On the surface, The Gold Bug Variations consists of two intertwined love stories, those of former DNA scientist Stuart Ressler and Jeanette Koss, Ressler’s married lover, and of reference librarian Jan O’Deigh, thirty-four, and art historian Franklin Todd, thirty. Powers’s title gives readers the initial wink. This book has something to do with Johann Sebastian Bach, the eighteenth century composer of The Goldberg Variations, and with Edgar Allan Poe, the nineteenth century author of “The Gold Bug.” Poe’s short story is cryptic; from the outset, Powers’s novel is equally cryptic.
Arcane meanings lurk in unexpected places throughout The Gold Bug Variations, making rereading the book perhaps more pleasurable than the initial reading. The novel overflows with word games and puzzles relating to numbers and to science; this is the sort of book that makes for challenging group reading and discussion.
Stuart Ressler, once a member of the University of Illinois team that cracked the code of the DNA molecule, has faded from public view. Franklin Todd knows him, however; Ressler works with Todd, a part-time computer hacker working nights. He fascinates Franklin. It is clear that Ressler, who now—apparently by choice—lives at the subsistence level, once experienced a little more than the fifteen minutes of public recognition that Andy Warhol suggested was every American’s due.
Eager to know more about Ressler, Todd enlists the aid of Jan O’Deigh, the reference librarian at the Brooklyn Branch of the New York Public Library. Tracking down information about Ressler (including his picture in a back issue of Life), Jan and Franklin become romantically entangled.
The plot of The Gold Bug Variations is told largely through Jan’s eyes, in a flood of recollections set loose when, during her lunch hour one day, she finds in her mail a brief note from Franklin announcing Ressler’s death. Through Franklin, Jan had met and come to know Ressler. Memories consume her. She quits her library job so that she can devote herself fully to ferreting out the meaning of Ressler’s life and, more broadly, of life in general.
Ressler’s work on DNA contained so many mysteries about the origins of existence that he, the accomplished scientist, suspected that anything able to create consciousness(life) was too complex for that consciousness to fathom. This suspicion caused Ressler to become an adult dropout from society, to live obscurely and ascetically, working of his own volition at a level considerably below his potential.
As in all of Powers’s writing, the plot is not the novel. The novel plays with ideas so profound and so complex that they defy brief or simplified presentation. The Gold Bug Variations richly rewards frequent rereading, spirited discussion, and imaginative interpretation.
The title of The Gold Bug Variations provides from the outset a clue to two influences to which readers might be sensitive in reading the novel. The title suggests both Johann Sebastian Bach’s intricate musical composition The Goldberg Variations and Edgar Allan Poe’s cryptic short story “The Gold Bug.”
As in his earlier and subsequent novels, Powers is, in The Gold Bug Variations, fundamentally concerned with structure and with complex ideas that shed light on the basic underpinnings of the postmodern era. Just as Bach offered thirty Goldberg variations, Powers’s novel offers thirty chapters.
Bach’s work is based on four musical notes, four musical phrases; Powers’s novel uses the number four in many instances, perhaps the most obvious of which is that the novel focuses on two couples, four characters, and that both Jan O’Deigh and Franklin Todd and Jeanette Koss and Stuart Ressler are separated from each other in age by four years. Powers also frequently uses terms such as the four winds, the four corners of the earth, the four seasons, and the four chambers of the heart, suggesting that the number four is inherent in the universal order.
(The entire section is 1,191 words.)