(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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.

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(The entire section is 459 words.)

The Gold Bug Variations Summary

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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.

A major portion of The Gold Bug Variations is scientifically oriented and deals with the discovery of the role deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) plays in life. The double helix that is central to Stuart Ressler’s DNA research involves double pairs, fours. The intertwined lives of the novel’s two couples form a sort of human double helix.

The four lives with which Powers deals become intertwined by chance. Franklin Todd, a dropout from a doctoral program in art history, works nights in a computerized billing operation. Stuart Ressler, who works with him in a...

(The entire section is 732 words.)

The Gold Bug Variations Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Jan O’Deigh, a reference librarian at the Brooklyn branch of the New York City Library, quits her job to study genetics. She has just received a four-line postcard from Franklin Todd, her former lover, informing her of the death of their mutual friend, Stuart Ressler, a molecular biologist.

Franklin came to know Ressler when they both worked at a menial late-night job doing computer billing. Ressler had been obsessed with listening to the Glenn Gould recording of Johann Sebastian Bach’s musical composition The Goldberg Variations (1741). He became intrigued and challenged by the sheer complexity and symmetry of the composition.

He had received the recordings a quarter of a century earlier as a gift from his lover, Jeanette Koss, a married colleague at the University of Illinois. This affair had devastated Ressler. Koss had decided to pack up and leave Champaign-Urbana with her husband, who got a new job some distance away.

Franklin thinks about the past and tells the following story, curious as he is about Ressler: Franklin is a graduate student in art history, pecking away somewhat futilely on a doctoral dissertation about an obscure sixteenth century Flemish artist. He is curious about his coworker, Ressler, at his night job. He goes to the library and asks the reference librarian to find for him what information she can about Ressler.

Jan, the librarian, begins to have romantic feelings for Franklin, but she soon develops an academic interest in Ressler as well. She also is interested in the work at which he had distinguished himself before abandoning his scientific career. She discovers that he was once cited in Life magazine for his work in genetics at the University of Illinois; his colleagues included James D. Watson and Francis Crick, two Nobel-prize-winning geneticists who helped unravel the mystery of the DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) molecule.

Ressler and his fellow molecular biologists at the University of Illinois, as the story goes, are looking into the origins of life. They are seeking to unravel genetic codes. Soon they discover what turns out to be a disarmingly simple explanation of the origins of life: the double helix of the DNA molecule....

(The entire section is 915 words.)