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...
(The entire section is 793 words.)