Prisoner's Dilemma

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

In an age when The Frugal Gourmet occupies a place high in the pantheon of television cooking shows, Richard Powers arrives on the scene as the Frugal Novelist of modern American letters, the kind of writer who never wastes anything. No detail in his diffuse, highly challenging novel stands alone, is ever without reference to something else pivotal to its closely interlocked development. It is not lost on Powers, for example, that De Kalb, Illinois, in which most of the novel’s action takes place, is renowned for one thing: the invention of barbed wire.

This simple piece of seemingly gratuitous information, given within the first pages of the book, recurs in one context or another throughout the novel, doing double or triple duty, as do most of Powers’ allusions, including his puns on his own name.

Barbed wire, after all, is used to contain the very prisoners who might figure in the logical paradox from which the novel takes its title. “Barbed” certainly is the only accurate way to describe the wit in the contrapuntal dialogue that electrifies the atmosphere in the Hobson house, so overcrowded that things flow from it onto the front porch, the scene of many of the novel’s best conversations between Eddie Hobson and his children.

Powers’ selection of the surname “Hobson” for his fictional family also relates directly to the logical dilemma from which the book derives its title, because in the prisoner’s dilemma, the choices are Hobson’s choices. Readers, however, cannot stop with this realization, thinking that they have solved the puzzle. They have to take one step more to appreciate that the name also suggests Thomas Hobbes, the seventeenth century British philosopher who, in his most cogent and revealing work, Leviathan (1651), posits that human existence is merely the mechanistic motions of the organism—selfish, individualistic, and materialistic—at war continually with all of its fellow organisms.

At this level one begins to understand Eddie Hobson’s isolation and the isolation, indeed, of the whole Hobson family—a collective organism, self-contained and, though neither selfish nor materialistic, certainly detached and (except for Lily’s letters to the next-door neighbor, Mrs. Swallow) oblivious to and relatively nonjudgmental about those who are not part of their tightly woven, six-member enclave. Their familial organism constitutes the narrative heart of the book.

Early in Prisoner’s Dilemma, Powers flashes back to 1939, to the much-touted New York World’s Fair, held in Flushing Meadow, Queens. There Bud Middleton, the gawking son of the World’s Fair’s model American family—consisting of himself, Mom, Dad, sister Babs, and Grandma—gets stuck for three hours with his mother high above the fair in the Life Saver Parachute Drop. Powers dangles Bud, an adolescent import from some Middletown in the Midwest, where the boy can view the twelve-hundred-acre country-in-miniature below him, where he can see the whole context for which “Building the World of Tomorrow” is the theme. Bud later helps Walt Disney construct the nation-within-a-nation that becomes his movie set in the Illinois cornfields. Then Bud goes off to war and is killed by the Japanese at Guadalcanal.

Powers’ World’s Fair vignette, so accurate that a reader can feel the jostling crowds lined up to get into the General Motors’ Futurama and can smell the hot dogs the nearby hawkers sell from their wooden carts, provides a foretaste of the scale-model American movie set that Henry L. Stimson, Secretary of War in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s wartime cabinet, has commissioned Walt Disney to build for a propaganda film to be titled You Are the War. Disney, thereby, gains his release from the Nisei internment camp to which Powers consigns him (Powers contends for his artistic purposes that in these hysterical times Disney, the grandson of a geisha girl and a midshipman on Matthew Perry’s ship Susquehanna, is technically a Nisei). Disney’s movie set is to be built on “a vast maw of farmland ... a historical emptiness nestled in an impossible expanse of cornfields: the birthplace of barbed wire.”

Disney’s workers, whose text for their job is changed from “WORK WILL SET YOU FREE” to “IT AIN’T NECESSARILY SO,” emblazon their text on a banner that flies at the set’s main gate. The project provides Disney simultaneously with the means of serving his country and of gaining release for himself and thousands of Nisei internees who will help him carry out the bizarre project. Disney, whom Stimson gave free reign to invent a miniature nation, had...

(The entire section is 1915 words.)