Richard Powers Long Fiction Analysis
Richard Powers’s novels are not designed for casual reading. Deeply intellectual novels of ideas, they tackle such daunting questions as the meaning and purpose of life. As his biographer Joseph Dewey has noted, Powers’s novels involve a staggering breadth of knowledge: “game theory, genetic recombination, saponification, corporate economic theory, computer programming, photographic reproduction, polyphonic music, pediatric medicine, tropical botany, and oncology.” To this list, one might add ornithology, neuropsychology, and ecology, central elements in The Echo Makers.
Every Powers novel demonstrates that the author has become an expert, generally self-taught, in the fields he treats. His encompassing curiosity leads him constantly into fresh fields of study, but his approach is neither cursory nor superficial. Once he sets his intelligence loose on a subject, he masters it as any expert might. Powers’s expertise in computers has made available to him worlds of knowledge of which he has availed himself fully. His knowledge of computers and of computer programming is most evident in Galatea 2.2, in which an English major joins forces with a computer expert to create a computer capable of passing the master’s comprehensive examination in English. His close association with the Beckman Center at the University of Illinois provided a stimulus for this compelling postmodern novel.
Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance
In his first novel, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, Powers establishes the contrapuntal pattern of presentation that pervades most of his subsequent work. Two strands of this book are devoted to telling the stories of the three farmers—Hubert, Adolphe, and Peter—and of the people who come into contact with them or with Sander’s picture of them. The unnamed narrator, whose name begins with the initial “P” (as in “Powers”), is a thirtyish stockbroker who stumbles upon Sander’s photograph of the three farmers when he changes trains during a six-hour layover in Detroit en route from Chicago to Boston, to which he is moving.
Integral to the story is Mrs. Schreck, a cleaning woman who immigrates from Germany to Boston. She has lost the love of her life in World War I. She has a print of Sander’s picture, which she bought before she left Germany—seemingly from Sander himself—because one of the peasants in it is her lost love, Peter Schreck.
Peter Mays, a technical editor for an electronics magazine, has also been affected by the Sander photograph, having found a print of it in his mother’s attic, in which he has been rummaging in search of information about a picture of Henry Ford. He had seen the Ford photograph when it was projected on the stage of a theater during a mixed-media show about the life of social reformer Jane Addams. The person in the picture with Ford looks remarkably like Peter, although he clearly is someone else. Spurred by the possibility that someone in his family had a connection with Ford, Peter journeys to his mother’s house in Illinois, where he finds a letter signed by Ford establishing a trust fund for one of Peter’s forebears, a fund that turns out to be worthless. In his search for this document, he unearths a print of the Sander photograph and is haunted by it. He also finds an envelope with the name Schreck written on it.
In the Henry Ford interchapters that occur throughout the novel’s twenty-seven chapters, Powers weaves the story of Ford’s sailing to Europe with a boatload of...
(The entire section is 1460 words.)