Richard Powers has been called reclusive, but the term is misleading. Although he struggles to maintain a low profile, fearing that celebrity will make inordinate demands on the time he needs to write, he is outgoing. Interviewers find him cooperative but firm in his refusal to share the personal information around which interviews with notables often revolve.
This reluctance is not a pose Powers has adopted to project some calculated public image. He firmly believes, however, that one’s writing must stand on its merits, that details about the life of an author or an author’s autograph on the flyleaf of a book should affect neither the public perception of what authors produce nor the value of their books.
Powers’s novels display an easy command of specific information about an amazing range of subjects, from literature to art to photography to science to music to history to astronomy to folklore. His knowledge in this daunting array of subjects is not superficial: He has a thorough understanding of the subjects he chooses to explore and he absorbs complex information quickly.
An encompassing influence on Powers’s literary structure is the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, stemming from his exposure to Bach’s music as a cellist. Elements of Bach’s harmony and, particularly, Bach’s counterpoint underlie the structure of Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance (1985) and Prisoner’s Dilemma (1988). The Gold Bug Variations (1991) draws its title in part from Bach’s The Goldberg Variations; its structure stems from Powers’s comprehensive understanding of Bach’s inventions.
There are thirty Goldberg variations; Powers’s novel has thirty chapters. Bach’s Variations were based upon four notes or musical phrases; the number four, a controlling element in Powers’s novel, is fundamental to an understanding of deoxyribonucleic acid...
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Powers is among the most intellectually complex novelists to appear since James Joyce and Thomas Pynchon. His novels are the fruits of a Renaissance mentality. Powers’s encompassing grasp of abstract ideas is impressive; more impressive still is his ability to link them to the compelling central reference points his fiction creates and to do so with a literary style consistently and dependably excellent.
Richard Powers’s roots in Illinois are deep and of long standing. Born in Evanston in 1957, he was the fourth of Donna and Richard Franklin Powers’ five children. He attended elementary school in Lincolnwood, a heavily Jewish suburb of Chicago. On Jewish holidays, the Powers children were among a handful of non-Jewish children attending school.
When Powers was eleven years old, his father, a secondary school principal, accepted a position at the International School in Bangkok, Thailand. During his family’s five-year stay in Thailand, Powers perfected his skill in playing the cello, heightened his understanding of Johann Sebastian Bach’s complex compositions, and joined a chorus that traveled within Asia to perform. His vocal abilities were substantial, and his exposure to Asian culture had a considerable effect on him.
Upon returning to the United States, Powers’s family settled in De Kalb, Illinois, where the father became a school administrator and Donna Powers worked as a secretary and administrative assistant for the Wurlitzer Corporation. Powers, who was six feet, seven inches tall, played high school basketball, but he also read voraciously, taking careful notes on his reading.
When he completed high school, Powers entered the University of Illinois at Urbana, an institution familiar to him because his family had lived near the campus in the mid-1960’s. His father had completed a doctorate there in 1967....
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