Richard Powers 1957–
The following entry provides an overview of Powers's career through 1995.
Powers is known for works in which he combines such subjects as history, politics, and science to examine issues of meaning in contemporary life. He is highly regarded for the rich style of his prose, the complexity of his narrative structures, and the vast range of knowledge exhibited in his works. John F. Baker has written: "[Powers's books are] novels of ideas. Written within a seemingly limitless frame of reference, all concern, in one way or another, the mysteries of time, the problems of living in a confusing century and nothing less than making sense, at the profoundest level, of what human life is all about."
Powers was born and raised in the American Midwest. He has chosen to seek anonymity, declining to answer questions about his personal life. Powers has stated, "I really don't see what connection all that has with the work…. It's not what we should be looking at. All that sort of thing just creates confusion about the nature of the book, deflects attention from what you've done. That's what always seems to happen in this culture: you grab hold of a personality and ignore the work." Powers is known to have worked in the computer field, and to have acquired, as he once noted, "a quasi-preprofessional knowledge of music, as a studious cellist for many years." One source has also claimed that Powers trained as a physicist prior to his literary career. Living in the Netherlands for much of the late 1980s and early 1990s has also contributed to Powers's anonymity. In 1989 he received a fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation—a so-called "genius grant"—and two of his works, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance (1985) and The Gold Bug Variations (1991), were nominated for National Book Critics Circle Awards. The former book also received a PEN/Hemingway Foundation special citation.
Powers's first novel, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, gets its title from a 1914 August Sander photograph taken in the Rhineland, a region of western Germany along the Rhine River, before the outbreak of World War I. Stories of the three men pictured are interwoven with those of two contemporary figures in America—an unnamed narrator and a copy editor—who come in contact with copies of Sander's print. Through the photographic conceit and structure of the narratives, critics con-tend that Powers creates a sense of history contained in and affecting the present. In Prisoner's Dilemma (1988), Powers again links past and present in relating the story of 52-year-old Eddie Hobson—an ill ex-history teacher who constantly quizzes his family to test and inform them as well as to divert their attention from his ailments. The story is told in three ways: through 1978 events involving Hobson's illness; through the remembrances of Hobson's children; and in tape recordings in which Hobson chronicles a fantasy scenario that closely parallels events from his life starting with the 1939 World's Fair to beyond the time he was stationed near the atomic bomb testing site in Alamogordo, New Mexico, his proximity to which probably caused his maladies. Critics have speculated that the book may be semi-autobiographical, with Hobson modeled after Powers's father. The Gold Bug Variations derives its title from two sources: Edgar Allan Poe's short story involving cryptography, "The Gold Bug" (1843), and German composer Johann Sebastian Bach's musical composition, The Goldberg Variations (1742). Using a complex narrative structure, Powers relates parallel love stories, one set in the 1950s and the other in the 1980s, each of which concern two mysteries: the search to break the genetic code and to find the reasons why a once prominent scientist—Stuart Ressler—abandoned that search. Powers utilizes the repetitive patterns in Canadian pianist Glenn Gould's recording of Bach's Variations as a metaphor for the structure of DNA, which, with its four recurring nucleotides, is responsible for the apparently limitless diversity of life forms. Operation Wandering Soul (1993) is the story of an overstressed surgical resident, Richard Kraft, who works in a hospital's children's ward. Kraft develops a relationship with a therapist on that ward, Linda Espera, whose therapy involves recounting stories of endangered children to the young patients. Interspersed with these stories, and those of the often terminally-ill patients themselves, is that of the gradual awakening of Kraft's repressed childhood memories. Galatea 2.2 (1995) is narrated by a character named Richard Powers who, after living in the Netherlands for seven years, has returned as a visiting professor to an American university, where he studied as an undergraduate. There he meets a professor, Philip Lentz, who persuades Richard to take part in an experiment involving teaching a computer to learn enough English and English literature to pass the Master's Comprehension Exam. During the experiment, the narrator contemplates issues surrounding intelligence, technology and, in John Updike's words, "the linguistic and perceptual intricacies underlying consciousness."
Although critical reaction to Powers's works has generally been positive, some commentators have suggested the intellectual and scientific demands of Powers's novels may limit the size of his audience. Negative commentary has referred to uninspiring characters, thin plots, and overdone wordplay. As Meg Wolitzer observed: "To read [Powers's] work is to be wowed by his verbal muscularity and by his ability to stitch seemingly disparate elements into a larger metaphorical fabric. But sometimes we don't want to be wowed. Sometimes we just want quiet." However, the majority of critics have described Powers as brilliant, often comparing him to such diverse writers as Thomas Pynchon and John Updike. Reviewers have also praised the style of his prose, his facility with numerous narrative voices, and the complexity of his narrative structures and themes. After the publication of Operation Wandering Soul in 1993, Sven Birkerts wrote: "In a few short years—in literary terms overnight—Richard Powers has vaulted from promise to attainment…. Powers must now be seen as our most energetic and gifted novelist under 40."