuing subplot. From this vignette emerges the fanciful story of an interned Walt Disney, who is released from his internment, spirited off to De Kalb, Illinois, and commissioned by the government to create a scale model of the entire United States along the lines of a theme park. Powers invents a Japanese mother for Disney to justify his internment.

Interchapters are the underlying mechanisms that allow Powers to construct his complex, multitext narratives; the interchapters provide much of the intricate counterpoint underlying the structure of his novels. This counterpoint distinguishes Powers’s writing and permits the author to employ the closely interconnected intellectual crosscurrents that mark his work.

Powers’s novels are novels of ideas. They rely on a carefully crafted and extremely calculated style to deliver the essence of what their author seeks to communicate. Powers’s chief concerns are philosophical; characters concern him secondarily, even though he has created some touching and memorable ones.

For example, the beguiling Joy Stepaneevong in Operation Wandering Soul, who remains innocent and trusting in the face of the severe dislocations she has experienced throughout her twelve years of existence, both touches the hearts and engages the emotions of those who encounter her. Joy quickly becomes a burr in readers’ social consciences.

Anyone approaching Powers’s work for the first time will be dismayed by the broad range of vocabulary upon which it draws. Technical words and terms from many fields of science and other specialized areas proliferate as the complexity of each novel grows. The scientific background of a book such as The Gold Bug Variations is extensive and reflects Powers’s scientific training, but the author reveals a sufficient understanding of the mysteries of the DNA molecule to enable him to relate the unraveling of its mysteries to such other intellectual currents as Bach’s counterpoint.

In his search for answers to the questions of existence, Powers uncovers suggestions of the interconnectedness of many human accomplishments and events. This author’s artistic quest is, simply put, to understand the universe, to try to unlock the meaning of human existence—indeed, of all existence.

Having embarked on this ambitious course, Powers works steadily, resolutely, eyes fixed unflinchingly on achieving his intellectually ambitious ends. These ends, often much clearer to him than to some of his critics, determine the direction his work takes. He permits himself no detours, no time-outs to write the occasional potboilers or television scripts that some authors use to replenish shrinking coffers. Instead he remains in the shadows, focused always on his far-reaching, long-term, self-imposed artistic and philosophical ends.

Judging from asides Powers makes in all of his books, he views authors as artists who create situations that will entice readers into interacting with ideas, dredging up from within themselves memories of experiences that will shape their interpretations of what they read. His obeisance to readers aligns Powers with reader-response enthusiasts.

Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance

First published: 1985

Type of work: Novel

This novel uses the lives of three rural farmers who are captured in a photograph to present a striking exploration into twentieth century modernism.

In the first chapter of Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, the first-person narrator happens upon a haunting August Sander photograph in the Detroit Institute of Arts while passing some hours between trains. The photograph captures three youthful peasants resplendent in weekend finery. The picture, bearing the same title as Powers’s book, is dated 1914. Given that date, the narrator reads his own meaning into the title: The dance these rural Americans are destined for is World War I.

The first narrative frame of the novel recounts the narrator’s search for basic information about the picture and, once he has gained it, about the people Sander’s lens captured. It turns out that all three—Hubert, Adolphe, and Peter—died in the war.

Yet Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance is about much more than three peasants united in an obscure photograph. The book recounts in some detail the birth of twentieth century modernism and the virtually unbelievable interconnectedness of all human events. In order to fix the story historically, Powers provides readers with recurring interchapters, all related in some way to his skillful development of the book’s three major plots.

Several historical interchapters deal with the impact Henry Ford had upon American life and culture. Powers includes an interchapter on Ford’s unofficial diplomatic efforts to end World War I by chartering an ocean liner and sailing it to Norway with as many prominent people as he could cudgel into joining his midwinter voyage, hoping that this cadre of celebrities might negotiate a peace treaty. Other historical chapters treat such figures as the renowned nineteenth century actress Sarah Bernhardt, the essayist Walter Benjamin, and others whose lives impinge upon the three main stories.

The narrator’s account of his quest for information about the photograph constitutes the first narrative frame, which is related closely to the other two narrative frames and to the interchapters. The second frame is concerned with the three subjects in the picture and their simultaneously independent and historically interdependent existences. The third frame, a modern romance, concerns Peter Mays, a computer editor in Boston who pursues a haunting redheaded woman on the street, only to discover that she is an actress playing Sarah Bernhardt in a one-woman show.

Peter Mays, it turns out, has immigrated to the United States from the area that was home to Sander’s three farmers. Peter, indeed, is the son of the brightest of these, also named Peter. When the younger Peter gave his full name—Peter Hubertus Kinder Schreck Langerson van Maasricht—to immigration officials at Ellis Island, he became “Peter Mays,” the name he subsequently carries.

Sarah Bernhardt is subtly woven into each plot. Henry Ford figures in the Peter Mays story because Peter, scavenging in his mother’s attic, discovers a picture that leads him to the discovery that he might be due a $250,000 legacy from Ford’s estate. He also discovers among his mother’s possessions a print of Sander’s photograph of the three farmers, one of whom is Peter’s father.

The narrator is last seen at an office Christmas party, where he talks with Mrs. Schreck, the aging immigrant who cleans his office. She has a motherly interest in him, regularly leaving chocolate bonbons on his desk. Mrs. Schreck knows Sander’s picture and something about its subjects. She does...

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