The Gold Bug Variations

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The adventure Richard Powers has booked for his readers in The Gold Bug Variations begins on the title page and continues to the final aria, “Da Capo e Fine,” on page 639. The title page reads thus:

The Gold Bug


At first glance, one gets the pun (or part of it), the first of thousands of high-level intellectual puns—if one can call a pun “high-level” without being oxymoronic— that appear in a steady procession throughout this tightly structured, masterfully controlled book. The title brings Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Goldberg Variations immediately to mind.

One quickly realizes that Bach wrote thirty variations and that Powers’ book has thirty chapters, that Bach’s variations were based on four notes, four musical phrases, and that four is a controlling number in this book—and, by implication, in much of the order in the universe as Powers seems to interpret it. Pondering further, one realizes that the placement of the title on the title page—minimizing “The Gold Bug” and putting “VARIATIONS” in bold type—implies something. Can the title legitimately be read as The Gold Bug: Variations, which has quite a different impact from The Gold Bug Variations? Turning to the dedicatory page that follows, readers encounter Powers’ first cryptogram: four rows of print, each containing eight sets of initials (4 + 4 X 4?) of people, some living, some dead, family, friends, and even some from whom the author has withdrawn his friendship, suggesting possibly his awareness of the overwhelming complexity of human relationships, a topic at the heart of this novel on one of its many levels.

To discuss the book from the standpoint of its basic story is perhaps to do it an injustice. The story is the pretext for the extremely complex philosophical treatise that constitutes the most important level of the book. Powers, a wordsmith of consummate skill, has brought all of his powers to bear upon producing a novel whose complexity of discrete parts is so tightly interwoven that the result reminds one of a magnificently decorated Navajo or Zuni straw basket so perfectly crafted that when it is filled with water nary a drop leaks out.

Unlike novels that start with characters from whom the ideas evolve, Powers’ novels begin with ideas; the characters are mere instruments for their dissemination. This is true of Powers’ earlier works, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance (1985) and Prisoner’s Dilemma (1988), as well as of The Gold Bug Variations. This is not to say that the characterization in these three novels is weak, but merely that it is distinctly secondary to the ideological framework that appears to be in place before Powers begins writing.

Reading The Gold Bug Variations is hard work, just as reading Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance is hard work. The aim of these novels is to educate, to stretch the mind. The author pours out his own superb education on every page, but in the process, he is also continuing his education. Readers who accompany him on the journey he has decided to take are expected to work hard, as he himself works. If they follow him, they stand a good chance of being rewarded much as he is rewarded by the intellectual discoveries, the exhilarating epiphanies he continually experiences.

Clearly, Powers wrote this book with neither a specific audience nor commercial success uppermost in his mind. He wrote it because it is part of his personal quest to unravel the mysteries that puzzle him. The scientific part of the book, the part that has to do with deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and the double helix, reflects his early premedical training. Having made his course correction into writing, however, he now uses scientific analogies and vocabulary in his literary search to find order in the universe.

Through Bach’s inventions and the double helix of the DNA molecule, the author establishes the number four as quintessential in the universal order whose mystery he struggles to unlock—the four seasons, the four winds, the four corners of the earth, the four chambers of the heart. The romance that provides the story line for this novel involves four people—the two members of each pair four years different in age from each other. The course that it follows becomes intertwined in ways that suggest the double helix. The skill that it takes to reach this sort of outcome in any credible way is extremely rare.

Among the participants in the story are the narrator, Jan O’Deigh, a thirty-four- year-old reference librarian in the Brooklyn Branch of the New York City Public Library, and Franklin Todd, a graduate student in art history, who becomes...

(The entire section is 1954 words.)