Richard Powers Essay - Powers, Richard

Powers, Richard


Richard Powers 1957–

American novelist.

The following entry provides an overview of Powers's career through 1995.

Powers is known for works in which he combines such subjects as history, politics, and science to examine issues of meaning in contemporary life. He is highly regarded for the rich style of his prose, the complexity of his narrative structures, and the vast range of knowledge exhibited in his works. John F. Baker has written: "[Powers's books are] novels of ideas. Written within a seemingly limitless frame of reference, all concern, in one way or another, the mysteries of time, the problems of living in a confusing century and nothing less than making sense, at the profoundest level, of what human life is all about."

Biographical Information

Powers was born and raised in the American Midwest. He has chosen to seek anonymity, declining to answer questions about his personal life. Powers has stated, "I really don't see what connection all that has with the work…. It's not what we should be looking at. All that sort of thing just creates confusion about the nature of the book, deflects attention from what you've done. That's what always seems to happen in this culture: you grab hold of a personality and ignore the work." Powers is known to have worked in the computer field, and to have acquired, as he once noted, "a quasi-preprofessional knowledge of music, as a studious cellist for many years." One source has also claimed that Powers trained as a physicist prior to his literary career. Living in the Netherlands for much of the late 1980s and early 1990s has also contributed to Powers's anonymity. In 1989 he received a fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation—a so-called "genius grant"—and two of his works, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance (1985) and The Gold Bug Variations (1991), were nominated for National Book Critics Circle Awards. The former book also received a PEN/Hemingway Foundation special citation.

Major Works

Powers's first novel, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, gets its title from a 1914 August Sander photograph taken in the Rhineland, a region of western Germany along the Rhine River, before the outbreak of World War I. Stories of the three men pictured are interwoven with those of two contemporary figures in America—an unnamed narrator and a copy editor—who come in contact with copies of Sander's print. Through the photographic conceit and structure of the narratives, critics con-tend that Powers creates a sense of history contained in and affecting the present. In Prisoner's Dilemma (1988), Powers again links past and present in relating the story of 52-year-old Eddie Hobson—an ill ex-history teacher who constantly quizzes his family to test and inform them as well as to divert their attention from his ailments. The story is told in three ways: through 1978 events involving Hobson's illness; through the remembrances of Hobson's children; and in tape recordings in which Hobson chronicles a fantasy scenario that closely parallels events from his life starting with the 1939 World's Fair to beyond the time he was stationed near the atomic bomb testing site in Alamogordo, New Mexico, his proximity to which probably caused his maladies. Critics have speculated that the book may be semi-autobiographical, with Hobson modeled after Powers's father. The Gold Bug Variations derives its title from two sources: Edgar Allan Poe's short story involving cryptography, "The Gold Bug" (1843), and German composer Johann Sebastian Bach's musical composition, The Goldberg Variations (1742). Using a complex narrative structure, Powers relates parallel love stories, one set in the 1950s and the other in the 1980s, each of which concern two mysteries: the search to break the genetic code and to find the reasons why a once prominent scientist—Stuart Ressler—abandoned that search. Powers utilizes the repetitive patterns in Canadian pianist Glenn Gould's recording of Bach's Variations as a metaphor for the structure of DNA, which, with its four recurring nucleotides, is responsible for the apparently limitless diversity of life forms. Operation Wandering Soul (1993) is the story of an overstressed surgical resident, Richard Kraft, who works in a hospital's children's ward. Kraft develops a relationship with a therapist on that ward, Linda Espera, whose therapy involves recounting stories of endangered children to the young patients. Interspersed with these stories, and those of the often terminally-ill patients themselves, is that of the gradual awakening of Kraft's repressed childhood memories. Galatea 2.2 (1995) is narrated by a character named Richard Powers who, after living in the Netherlands for seven years, has returned as a visiting professor to an American university, where he studied as an undergraduate. There he meets a professor, Philip Lentz, who persuades Richard to take part in an experiment involving teaching a computer to learn enough English and English literature to pass the Master's Comprehension Exam. During the experiment, the narrator contemplates issues surrounding intelligence, technology and, in John Updike's words, "the linguistic and perceptual intricacies underlying consciousness."

Critical Reception

Although critical reaction to Powers's works has generally been positive, some commentators have suggested the intellectual and scientific demands of Powers's novels may limit the size of his audience. Negative commentary has referred to uninspiring characters, thin plots, and overdone wordplay. As Meg Wolitzer observed: "To read [Powers's] work is to be wowed by his verbal muscularity and by his ability to stitch seemingly disparate elements into a larger metaphorical fabric. But sometimes we don't want to be wowed. Sometimes we just want quiet." However, the majority of critics have described Powers as brilliant, often comparing him to such diverse writers as Thomas Pynchon and John Updike. Reviewers have also praised the style of his prose, his facility with numerous narrative voices, and the complexity of his narrative structures and themes. After the publication of Operation Wandering Soul in 1993, Sven Birkerts wrote: "In a few short years—in literary terms overnight—Richard Powers has vaulted from promise to attainment…. Powers must now be seen as our most energetic and gifted novelist under 40."

Principal Works

Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance (novel) 1985
Prisoner's Dilemma (novel) 1988
The Gold Bug Variations (novel) 1991
Operation Wandering Soul (novel) 1993
Galatea 2.2 (novel) 1995


Marco Portales (review date 1 September 1985)

SOURCE: A review of Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, in The New York Times Book Review, September 1, 1985, p. 14.

[In the following review, Portales offers a mixed assessment of Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance.]

[Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, Powers's first novel,] is an extended meditation provoked by a May 1914 picture taken by the photographer August Sander of three young German men on their way to a dance. Mr. Powers's nameless narrator becomes fascinated by the photograph and creates the World War I experiences of the young men. The novel chronicles five lives—those of the three farmers in the photograph, the narrator (an...

(The entire section is 312 words.)

George Kearns (review date Spring 1986)

SOURCE: "Revolutionary Women and Others," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XXXIX, No. 1, Spring, 1986, pp. 122-34.

[In the following excerpt, Kearns favorably reviews Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, calling Powers "an archeologist of imagination and style."]

It isn't often that a novelist makes a debut with a work as ambitious and dazzling as Richard Powers' Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance. It is a work of such complex structure, managed easily and with enormous assurance, that an attempt to describe it other than sketchily would take several paragraphs. The frontispiece reproduces a striking photograph made in 1914 of three young men, hatted,...

(The entire section is 400 words.)

Gregory L. Morris (review date Spring 1986)

SOURCE: A review of Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, in Prairie Schooner, Vol. 60, No. 1, Spring, 1986, p. 108.

[Morris is an American writer, editor, educator, and critic whose works include A World of Order and Light: The Fiction of John Gardner (1984). In the following review, he discusses the structure of the three narratives within Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance.]

With his first published novel, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, Richard Powers manages both a technical and an intellectual achievement. The novel is a triple narrative, three stories linked superficially by a photograph: a portrait of three young Prussians on...

(The entire section is 488 words.)

John Clute (review date 11-17 March 1988)

SOURCE: "Photo-finish," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4432, March 11-17, 1988, p. 276.

[In the following review, Clute offers a mixed assessment of Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance.]

Three young farmers are walking along a mud track in the Rhineland in the spring of 1914, on their way to a dance in the nearby village. A passing photographer named August Sander shoots them, as part of his great project to assemble a photographic catalogue, Man of the Twentieth Century. The three farmers stare at us from before the watershed of the First World War with a naive, comical, solemn gaze. So much, more or less, is history.

It can be...

(The entire section is 684 words.)

Ursula Hegi (review date 13 March 1988)

SOURCE: "What's the Matter With Eddie?" in The New York Times Book Review, March 13, 1988, pp. 15-16.

[A German-born American, Hegi is a novelist and critic. In the following review, she discusses the characters in Prisoner's Dilemma.]

A father lies with his four children on the frozen November earth, quizzing them on the names of the constellations. They rest against his body, and he points a flashlight to the dark sky "as if the light goes all the way out to the stars themselves…. The rest is a blur, a rich, confusing picture book of too many possibilities."

In the first four pages of Prisoner's Dilemma, Richard Powers's prose is sensuous,...

(The entire section is 1025 words.)

Patrick Parrinder (review date 17 March 1988)

SOURCE: "Verbing a Noun," in London Review of Books, Vol. 10, No. 6, March 17, 1988, pp. 17-18.

[Parrinder is an English critic and educator who has written numerous works on H. G. Wells and science fiction. In the following excerpt, he offers a mixed assessment of Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, which he calls "a carnivalesque, Post-Modernist historical novel."]

In 1910 the German photographer August Sander began work on a never-to-be-completed ethnographic project which he called Man of the 20th Century. This grandiose scheme provides one of the sources of Richard Powers's first novel. The title, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance,...

(The entire section is 1030 words.)

Richard Locke (review date 10 April 1988)

SOURCE: "Father Knows Best," in Book World—The Washington Post, Vol. XVII, No. 15, April 10, 1988, p. 5.

[Locke is an American educator and critic. In the following review, he summarizes Prisoner's Dilemma and notes that Powers has "an intense command of significant realistic details that can easily be assimilated to a larger symbolic pattern."]

[Prisoner's Dilemma—an] unusually attractive and ambitious book by Richard Powers, whose first, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, was warmly praised when it appeared three years ago, is an exceptionally loving fictional portrait of an American father and, simultaneously, a work of moral philosophy...

(The entire section is 1275 words.)

Tom LeClair (review date 25 April 1988)

SOURCE: "The Systems Novel," in The New Republic, Vol. 198, No. 17, April 25, 1988, pp. 40-2.

[LeClair is an American writer and educator. In the following review of Prisoner's Dilemma, he states that "Powers is the most accomplished practitioner" of what he calls "the 'systems novel,' a fiction that uses postmodern techniques to model the dense and tangled relations of modern history, politics, and science."]

Too few words have been written by and too many about the carved-down school of fiction, 1980s minimalism. Richard Powers's second novel, Prisoner's Dilemma, offers an excellent occasion to identify those novelists first publishing in the decade who...

(The entire section is 1740 words.)

Maureen Howard (review date 14 May 1988)

SOURCE: "Facing the Footage," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 246, No. 19, May 14, 1988, pp. 680-84.

[Howard is an American author, critic, and editor whose works include Expensive Habits (1986). In the following excerpt, she details the multiple texts within Prisoner's Dilemma.]

Prisoner's Dilemma begins with the stars. On a summer night a father demonstrates the celestial bodies to his children. A father instructing: Ed Hobson is, in fact, a high-school history teacher who is as familiar with Ursa Major as he is with the casts of 1940s movie musicals, his mind an omnium-gatherum, mostly of American culture, but the optical accident of pictures in the sky...

(The entire section is 2437 words.)

Maureen Howard (review date Winter 1988)

SOURCE: "Semi-Samizdat and Other Matters," in The Yale Review, Vol. 77, No. 2, Winter, 1988, pp. 243-58.

[In the following excerpt, Howard favorably assesses Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance.]

[It] is not curious that a first novel that I consider the most alive and original in years, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance by Richard Powers, had to win a Rosenthal Award (for work that's been overlooked) as a corrective. Published by Beech Tree Press, a fine imprint of a very commercial house (Morrow), this intricate work was never touted like the Yuppie novels that will pass as surely as the kiwi slice that adorned nouvelle cuisine. (Rich, disaffected kids...

(The entire section is 796 words.)

Jane Sutherland (review date 21-27 April 1989)

SOURCE: "Hobson's Last Tape," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4490, April 21-27, 1989, p. 436.

[In the following excerpt, Sutherland offers a negative assessment of Prisoner's Dilemma.]

There is great reach in Prisoner's Dilemma, but little grasp. Like his first, Three Farmers on their Way to a Dance … Richard Powers's second novel aims to create a poetics of history for an entire era; but in neither book has he fully managed to get his material into shape. The grand gestures of both are, therefore, oddly smudged. For all its stoutness, Prisoner's Dilemma seems a frail and lethargic vehicle for the task it addresses.


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Patrick Parrinder (review date 18 May 1989)

SOURCE: "Austward Ho," in London Review of Books, Vol. 11, No. 10, May 18, 1989, pp. 12-13.

[In the following excerpt, Parrinder states that "Prisoner's Dilemma is an intricate, wide-ranging tapestry drawing on the weightiest of historical themes; it is only a pity that its attempt to remythologise the most portentous of modern American events is so heavy-handed."]

Richard Powers, as readers of Three Farmers on their Way to a Dance will know, is [a] young novelist full of ambition and ideas. What Prisoner's Dilemma sadly lacks, however, is [Paul] Auster's stylistic restraint and mastery of pace. Powers's prose bristles with verbal japes,...

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Curt Suplee (review date 25 August 1991)

SOURCE: "Lost in the Strands of Time," in Book World—The Washington Post, Vol. XXI, No. 34, August 25, 1991, p. 5.

[In the following review, Suplee offers a positive assessment of The Gold Bug Variations.]

This enormous book [The Gold Bug Variations] may be the most lavishly ambitious American novel since Gravity's Rainbow. That it succeeds on its own intricate intellectual terms (which will not be every reader's) is a considerable triumph; that it also functions as an invitingly readable story is an outright marvel.

Or, rather, two stories: Richard Powers's third novel is a narrative double-helix of interwoven tales. One, set in the...

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Louis B. Jones (review date 25 August 1991)

SOURCE: "Bach Would've Liked This Molecule," in The New York Times Book Review, August 25, 1991, pp. 9-10.

[Jones is an American novelist whose works include Ordinary Money (1990). In the following review, he faults the numerous puns and slightness of characterization in The Gold Bug Variations, but states that the work "is a dense, symmetrical symphony in which no note goes unsounded."]

In his third novel, Richard Powers is up to something very unusual. The Gold Bug Variations is a little bit like Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, in that it carries us on a cerebral quest for a philosophical heffalump; it's a little...

(The entire section is 969 words.)

Michael Harris (review date 29 September 1991)

SOURCE: "Take the DNA Train," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 29, 1991, pp. 2, 11.

[In the following review, Harris suggests that The Gold Bug Variations may appeal to a limited audience for whom it is "essential" reading.]

Let's begin with the Youngblood Hawke theory of fiction, promulgated by the hero of a forgotten Herman Wouk novel. To engage us seriously, says Hawke, a rumpled, expansive young writer modeled on Thomas Wolfe, a story must offer the equivalent of a "lovely, helpless girl tied to the railroad tracks … the wind blowing her skirts up around those pretty legs … and that train thundering around the mountain pass."


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Joseph Tabbi (review date Spring 1992)

SOURCE: A review of The Gold Bug Variations, in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. XII, No. 1, Spring, 1992, p. 145.

[In the following review, Tabbi states that The Gold Bug Variations "merits serious attention from writers and scientists."]

Early in The Gold Bug Variations, in one of many scenes in the novel where characters lose themselves in libraries, the young scientist Stuart Ressler makes "a sadly vindicating tour" of the University of Illinois library that reveals "an 824," the Dewey Decimal designation for literature, "untouched since Henry James died. Humanities have clearly slid into the terminally curatorial, forsaking claim to...

(The entire section is 395 words.)

Roy Porter (review date 8 May 1992)

SOURCE: "Data for Data's Sake," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4469, May 8, 1992, p. 20.

[In the following review, Porter offers a mixed assessment of The Gold Bug Variations, finding Powers's prose "temporarily exhilarating but ultimately exhausting."]

Geneticists, we are told, are now busy finally decoding and rewriting all the scripts of life. Against this background, Richard Powers has had the clever, if deliberately perverse, idea of constructing a novel [The Gold Bug Variations] that mirrors this genetic quest: a novel not about the lives, hopes and fears of biologists trekking between the Double Helix and the human genome project, but one...

(The entire section is 573 words.)

Pearl K. Bell (review date 1992)

SOURCE: "Fiction Chronicle," in Partisan Review, Vol. LIX, No. 2, 1992, pp. 282-95.

[In the following excerpt, Bell offers a negative assessment of The Gold Bug Variations, stating that Powers's "brilliance, in the end, serves little purpose beyond his irrepressible exhibitionism."]

One can't help wondering what readers—other than editors and reviewers lashed to the mast of duty—Richard Powers had in mind when he embarked on his inordinately complicated and exhausting third novel, The Gold Bug Variations. Surely not "the common reader," if such a creature still exists. Powers is a very clever fellow, highly acclaimed these days, a thirty-four-year-old...

(The entire section is 636 words.)

Sven Birkerts (review date 23 May 1993)

SOURCE: "Fate of the Innocent," in Chicago Tribune—Books, May 23, 1993, pp. 1, 10-11.

[Birkerts is an American critic who contributes regularly to such journals as Boston Review, New Republic, and Mirabella. In the following review, he questions the depiction of the protagonist's love relationship but overall finds Operation Wandering Soul a "fully realized and major work of art."]

In a few short years—in literary terms overnight—Richard Powers has vaulted from promise to attainment. His third novel, The Gold Bug Variations (1991) was one of the brainiest and most ambitious novels in recent memory. He could not have rewarded himself...

(The entire section is 1365 words.)

Bruce Bawer (review date 13 June 1993)

SOURCE: "Beautiful Dreamers," in Book World—The Washington Post, Vol. XXIII, No. 24, June 13, 1993, p. 2.

[Bawer is an American critic. In the following review, he offers a mixed assessment of Operation Wandering Soul, praising Powers's prose but questioning his depiction of American society.]

If by some measures Richard Powers is the most gifted American novelist of his generation, he is also one of the most unjustly neglected. Though reviewers have been praising him fervently ever since the 1985 appearance of his first novel, Three Farmers on their Way to a Dance, and though his third novel, The Gold Bug Variations, was nominated for a National...

(The entire section is 1159 words.)

Lee Lescaze (review date 13 July 1993)

SOURCE: "Man, Past and Present," in The Wall Street Journal, Vol. CCXXII, No. 8, July 13, 1993, p. A14.

[In the following excerpt, Lescaze offers a negative assessment of Operation Wandering Soul but praises Powers's writing style.]

Richard Powers's Operation Wandering Soul is a corrosive report from a Los Angeles of the near-future made close to unlivable by violence, pollution, traffic and man's inhumanity. It centers on Kraft, a brilliant surgeon brought close to mental collapse and emotional paralysis by the horrors of the modern world, particularly evils inflicted on children….

In Operation Wandering Soul, Mr. Powers aims...

(The entire section is 507 words.)

Meg Wolitzer (review date 18 July 1993)

SOURCE: "The Assault on Children," in The New York Times Book Review, July 18, 1993, p. 19.

[Wolitzer is an American writer whose works include Hidden Pictures (1986). In the following review, she offers a mixed assessment of Operation Wandering Soul, praising Powers's writing style and narrative structure while finding his characters emotionally unengaging.]

In every reader's mental library, there are books that are remembered with admiration and books that are remembered with love. Those in the first category involve the intricate play of language, while those in the second rely on language to support a host of strong and resonant characters.


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Richard Eder (review date 18 June 1995)

SOURCE: "More Human Than Human," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 18, 1995, pp. 3, 12.

[Eder is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American critic. In the following positive review, he discusses characterization and theme in Galatea 2.2, stating that he finished the work "not totally sure of the destination but with a vivid memory of points along the way."]

Richard Powers' people are ideas and his ideas are people; and so, right away, he sets himself apart from writers who sketch an engaging intellectual path but don't find characters to tread it.

Galatea 2.2 is about a man who programs an artificial intelligence system only to find it is...

(The entire section is 1284 words.)

Paul Gediman (review date Summer 1995)

SOURCE: A review of Galatea 2.2, in Boston Review, Vol. XX, No. 3, Summer, 1995, p. 37.

[In the following positive review, Gediman provides a thematic analysis of Galatea 2.2.]

Richard Powers' first book, Three Farmers On Their Way to a Dance, was a gyroscopic meditation on meaning and time based on a photograph taken on the eve of World War I. In his third, The Gold Bug Variations, he appropriated the genetic code as an extended metaphor, adding the twisting pursuit of meaning to the strands of the double helix. His novels teem with history, science, and ideas. They are grounded in an obsession with, and a feel for, the music of pattern that can...

(The entire section is 1595 words.)

Steven Moore (review date 9 July 1995)

SOURCE: "Soul of a New Machine," in Book World—The Washington Post, July 9, 1995, pp. 1, 12.

[In the laudatory review below, Moore discusses autobiographical elements in Galatea 2.2.]

Richard Powers is your reward for graduating from college with a liberal arts degree. His engagingly erudite novels richly repay those art history courses you took, all the reading in literature, those electives in music and foreign languages. He does make you wish you had paid closer attention to those science requirements you struggled through, but he is a good teacher and fills you in on what you need to know. In his magnificent Gold Bug Variations (1991) it was genetics; in...

(The entire section is 859 words.)

Gerald Howard (review date 10 July 1995)

SOURCE: "My Fair Software," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 261, No. 2, July 10, 1995, pp. 64-6.

[Below, Howard provides an overview of Galatea 2.2, discussing in particular Powers's focus on consciousness.]

The debate dates from those long-ago days when the English majors frequented the library and the engineers hung out at the computer center. The English majors, unattractively smug, held that literature represented the highest form of human knowledge and expression, and that its study and mastery conferred a deeper, richer apprehension of life. The engineers, annoyingly arrogant, scoffed that deciphering a poem or novel was no more complex or privileged an...

(The entire section is 1622 words.)

Robert Cohen (review date 23 July 1995)

SOURCE: "Pygmalion in the Computer Lab," in The New York Times Book Review, July 23, 1995, p. 17.

[In the positive review below, Cohen discusses the major themes in Galatea 2.2.]

It should come as no surprise that writers make lousy company. All those hours alone at the desk, fretting over words—and for what? The very medium they've chosen to connect themselves to the lived life of the planet also serves to detach them from it. And so they wind up feeling like the ape that inspired Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, who, after months of coaxing, managed to produce the first drawing by an animal: "This sketch showed the bars of the poor creature's cage."


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Further Reading


Gray, Paul. "What Is the Meaning of Life?" Time 138, No. 9 (2 September 1991): 68.

Positive review of The Gold Bug Variations in which Gray discusses the work's four main characters.

Horvath, Brooke K. Review of Prisoner's Dilemma, by Richard Powers. The Review of Contemporary Fiction X, No. 3 (Fall 1990): 221-22.

Offers a positive review of Prisoner's Dilemma and briefly notes Powers's similarities to such authors as Thomas Pynchon, John Updike, and John Steinbeck.

Review of The Gold Bug...

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