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Richard Powers 1957–

American novelist.

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."

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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."

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

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Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance (novel) 1985
Prisoner's Dilemma (novel) 1988
The Gold Bug Variations (novel) 1991
Operation Wandering Soul (novel) 1993
Galatea 2.2 (novel) 1995

Marco Portales (review date 1 September 1985)

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SOURCE: A review of Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, in The New York Times Book Review, September 1, 1985, p. 14.

[In the following review, Portales offers a mixed assessment of Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance.]

[Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, Powers's first novel,] is an extended meditation provoked by a May 1914 picture taken by the photographer August Sander of three young German men on their way to a dance. Mr. Powers's nameless narrator becomes fascinated by the photograph and creates the World War I experiences of the young men. The novel chronicles five lives—those of the three farmers in the photograph, the narrator (an "amateur historian" trained in physics), and a character named Peter Mays, a copy editor for a computer design magazine. Mr. Powers allows the narrator and Mays to make their separate ways toward the significance the photograph has for each of them. Sentence by sentence and page by page, the work shows Mr. Powers to good advantage. His writing engages, and his re-creation of the characters' thoughts captures postmodern, fragmented 1980's consciousness well. The attractive, initial photographic conceit, however, is overdone at 352 pages, and the technique requires an involvement that the characters do not inspire. Subjects such as history, photography, art, esthetics, perception, Joyce, Melville, Henry Ford and others, while initially stimulating to readers, finally are left unconnected to the events in the novel. And we are not told why the narrator should be interested in tracing "a path back to the world of the First War." At one point, he confesses he cannot remember the "urgency of the picture" and has "lost sight of the end" of his research and his attempts to extrapolate subsequent events from the photograph. When the narrator arrives at this juncture in Chapter 7 of a 27-chapter novel, readers can only ask "Whither?" and worse, "Why?"

George Kearns (review date Spring 1986)

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SOURCE: "Revolutionary Women and Others," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XXXIX, No. 1, Spring, 1986, pp. 122-34.

[In the following excerpt, Kearns favorably reviews Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, calling Powers "an archeologist of imagination and style."]

It isn't often that a novelist makes a debut with a work as ambitious and dazzling as Richard Powers' Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance. It is a work of such complex structure, managed easily and with enormous assurance, that an attempt to describe it other than sketchily would take several paragraphs. The frontispiece reproduces a striking photograph made in 1914 of three young men, hatted, carrying canes, posed but pretending casually to have halted as they walk along a dirt path. The dance they are on their way to, we discover, was a village fête, but also the First World War as Dance of Death. The picture is by August Sander, a German engaged in a vast idealistic photographic project which he called Man in the Twentieth Century. Two decades later his work was burned by the Nazis, and a decade further on most of his forty thousand negatives were destroyed by looters. Powers "reads" the photograph with love, patience, and imagination, and I found myself turning back to it over and over, watching it become part of his text and the text become part of it. From this picture, this donnée, Powers spins a splendid fiction. The lives of the three young men are reconstructed for us, each taking on a moving specificity. Their stories are interleaved with those of two young Americans in the 80s, one of whom sees the photo in a museum in Detroit and becomes obsessed with it, the other of whom writes for a second-rate computer magazine in Boston. The three layerings move in and out, counterpointing each other in surprising, ingenious ways. Powers is a learned writer, with an extraordinary range of reference, and his book is a prolonged, even profound meditation on the history of our century. He has the true gift of the writer of fiction, one that I think no labor can produce, the ability to create illusions of reality with economy of means. If you admire the best fictions of Guy Davenport, as I do enormously, you will like Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance. Like Davenport, Powers is an archeologist of imagination and style.

Gregory L. Morris (review date Spring 1986)

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SOURCE: A review of Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, in Prairie Schooner, Vol. 60, No. 1, Spring, 1986, p. 108.

[Morris is an American writer, editor, educator, and critic whose works include A World of Order and Light: The Fiction of John Gardner (1984). In the following review, he discusses the structure of the three narratives within Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance.]

With his first published novel, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, Richard Powers manages both a technical and an intellectual achievement. The novel is a triple narrative, three stories linked superficially by a photograph: a portrait of three young Prussians on their way to a country dance. But this surface-level link dives far deeper, establishing a profound connection among the three stories, the photo passing through hands and through time to become a symbol of this "tortured century." One narrative (a triple narrative in itself) traces the confused lives of the three men in the photograph—three men on their way to a far more serious and deadly dance than the one they had imagined attending. The remaining two narratives take place in contemporary America, but Powers deftly and intriguingly connects the protagonists in these two separate stories to the three men in the other story, cutting across time and events—by way of the photo—to create a synchronous and reflexive history.

This idea of repetition and replication of experience, of "recursive loops" in the linear course of time, is central to the novel. The three farmers are caught, frozen in the camera's flash in the midst of a puzzled walk into World War I. As the War evolves, each of the three men is either swallowed by the fierce insanity of events, or impelled through it all, only to emerge with totally new, adopted identities—a sort of ritual of extinction or redefinition of Self. Yet the War is (in the words of Charles Péguy) a "trigger point," one of those events which sends the century reeling and looping back on itself, which eternally recurs as a force and an image throughout the century. Thus, the two men who move through the centers of the remaining narratives find themselves inexplicably caught up in and obsessed with the War, with the photo, with anachronistic emblems of the century's second decade. More important, they discover their own links of kinship and consciousness with the men in the photograph, as time circles backwards, defining as it goes the unrealized pasts of these two contemporary American men.

This is a remarkably accomplished first novel. As a technical, structural experiment, the book generally succeeds, despite the occasional staginess of some of the narrative. More exciting and more satisfying, though, is the intellectual stamina of the book; both story and idea engage the reader, lure him in to the web of time and mystery and connection that is the real fabric of this very fine book.

John Clute (review date 11-17 March 1988)

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SOURCE: "Photo-finish," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4432, March 11-17, 1988, p. 276.

[In the following review, Clute offers a mixed assessment of Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance.]

Three young farmers are walking along a mud track in the Rhineland in the spring of 1914, on their way to a dance in the nearby village. A passing photographer named August Sander shoots them, as part of his great project to assemble a photographic catalogue, Man of the Twentieth Century. The three farmers stare at us from before the watershed of the First World War with a naive, comical, solemn gaze. So much, more or less, is history.

It can be assumed that Sander's three young Rhinelanders thought they were en route to no more than a springtime festival. For Richard Powers, whose Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance generates a most elaborate fiction from the photograph, the dance they are about to enter is of course the Great War. As for a similar naif—Hans Castorp at the close of The Magic Mountain—the "desperate dance" of that war will soon deafen the long centuries of Europe. Adolphe, Peter and Hubert, who—strangely greened—grace the dust jacket, may be unconvincing heroes for a novel whose ambition it is to make a significant stab at portraying the century; and indeed Powers spends only a third of his text on the trio, two of whom die before seeing combat. One survives, but only by becoming a kind of picaro, homeless, innocent, agile, with as many names as hats. It is he who meets a more formidable innocent survivor, Henry Ford himself, whose 1915 peace mission to Europe provides Powers with more ironies and more complexities of pathos than he is entirely capable of handling.

Three Farmers is made up of three alternating narrative lines. The story of Sander's farmers makes up the first. In the second, a first-person narrator finds himself stranded in Detroit in the 1980s, becomes haunted by Sander's photograph, finally manages to generate a connection between one of the farmers and Henry Ford. In the third, a young American named Peter Mays, who closely resembles and who may be thought of as a fictionalized version of the narrator, discovers himself to be the direct descendent of Peter, the surviving farmer, to whom Ford has left some sort of legacy.

The remainder of the story is insufficiently complex to warrant so perilously elaborate a structure for its telling, and it gradually becomes clear that for Powers the tales of the two Peters have been offered to the reader as objects of what one might call theatrical contemplation. For the narrator, caught in Detroit, the final mystery endowing Sander's photograph with such force is not the story it may conceal; rather, he is gripped by the metaphysic of the gaze, by the farmers' ignorant but profound regard, by the urgency of their demand somehow to be recovered from the other side of the abyss, a demand he feels compelled to honour.

It is of course an impossible task. There is no understanding the past's final detail, and there is no truth in the theatre of art beyond the last page of the book. The family history of the narrator dissolves, on close scrutiny, into gibberish; if Peter Mays does eventually find an ancestor, it must be remembered that both the ancestor and Peter Mays are fabrications of the narrator; and if the three farmers are given names, nationalities and deaths, these are bestowed by the author of Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance on himself.

As a buttonholing, monotone thinker of ill-achieved "important" thoughts, Powers is a typical American writer of the post-modern era. The ruminativeness of his approach to the mysteries of time and identity almost dissolves the objects of his approach into chimerae. But the novel does work: the story does (just) hold on, the dance does (just) manage to continue to the end of the page, and into the abyss of the century, while the farmers continue to gaze at what they do not know is to come.

Ursula Hegi (review date 13 March 1988)

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SOURCE: "What's the Matter With Eddie?" in The New York Times Book Review, March 13, 1988, pp. 15-16.

[A German-born American, Hegi is a novelist and critic. In the following review, she discusses the characters in Prisoner's Dilemma.]

A father lies with his four children on the frozen November earth, quizzing them on the names of the constellations. They rest against his body, and he points a flashlight to the dark sky "as if the light goes all the way out to the stars themselves…. The rest is a blur, a rich, confusing picture book of too many possibilities."

In the first four pages of Prisoner's Dilemma, Richard Powers's prose is sensuous, vivid and clear as he establishes the essence of the relationship between Eddie Hobson and his children. Why then is much of his novel told in language that's stilted and cumbersome?

If Mr. Powers has attempted to match his prose to the emotional development of his characters, the members of a dysfunctional family, he has taken a considerable risk. Their feelings have become numbed by years of forming protective scaffolding around the father, who extracts from them a conspiracy of silence toward his illness, which may be the result of radiation exposure at Alamogordo and whose symptoms are never identified. A history teacher, Eddie both captivates and keeps his distance from his wife and children with riddles and diverts them from addressing his illness until they can only focus on his evasion.

As in any dysfunctional family, the price of silence is exorbitant: Eddie's wife and children prop him up at the expense of their own emotional peace. Yet Eddie Hobson is not a villain. An "emaciated, fat man," he cares for his family with distracted affection, quoting Sterne, Kipling, Eliot and Frost to his children.

When they finally confront his illness and make him promise to enter a hospital, the characters begin to communicate on a deeper level. They unfold, become real. In their shared grief they are startled by the "connection between them that could reach down at leisure and destroy them." The change in the characters is reflected by language that loses much of its stiffness.

But by then Mr. Powers has given us nearly half a book with limited characters. It's not surprising when the 18-year-old Eddie Jr. describes his family to his girlfriend as "The close-to-the chest older brother. The testy, exradical big sis. Sis number two, everybody's favorite flake. The patient, long-suffering mom. All lost in orbit around the master of ceremonies."

Prisoner's Dilemma concerns itself with the same fascinating theme as Mr. Powers's first novel, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance: the impact of history on contemporary life and the predicament of the individual imprisoned by the sum of history. World War II forms the backdrop for the present lives of Eddie Hobson and his family. Geographical boundaries are closer drawn than in Mr. Powers's first novel; instead of three young men on their way to a German village dance—a metaphor for the greater dance, World War I—16-year-old Eddie carries the trauma of World War II into his adult life. He marries a compliant woman, has four children and creates a safe, fictitious world, Hobstown, which he keeps secret from his family, like his developing illness.

Dictating episodes into a tape recorder, Eddie covers Roosevelt, Stalin, the 1939 New York World's Fair, Dachau, Picasso and Mickey Mouse. In his world, Walt Disney is the real war hero, "the finest provider of escape from the confusing, opaque, overwhelming, paralyzing … times."

One of the most powerful parts of Prisoner's Dilemma is Eddie's account of the internment of Japanese-Americans in 1942, their forcible removal from their homes and their humiliation in the concentration camps. Eddie records their history not only as it was, but as it could have been if Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse had taken on the rescue of thousands of Japanese-Americans in a movie.

When Eddie's older son, Artie, a law student, listens to the tapes for the first time, he perceives Hobstown as a "web of bewildering invention designed for its curative power alone." Artie—flippant and cold in the early part of the novel—resents his father's need that has pulled him back to his family in De Kalb, Ill., when he should be studying his law books in Chicago.

His sister Lily has returned to her parents' home after 10 months of marriage to a man who tried to control her by threatening suicide. One of Mr. Powers's most successfully drawn characters, Lily resents her father's manipulation through illness and his "black humor as he slowly … erased himself for good from this place." She finds an odd sense of comfort in hiding inside a doll's palace, filling the building with her body.

Her older sister, Rachel, tries to adapt to her father's illness with humor and sarcasm. "Why fight the man when he is feeling so good?" Since Mr. Powers keeps explaining her character instead of letting her evolve, Rachel remains sketchy throughout the novel.

Eddie Jr. is the only one of the Hobson children who feels comfortable bringing friends home. To him his father's fits have become a tradition, though "a little more devastating every year." If the illness were real, he believes, his father would have died long ago. Ailene, his mother, is good-natured and confused. "Her husband's trail of crises brought out the best in her…. His suffering required her…. She gladly traded steady income for a cause." Though she finds the courage to ask her husband to enter a hospital, she is so self-deprecating that she comes close to being a stereotype.

Mr. Powers, whose first novel was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1985, explores an interesting theory of time in both novels. Time does not happen sequentially but exists all at once—past, present, future—in layers, a concept like the one developed by Hermann Hesse in Siddhartha. This complex treatment of time makes history the most significant character in Mr. Powers's new novel. Despite its uneven prose, Prisoner's Dilemma gives an absorbing view of history, "that most abstract, detached, impersonal, and curatorial of disciplines."

Patrick Parrinder (review date 17 March 1988)

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SOURCE: "Verbing a Noun," in London Review of Books, Vol. 10, No. 6, March 17, 1988, pp. 17-18.

[Parrinder is an English critic and educator who has written numerous works on H. G. Wells and science fiction. In the following excerpt, he offers a mixed assessment of Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, which he calls "a carnivalesque, Post-Modernist historical novel."]

In 1910 the German photographer August Sander began work on a never-to-be-completed ethnographic project which he called Man of the 20th Century. This grandiose scheme provides one of the sources of Richard Powers's first novel. The title, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, refers to a photograph of young men in felt hats and starched collars walking along a country road, which Sander took in May 1914…. [Powers is a novelist who] is burdened by history, and for whom the central theme of modern life is our own historical self-consciousness. The 20th century, for [this] writer, is the historical century par excellence. The 19th, by contrast, was less exhaustively documented and now seems to have been nourished on chauvinistic legends rather than the brutality of facts.

For 'facts', however, we must doubtless read 'representations'. These representations, in modern times, have been overwhelmingly photographic in nature. Even the literary and narrative arts have (as is well-known) been transformed by cinematic techniques. Storytelling is shot through with notions of the frame, the picture, and the narrator-as-camera. Whether or not it is true that, as Powers writes, 'the century has become about itself, history about history,' it is the modes of representation as much as the sequence of events which have created our image of the times in which we live….

Richard Powers is an American writer whose quest for 20th-century history is also a quest for European origins. August Sander's photograph of the three farmers, discovered by the first-person narrator of one of this novel's interlocking strands in a Detroit museum, is an apparently arbitrary starting-point. Powers's extrapolation of the lives of the three men forms a second strand, an unexpected and richly imaginative one…. In the novel there are two surviving prints of the photograph, one of which is found by the narrator, and the other by a computer journalist called Peter Mays, who discovers it in Chicago among some family heirlooms. In a novel full of intellectual, descriptive and stylistic diversions, these two figures take us down some remarkable by-roads. The three farmers are somehow linked with the Peace Ship in which Henry Ford and a team of do-gooders sailed to Europe in 1915; still more obscurely, they are linked with the later career of Sarah Bernhardt. Mays finds the Sander photograph together with a letter from Henry Ford which encourages him to go straight to Detroit to claim his share of the Ford Company's millions.

He receives his trust fund, however, in an unexpected form. Changes of identity and costume abound; the staid image of the three farmers in their antique Sunday suits may be contrasted, for example, with a contemporary one-woman show, I dwell in possibility, to which Mays's quest also takes him. In I dwell in possibility the actress, who is famed for her Sarah Bernhardt impersonations, appears in quick succession as, among others, Gertrude Stein, Isadora Duncan, and Nurse Cavell waiting to be shot by the Germans.

In Powers's more strictly historical narrative, two of the three farmers—supposedly Germans from the Rhineland—turn out to be nothing of the sort. Hubert, of indeterminate nationality, crosses the border into Belgium and gets himself meaninglessly shot by a party of soldiers a few hours before the First World War breaks out. (If, as is possible, he was actually German, he could be said to have started it all.) Peter, technically German but resident in Holland, evades military service by exchanging identities with a Dutch war correspondent who has just been ordered to Paris. One of Peter's journalistic tasks is to cover the Peace Mission, where he earns the gratitude of a bored and bewildered Harry Ford; they have a shared interest in motor-cars. While in Paris he takes up press photography, but his best pictures, like Harry Beech's, are necessarily suppressed by the authorities. Finally there is Adolphe, the most Svejk-like of these three Unknown Non-Soldiers. He is the Good German who joins up and finds himself taking part in a massacre of Belgian villagers, whereupon he deserts his regiment and, in his turn, gets himself shot. At the beginning the three were all on their way to a dance, and their sweethearts (not to mention their sweethearts' manifold underclothes) also have a part to play in the narrative. Without them, it is clear, one of the prints of Herr Sander's photograph could never have ended up in an attic in Chicago. We are told how it got there, more or less, but this carefully-assembled narrative is no sooner put together than the narrator begins to dissolve it again into its constituent fictions.

This, then, is a carnivalesque, Post-Modernist historical novel, which threads its way through some rather hectic changes of style. Some sections are more in the mode of discursive essays. Chapter 19, 'The Cheap and Accessible Print', tells you more about the cultural impact of the photograph than you probably wanted to know. The early chapters, especially those set in the offices of the computer journal Micro Monthly News, are distinctly frenetic. 'Not content to verb a noun,' we read at one point, 'Delaney was moved by the extent of boss Powell's crime into participling one.' The author does as much sometimes. He has some authentically burlesque stylistic touches. The ten million First World War victims 'would not rise again', we are told, 'from the cratered mud': but then a few pages later two German military policemen peering through a tobacconist's window are described as 'leaving a cratered battlefield of Bavarian greased nose prints on the pane'. Not everything in this irreverent, imaginative and rather too crowded novel comes off nearly as well as that. But Three Farmers pays genuine tribute to August Sander's Teutonically thorough and slightly dotty photographic project in a manner as far removed from Sander's horizons as it possibly could be.

Richard Locke (review date 10 April 1988)

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SOURCE: "Father Knows Best," in Book World—The Washington Post, Vol. XVII, No. 15, April 10, 1988, p. 5.

[Locke is an American educator and critic. In the following review, he summarizes Prisoner's Dilemma and notes that Powers has "an intense command of significant realistic details that can easily be assimilated to a larger symbolic pattern."]

[Prisoner's Dilemma—an] unusually attractive and ambitious book by Richard Powers, whose first, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, was warmly praised when it appeared three years ago, is an exceptionally loving fictional portrait of an American father and, simultaneously, a work of moral philosophy in the guise of a domestic novel with all the artful warmth and clutter we expect in the age of Updike. As it describes a family coping with Dad's fatal illness, it deploys the nostalgic paraphernalia of American popular culture from the World's Fair of 1939 (especially its vision of "The World of Tomorrow," GM's exhibit, Futurama) through the Home Front and VJ Day right down to the end of 1978. It scatters literary references around with ease—to Eliot, Kipling, Yeats, Boccaccio, Rilke—but it's equally at home with game theory, riddles, puzzles and paradoxes.

The prisoner's dilemma of the title is a puzzle the central character—Eddie Hobson, a 52-year-old high school history teacher suffering from a mysterious debility—springs on his family at dinner one November night in 1978. An eccentric domestic quizmaster, he always plays teasing, taunting verbal games that express and conceal his needs and sorrows even as they test his wife and children's affection and intelligence. The "prisoner's dilemma" is evidently a clue to Dad's disease.

Two men are accused of criminal activities, but there's not enough evidence to convict them. They are put in separate cells, and each is offered a deal: if you rat on the other guy, you'll go free, but if you remain silent, you'll still be brought to trial and disgraced. What should they do? Silence is best, but how can each trust the other? Rational self-interest favors the rat, but if both rat, they both fry. What's needed is "crackpot realism": the only way to beat conviction is through the conviction that the other guy, like you, will keep quiet, keep mutual faith.

The puzzle uses reason to defeat reason, to leap over rational self-interest and achieve community despite the prisoners' isolation. As Hobson the history teacher makes abundantly clear, the puzzle packs a wallop—particularly for him, the American Everyman whose dream of the brotherly World of Tomorrow was blackened by such mistrustful acts as the internment of 112,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps in 1942 and by the detonation of the atom bomb at White Sands, New Mexico, in 1945 (where Hobson was briefly posted).

We've moved thematically from the Hobson dinner table in DeKalb, Illinois, to the nuclear negotiating table, from reason's riddles to faith, hope, and charity in "the age of anxiety." The phrase "Hobson's choice" refers to a 17th-century liveryman who always made customers choose the horse nearest the door—"Hobson's choice" is no choice at all, its freedom is illusory. Eddie Hobson, however, is trying to win his freedom, to escape from the solitary confinement of rational self-interest into the sustaining community of trust. His brain teasers express his own isolation, his sense that history is a double bind, his search for a way to connect individual and group experience, to make one act of trust ameliorate a world of self-destructive mutual suspicion.

Such explications tend to strip the novel's themes down to shivering formulas; in fact, they tend to exfoliate dramatically. Eddie Hobson's riddles erupt out of family banter and mundane concerns: the book is very much a novel, not a dialogue. It's filled with squabbles and memories, the private codes and jokes of husband and wife and the four kids now (mostly) in their twenties. The author works hard to give us five points of view and voices quite different from Eddie Hobson's.

Most of this realistic action, more the stuff of a John Irving novel than a Robert Coover metafiction, takes place over two weekends. In the first, Eddie Hobson finally decides to see a doctor about his ailment: his sudden fainting fits, his fever, vomiting, hallucinations, bleeding gums, purple spots on the skin (like plague spots, he lets his son know). In the second weekend, the family takes him to see the Christmas window displays in Chicago and accompanies him to the VA hospital where he's committed. In a final flurry of action, he takes off for parts unknown, challenging the family to deduce his final destination from the hints he's left behind: one son performs the deduction on Christmas morning as another travels into the New Mexico desert toward ground zero.

The chief device Powers employs to expand the scale of his novel is to give us excerpts from an ongoing autobiographical fantasia Eddie Hobson has been dictating into a tape recorder ever since his disease first brought him down: the story of his life from World's Fair to VJ day interwoven with a fantasy about a Walt Disney propaganda film starring Eddie and Mickey Mouse that itself retells the history of Eddie's exemplary suffering life. It's in these sections that the pop culture of the Home Front and the imprisonment of the Japanese Americans come to the fore.

But the major figures in these half-imagined flashbacks—besides Eddie himself from 13 to 19—are Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse. "The finest provider of escape" in the 30's and 40's plays a central role in Hobson's—and the author's—imagination. Mickey is, for example, the sorcerer's apprentice in Fantasia whose every attempt to stop unruly magic power leads further into disaster: as Mickey splits each errant broomstick like an atom, their number doubles till it seems the Flood is come again. Such allusions suggest that art makes cowards of us all—and affords communal meditation on our common fate.

[Prisoner's Dilemma] is written with great fluency and speed, and for the most part resists the tendency to bog down in comfy details, logic games, or surreal set pieces. At times the author might have intensified his effects by increasing the momentum of the 1978 narrative and exercising even more structural (not merely thematic or metaphorical) control. And such summaries as these do turn up; "His story was the attempt to answer the question, unbearable, of how he could go on living while another suffered even the smallest indignity of distrust. Dad was trying, in the tape, to cure the permanent condition of mistrust the world fast embraced by creating a domain where escalating suspicion had no place…. As the fable went on, it slowly changed from being about the disease of history to being the story of his father, sick with that disease." But such declarations of intent are relatively infrequent.

Powers has great novelistic gifts—an ear for speech that expresses character, an intense command of significant realistic details that can easily be assimilated to a larger symbolic pattern, a stylistic range and control that can cope with Alan Turing, Kraitchik's paradox, a ouija board, a grocery list and Walt Disney's magic kingdom—and still sound like one narrator.

In this embarrassment of riches, one senses a writer who has learned from both Updike and Pynchon and seems about to change from sorcerer's apprentice to sorcerer himself. One of the most moving lines in the book is the old riddle "When is a door not a door? When it's ajar." This becomes a wonderful metaphor for the novelistic imagination, and a reader might well be forgiven if he finds himself imagining that Richard Powers himself now stands on a high threshold.

Tom LeClair (review date 25 April 1988)

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SOURCE: "The Systems Novel," in The New Republic, Vol. 198, No. 17, April 25, 1988, pp. 40-2.

[LeClair is an American writer and educator. In the following review of Prisoner's Dilemma, he states that "Powers is the most accomplished practitioner" of what he calls "the 'systems novel,' a fiction that uses postmodern techniques to model the dense and tangled relations of modern history, politics, and science."]

Too few words have been written by and too many about the carved-down school of fiction, 1980s minimalism. Richard Powers's second novel, Prisoner's Dilemma, offers an excellent occasion to identify those novelists first publishing in the decade who fill the gaps the minimalists leave in their fiction and in our literary environment. Among writers such as John Calvin Batchelor (The Further Adventures of Halley's Comet, The Birth of the People's Republic of Antarctica), Ron Loewinsohn (Magnetic Field(s), Where All the Ladders Start), Ted Mooney (Easy Travel to Other Planets), Kathryn Kramer (A Handbook for Visitors from Outer Space), and William Vollmann (You Bright and Risen Angels), Powers is the most accomplished practitioner of what I call the "systems novel," a fiction that uses postmodern techniques to model the dense and tangled relations of modern history, politics, and science.

William Gaddis, Thomas Pynchon, Joseph McElroy, Don DeLillo, and John Barth originated the systems novel in the 1970s with what Barth termed "maximal" books, difficult information-retrieval novels that envisioned huge ecological and cultural wholes. Minimalists, perhaps in response, turned to small personal parts. I present this two-sentence history of two decades because Powers's subject in Prisoner's Dilemma and in his first novel, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, is cultural scale—modern history as a "rift torn between big and little," the massive and the minute. His achievement in both novels is building a place, as he puts it in Prisoner's Dilemma, "where little can trickle into big," where the personal becomes historical.

Powers and the other young system novelists recognize, I think, the dinosaurian demands on diminishing literacy that the maximalists imposed. Powers adapts, makes his novels both large and accessible, formally interesting and profoundly informed, composed and urgent. He creates richly specified little people whose lives trickle into the large motions of history. He connects family plots with the geopolitics of two world wars. And he demonstrates how everyday technologies (photography, movies, computers) and esoteric scientific theories have magnified the scale of contemporary history and politics. Powers's knowledge of "two cultures" and more gives him, along with the other systems novelists, purchase on the future and power over readers who may have thought that less was more.

The best metaphor for Powers's range and purpose is what he calls the "Butterfly Effect, that model of random motion describing how a butterfly flapping its wings in Peking propagates an unpredictable chain reaction of air currents, ultimately altering tomorrow's weather in Duluth." This figurative butterfly was discovered by Edward Lorenz and is explained by James Gleick in his recent book Chaos, an introduction to the new science of chaos that uncovers implausible orders in random events, finds often beautiful patterns among minute particulars, and generates new relations between the far and the near.

Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance (which was nominated for a fiction award by the National Book Critics Circle and won a special citation from the PEN/Hemingway Foundation) is a remarkable work of historical reconstruction, butterflying out from the lives of three European peasants on the eve of World War I to make connections with the larger world and with us, an ocean and decades away. Prisoner's Dilemma is a better novel, more mature and assured, more in control of the narrative frames that Powers employs for his butterfly effect. It is also a more passionate book. A hybrid of Updike's elegiac The Centaur and Barthelme's suspicious The Dead Father, Prisoner's Dilemma revolves around a dying father, a man shrinking in physical size and growing in influence. Edward Hobson—52-year-old former schoolteacher, husband, father of four children, wanderer and collector of information—resembles, Powers quite explicitly suggests late in the novel, his own father, the man who is photographed with his children on the dust jacket.

Prisoner's Dilemma opens with a lyrical and immediately engaging flashback that introduces Hobson's and Powers's scale of interests. Hobson points a weak flashlight into the cold night sky, identifying constellations for his small children and reminding them of the huge spaces between the stars, a strategy of both giving and taking away knowledge that characterizes his life and death. The present of the novel is late 1978. Edward's recurring fainting spells have worsened, and two of his children—Artie, a 25-year-old law student, and Rachel, a 23-year-old actuary—have come home to DeKalb to see him, their mother, and two children still living at home, the just-divorced Lily and high school senior Eddie. During this weekend visit and a Christmas reunion in Chicago, the family tries to decide what to do about Edward's health.

From the Hobsons' response to this common crisis, Powers evolves a subtle plot of sibling and generational conflicts. Its events, like most of our actions, are communications, messages sent and unsent through the Hobson loop. The characters are both ordinary and memorable as Powers delicately manages to make Edward's wife and children individuals and "prisoners," free persons and products of Edward's large influence. The children, like their seemingly simple mother and seemingly complex father, begin as pairs. But as the novel progresses, serious Artie and frivolous Rachel, depressed Lily and happy-go-lucky Eddie exchange qualities, turn into one another, turn into other Hobson pairs, and form by the novel's end a dense Venn diagram of Hobson—and American—family life. Readers accustomed to minimalist mumblers may find the Hobson children an old-fashioned set of talkers and doers, but in fact they are an American family Robinson, marooned by their father's attempt to head a family that can simultaneously exist in and resist Mediamerica.

Edward Hobson, a man often absent to his family when physically present and always in mind when away, appears in three alternating frames: in the 1978 chapters (which constitute about half the novel), in his children's recorded memories of him, and in his tape recordings about "Hobstown," his imaginary community that reveals how history, politics, and science brushed their butterfly wings on Edward over the course of his life. Imbued with the 1939 World's Fair faith in the future, Edward is traumatized by the randomness of survival—stunned by his only brother's death in a stateside military accident and his own accidental presence at Alamogordo when the atomic bomb was tested, an event that, in Powers's imagination, turned the wide and varied world into a single prison.

After the war, Edward attempts to live in and change what he calls, under the influence of Walt Disney, "World World," the pleasure prison of entertainment America constructed to counter global facts. As "the last generalist," Edward instructs his high school students in "big picture" history and uncovers the secrets of America's past, including the shameful internment of Japanese-Americans during the war. Frustrated by school boards, Edward makes his family his project, withdrawing from success to make his kids achievers, requiring them "to know everything" and illustrating the hopelessness of such knowledge. Emerging from the young Hobsons' memories is a tortured man who feels the world is "already lost" and yet tries to love it, who loves his little family but loses himself in imagined Hobstown.

Teaching the young not to be taught—that is Edward's paradoxical effect. In Three Farmers Powers advances the theory of cultural "trigger points," paradoxical events that occur "when the way a process develops loops back on the process and applies itself to its own source." Gödel's metamathematics, proving the incompleteness of any mathematics—including Gödel's—is one of Powers's examples. Hobson is a trigger personality, a father who proves to his children that he is not needed and thereby, in Powers's paradox, proves that his lesson of fatherly obsolescence is needed. Sentimental intellectual, master game-player, self-canceling authority, jailer and jail-house lawyer, Hobson is the most fascinating and imprisoning character I've met and not met (see his effect?) in years.

A former computer programmer and a student, it seems clear, of Douglas Hofstadter's dizzying recursions in Gödel, Escher, Bach, Powers takes his title from a game theory problem Edward presents one morning to his children. The problem posits two players in a mutually threatening situation. Their dilemma is whether to trust or to betray each other. The Hobson children see themselves as prisoners of a parallel dilemma as they confront their father's declining health: Should they trust him to eventually accept it or betray his independence?

As the novel progresses, the children discover on their own and learn from their father ways around what Powers identifies as a "Hobson's choice," the all of trust or the nothing of betrayal. Powers's butterfly accomplishment is connecting this family's dilemma with the global Hobson's choice of mutual assured destruction and with the Hobson children's responses to American culture. Will they choose the all of mass entertainment, consensus politics, and technological fantasies? The nothing of nonparticipation? Some compromise or alternative? These questions Powers leaves open at the novel's end.

"Crackpot Realism" is how the oldest Hobson child describes his response to the prisoner's dilemma, his trust in the paradoxical and unreasonable. The crackpot with his crazy theories of, say, chaos may just give us metasolutions to apparently binding realities. Powers is as informed about realities as Hobson could ask, and he has a crackpot imagination to rise above them and let us look back at our often imprisoning common sense. If he's not as artful a maker of sentences as some of his systems-novel colleagues, and even though he chooses to give Prisoner's Dilemma an unnecessarily plotted ending, Richard Powers is in 1988—like Thomas Pynchon with his historical V. and his political Crying of Lot 49 in 1966—a major American novelist.

Maureen Howard (review date 14 May 1988)

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SOURCE: "Facing the Footage," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 246, No. 19, May 14, 1988, pp. 680-84.

[Howard is an American author, critic, and editor whose works include Expensive Habits (1986). In the following excerpt, she details the multiple texts within Prisoner's Dilemma.]

Prisoner's Dilemma begins with the stars. On a summer night a father demonstrates the celestial bodies to his children. A father instructing: Ed Hobson is, in fact, a high-school history teacher who is as familiar with Ursa Major as he is with the casts of 1940s movie musicals, his mind an omnium-gatherum, mostly of American culture, but the optical accident of pictures in the sky and a clever game of cards can be accommodated in his view. It is a view of the world made manageable through knowledge—counting by eights, Robert's Rules of Order, Shays' Rebellion or quoting great lines of not-so-great verse. Any Hobson at any moment could tell us it was Donna Reed in It's a Wonderful Life or finish off a quatrain of a Robert Service parody. At every meal four quick-witted kids have fed on their father's glut of information, and on paradoxes and palindromes, but life as a quiz show is no longer trivial pursuit. Ed Hobson denies the strange illness which has long rendered him unemployable and plagued the family fortunes. Now his children are presented with the big puzzle: What has made this inventive loner, this lovable, irritating paterfamilias into a swooning, often comatose figure whose only theater of operation is an A-frame house in De Kalb, Illinois? Dad is jailed, we might say. That answer is flat, given the dimensions of Powers's novel. Hobson's wife and children are prisoners, too, of his unrelenting puns and conundrums. With all its vitality, Big Ed's classroom has trapped them in a set of private references.

Artie, the eldest Hobson, at present in law school, has the first say (it's that scene under the stars): "My father is doing what he does best, doing the only thing he knew how to do in this life. He is quizzing us, plaguing his kids with questions…. We are out here alone, on a silver rock under the blank vacuum, with nothing but his riddles for our thin atmosphere." This is a memory. Sorting through his father's effects, Artie takes an elegiac tone, asking "why trying to know left him so fiercely alone and lost," and hearing one of his old man's answers, partial and insufficient, to "try to figure out where history has set you down." In the opening chapter, more afterword than foreword, the son resorts to the father's mode: "And I will ask what remains of my family how a person could move through life repeating, every year, the old perennials, the same chestnut riddles, the adored ore, the when-is-a-door-not-a-door? Then I will tell them, straight out, the answer, the treaty: when his mind is an evasive urgency. And ajar." Before the novel's brilliant unraveling we are granted aphoristic answers, but they are dense as Emersonian homilies, more complex suggestions than solutions, leaving the door to Ed Hobson's life of energetic failure, indeed, ajar.

In Prisoner's Dilemma Powers is interested in multiple texts, as he was in his first novel, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, our brightest work of fiction since Gravity's Rainbow. In Three Farmers the quest, first to identify then to construe the historic moment when August Sander photographed three young Austrians on the eve of World War I, runs parallel to the zany pursuit of an intriguing redhead, costumed as Sarah Bernhardt and glimpsed for one moment in Boston on a quite contemporary Veterans' Day. Where will such disparate stories take us? Far, in Powers's fiction, to where the imagination and/or historical investigation take us; where "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" took Keats; where a fleeting glance at Beatrice took Dante: to the place where the world that constructs us is reconstructed by us, to a figuring out where history has set us down. Parallel stories do intersect in Three Farmers as they do in Bleak House or Lolita. The thrill of coincidence is that it is almost magic. The decoding of the Sander photograph, the history it contains—real, inventive, interpretive—does, to our satisfaction and amazement, come to bear on the mock love story.

Prisoner's Dilemma presents us with a similar system. Artie Hobson's story of his father's life runs side by side with a text called "Hobstown," a consuming project that Ed Hobson has spoken into an old dictaphone over the years. We read Artie's version as a traditional first-person route, full of insights and a good deal of self-revelation, while the father's text is the creation of an alternate world. "Hobstown" is an enchantment in which Pop re-creates himself as Bud Middleton, an all-American boy. Bud—the stand-in, the double—is to be featured with his all-American family in promotions of the 1939 World's Fair, including a film on the glories of the Westinghouse time capsule, which Bud's dad calls "science's greatest gift to the world of the future." Powers, at 31, delivers a loaded World's Fair, as loaded as the time capsule buried in Flushing Meadows with the smug key to our accomplishments. Bud, a 13-year-old, is a perfect conduit for that naïve vision, an ideal fan of the technology that transformed "an ash dump into a model of the future."

We cut back to yet another text, the familiar third-person narrative of family life in which Artie is just one of the cast. The kids assemble in De Kalb. Being Hobsons, they are trained in speculation and have set the game plan to get Pop to a hospital when the old historian (he's only 51) comes downstairs, looking chipper, and in a masterful evasion gets them to contemplate the problem of the prisoner's dilemma, the damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't proposition concerning trust…. An entertaining business—all choices are equally risky, and the kids are at it again, figuring, arguing, their mother distraught with their disputes.

As a family story, Prisoner's Dilemma is smart about this smart-talking family but open and compassionate too. We might think of Salinger's Glass family, less damaged, transferred to the heartland. Each child, while distinctly a Hobson, has made it out of the system. Artie has gone to law school (although that "on track" choice is not necessarily commendable in Hobsonian terms). Rachel parlays her mathematical gifts into work as an unorthodox actuary, but is hopelessly caught up in wisecracks, death-defying foot-on-the-pedal ploys. Where Rachel is tough, Lily is vulnerable. Divorced, returned home in defeat, Lily is the only Hobson who's had any real experience out there. Now she is paralyzed, often closed in her room, writing unsent letters to the woman next door, watching her neighbor check and recheck her locks. To Mrs. Swallow, Lily unfolds the history of her girlish marriage and the knowledge that she, too, understands her father is "inventing a protest, an alternative history, all the details tailored to suit him, alone." Lily appeals to Mrs. Swallow for some reason to live, even if it is only to "teach me that love for the trap that keeps you rattling the locks, refusing to quit resisting, to give up the senseless ritual as lost."

Come late to the table, Eddie Jr., still in high school, has escaped the set-apart feeling of his sibs. He is blessedly ordinary. Ailene, Ed Sr.'s wife, is an audience to what she has begot and her husband has put into play. "Mother is abiding," Lily writes. It is a fair summary of a woman who has loved and suffered the vicissitudes of life with a smalltime, inoperative genius. Gently, Powers often includes her with the kids. Wisely, he knows that as the novel progresses toward the father's quite glorious demise, Ailene's sorrow must be separated out. Her loyalty to the man is of another order. She knows what Artie reconstructs, but not what ails her husband or where his escapist tactics will end.

The beginning of Ed Hobson's end was at Alamogordo, where, as a plain soldier, he stumbled out of an all-night acey-deucy game to see, in Artie's words, "a light more luminous than noon. The desert blooms…. The light effuses a bright, warm matrix of desire…. Everything has changed except my father's power to make any difference…. For my father, the brightness hangs on like this forever. For my dad, it stays bright for good."

To name Alamogordo, radiation poisoning, to hear the famous Oppenheimer quote from the Bhagavad Gita—"I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds"—to disclose the central event in Ed Hobson's life, the event that would make the Westinghouse time capsule into an unhappy bit of camp, does not close out this beautifully complex work. Diagnosis is not remedial. These answers remain only as illuminating, or as evasive, as Artie's (and Powers's) wise take on the family, for it comes to them all at once that "Dad's sickness, from day one, came from his being the last man in the Northern Hemisphere who refused to think of the past as over. He had never followed the universal, self-protecting practice of flattening out the past, abstracting it, rendering it neuter and quaint." Neuter and quaint: a definition of nostalgia, the great American sickness.

Why, then, Hobson's cute rewrite of history, his alternate world? We read "Hobstown," breathtaking in its implication and invention, before the kids hear Pop's posthumous voice off the reels. Artie has referred to it as "Erewhon," but it is at once grander and more immediate than Butler's chip-on-the-shoulder whack at Victorian England. "Hobstown" is full of wonder, from little Bud at the World's Fair to the war, with all its grandstand bravery sucking us in like a neat old movie. But too much tragedy looms, and the lead role, Bud Middleton's, is passed on to young Ed Hobson himself. Enter, to sustain the American war effort, to project the American future, Walt Disney.

Yes, Walt. It is a stunning conception, at first hilarious with its grain of truth (Disney studios did make some of our propaganda flicks), but this Disney is a powerful fictional creation, an Undershaft, a Charlie Kane, In Three Farmers, Powers used Henry Ford's Peace Ship of 1915 as a historic/comedic connection. Here, Walt Disney becomes the fabricator of World World, a prefiguration of we-know-what: that "live-in monument to our ability to cross over from the unlivable emptiness of Here into a smaller world." World World, set down in the corn belt, is a magic alternative, a mini-America superior to the real thing, where Ed Hobson, chosen from all the G.I.s, will star—along with Mickey Mouse. Our greatest celebrity, the mouse, will conduct him away from the sham of World World, which now seems as shabby as a grade-school diorama. Mickey reveals to Eddie a vision of the future that is as hellish and recognizable as our own post-Alamogordo existence. Meanwhile, Walt prattles on, advising a safe, check-your-locks disengagement from the forces of evil, a moral move away from inner city to comfortable suburban concerns, but Eddie tapes over his message: "Let's start again, from scratch. Let us make a small world, a miniature of a miniature, say an even half-dozen, since we screw up everything larger. Let's model the daily workings of an unremarkable, mid-sized family, and see if we can't get it right. A family of six."

The novel's circle not yet complete, Powers extends this lovely metaphor of responsibility; each child in turn continues the text. "Somewhere, my father is teaching us the names of the constellations," Artie says. But wait: In a half-page chapter Richard Powers takes the mike and we are in yet another world, this the real De Kalb: "Dad has just died, of cancer, the previous winter…. Some of us blame his assignment at Alamogordo … I, the middle son … I have had an idea for how I might begin to make sense of the loss. The plans for a place to hide out in long enough to learn how to come back. Call it Powers World." A signature—van Eyck in the mirror, Hitchcock's brief appearance, Hockney's sneaker, Nabokov's V. Sirin inserted in the text.

But wait: We are never told, in the many solutions of Prisoner's Dilemma, if the reference to Hobson's choice alludes to the Milton elegy for the fellow who lined up his horses at the stable door and gave customers no choice or the Charles Laughton movie. They don't check out. They don't cancel each other, either. And, by gum, we should have been thinking all along of Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan: "A law of nature is a precept, or general rule, found out by reason, by which a man is forbidden to do that which is destructive of his life, or taketh away the means of preserving the same; and to omit that by which he thinketh it may be best preserved." Prisoner's Dilemma is a paradigm for the nuclear game, the only door left ajar by Hobbes's enlightened self-preservation, the dictates of right reason. Or, is Artie's last oracular pronouncement on his father's legacy the hard answer: "What we can't bring about in no way releases us from what we must." We finish this novel, as we do all grand fiction, ready to figure on.

Maureen Howard (review date Winter 1988)

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SOURCE: "Semi-Samizdat and Other Matters," in The Yale Review, Vol. 77, No. 2, Winter, 1988, pp. 243-58.

[In the following excerpt, Howard favorably assesses Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance.]

[It] is not curious that a first novel that I consider the most alive and original in years, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance by Richard Powers, had to win a Rosenthal Award (for work that's been overlooked) as a corrective. Published by Beech Tree Press, a fine imprint of a very commercial house (Morrow), this intricate work was never touted like the Yuppie novels that will pass as surely as the kiwi slice that adorned nouvelle cuisine. (Rich, disaffected kids seem to amuse and never disturb, like mall music.) We can only imagine that Powers, who is not yet thirty—he must have two heads or not wear Giorgio Armani suits to good effect—is condemned to write so amazingly well offstage. Perhaps he has chosen to hide out, as J. D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon did. Three Farmers is about history. I might even say it is a pursuit of history in the manner of Hawthorne: a compelling need to examine the past and, in that reach of the imagination, to face up to it and get it off one's back.

Both Powers's narrator (nameless) and a benched writer, Peter Mays, come across the same photo of three farmers taken by one of the pioneers of that craft, August Sander. One copy is in the Detroit Museum, and the other, Mays's, is thrown in with family stuff. That difference will be significant, for one of Powers's concerns is: How can we come at history and its artifacts, which are so endowed with the stamp of cultural and aesthetic approval, and yet feel a renewed urgency, a connection there? And to what extent are we responsible for discovering, in the seductive pursuit of merely personal history, a larger message? If I make Three Farmers sound heady and Powers a touch brainy—it is, and he is. But at the same time, the novel is also enormous fun to read, Pynchonesque in its vitality and splendid engagement with language. We've grown so accustomed to the young writing down to us and to themselves, taking all the pressure off with stances that are chic, cool, or rural, that reading Three Farmers is an exhilarating workout.

One of Powers's gifts, a complement to his entertaining complexity in matters of plot, is his ability to say, often and directly, what he intends, knowing that the deeper mysteries of fiction will in no way be diminished:

The photo caption touched off a memory: Three farmers on their way to a dance, 1914. The date sufficed to show that they were not going to their expected dance. I was not going to my expected dance. We would all be taken blindfolded into a field somewhere in this tortured century and made to dance until we'd had enough. Dance until we dropped.

The novel is made comfortably large once again by a writer like Powers, who doesn't flinch at commentary or the essayistic turn:

Yeats sat in the house on opening night [of Ubu Roi], cheering the play on against its detractors. Yet afterward, he wrote of feeling an extreme sadness. After the refinements of his own verse, of Bernhardt and Brahms, there had to be a reaction against so much beauty. Sadly, he wrote the century's obstetric: "After us, the Savage God."

But Jarry and the avant-garde of the first decade were not so savage as they first appear. They are not so much antibourgeois as bourgeois ad absurdum. The artistic vanguard wedded the logic of the middle class to that class's unadmitted dreams. Jarry merely emphasized the underside of the intimacy brought on by mechanical reproduction: the camera, in encouraging us to identify with the photographed scene, always lied. It cropped, it recolored, it double-exposed. Lenses blurred the distinction between private dream and public, mass-reproduced logic.

All such stops in this novel are beautifully built in, and not mere asides or stage directions: all that accrues to the two young men chasing down the implications of the Sander photograph further enriches their reading and ours, as though in the recorded moment the old lens atop the tripod gives us back ourselves and we can, for some short duration, undo that which is mechanical and unlearned in our response. Not the least of Powers's skills is his ability to render historical figures without self-serving (Woody Allen) or arch (Gore Vidal) effect. Henry Ford's commercial genius and political cunning are part of a heritage in full possession of the narrator; while Sarah Bernhardt's legend, an absolute blank to Peter Mays, must be discovered with the thrill of a boy digging up arrowheads.

Jane Sutherland (review date 21-27 April 1989)

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SOURCE: "Hobson's Last Tape," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4490, April 21-27, 1989, p. 436.

[In the following excerpt, Sutherland offers a negative assessment of Prisoner's Dilemma.]

There is great reach in Prisoner's Dilemma, but little grasp. Like his first, Three Farmers on their Way to a Dance … Richard Powers's second novel aims to create a poetics of history for an entire era; but in neither book has he fully managed to get his material into shape. The grand gestures of both are, therefore, oddly smudged. For all its stoutness, Prisoner's Dilemma seems a frail and lethargic vehicle for the task it addresses.

That task is nothing less than sorting out the implications of the Second World War. The scene is De Kalb, Illinois, in 1978, where the four children of Eddie Hobson have foregathered to witness the last stages of his fight against the falling sickness which has plagued him since 1945. Eddie himself is a kind of Socratic nanny to his offspring, plaguing them with conundrums they cannot master, torturing them with clues that the world is not kind, that something has gone wrong with the world. His central weapon in these assaults is the calculus of self-interest known as the Prisoner's Dilemma, which boils down to a question of trust. How can you trust another person? How can you trust another person to trust you?

Eddie's answer is contained in a series of tapes he leaves behind him after escaping from a local hospital and hitchhiking to New Mexico, where his difficulties with the century began at Alamogordo. For Eddie, the solution to the Prisoner's Dilemma lies in the past. In some detail, his tapes describe the making of an imaginary film in 1944 by an unreal Walt Disney; the star of You Are the War is the young Eddie Hobson, whose role Disney models on George Bailey in Frank Capra's script for the yet-unmade It's a Wonderful Life. Bailey (as eventually played by James Stewart) is a populist Everyman whose presence is essential for the maintenance of community and the triumph of the American way of life; and You Are the War expands that lesson to encompass the whole world. "Only connect!" says the loving (and historically false) Walt Disney, and the world will be saved. The Prisoner's Dilemma will be solved when everyone realizes that self-interest cannot win the day on our finite planet. And at this point the real, dying, elderly Eddie Hobson's tape stops short.

Just what his children are meant to make of this odd fabrication it is hard to know. Though Powers spends most of Prisoner's Dilemma on them, the novel repeatedly fails precisely at those points when connections must be made between Eddie Hobson's lifelong metaphysical hunt and the tedious mundanity of his children's lives in 1978. Matters are not helped by the children's mutual admiration, which Powers gives vent to in scenes so incestuously glutinous that one is painfully reminded of the Glass family in J. D. Salinger's later tales of narcissism unchained. More seriously, by fabricating a fake George Bailey, Powers trivializes Capra's mythopoeic chef d'oeuvre.

Patrick Parrinder (review date 18 May 1989)

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SOURCE: "Austward Ho," in London Review of Books, Vol. 11, No. 10, May 18, 1989, pp. 12-13.

[In the following excerpt, Parrinder states that "Prisoner's Dilemma is an intricate, wide-ranging tapestry drawing on the weightiest of historical themes; it is only a pity that its attempt to remythologise the most portentous of modern American events is so heavy-handed."]

Richard Powers, as readers of Three Farmers on their Way to a Dance will know, is [a] young novelist full of ambition and ideas. What Prisoner's Dilemma sadly lacks, however, is [Paul] Auster's stylistic restraint and mastery of pace. Powers's prose bristles with verbal japes, hair-raising alliterations, manic allusiveness (the phrase 'a persistent grass-knollist' is the novel's one reference to the Kennedy assassination) and out-of-control metaphors. The author overwrites to such a degree that he gives the impression of being deeply insecure about the power of his words. What I found perhaps the novel's best joke—a character born in 'one of those Oak Hill Park Forest Elm Grove places', in other words, a Chicago suburb—is spoilt by Powers's inability to leave well alone: he has no less than three shots at it.

Admittedly, the frenetic verbal texture of Prisoner's Dilemma reflects the nervous, hyped-up private language of the family of six (a mother, a father and four overgrown teenagers) portrayed here. There is a clear continuity between narrative and dialogue, as well as some hints that the novel may have an autobiographical basis. Eddie Hobson, the father, is the central figure. He is a sick and disillusioned ex-history teacher who is nursing some terrible secret hidden from, but endlessly guessed at by, the rest of his family. Eddie is, moreover, a fantasist whose whole life appears to be devoted to the diaries and tapes recording his imaginative creation, 'Hobstown', which again his family is not allowed to see. Just what is Pop up to—and do the kids really want to know? All is finally revealed, despite endless prevaricating but we are left uncertain as to whether the waiting was justified.

Three Farmers on their Way to a Dance was a historical fantasy in which very ordinary characters were caught up in some major events of the 1914–18 War, notably the German invasion of Belgium and the episode of Henry Ford's Peace Ship. Prisoner's Dilemma brings a similar approach to some of the events of 1939–45. Here Walt Disney is made to play the part of Henry Ford, the simple American businessman launching into a grandiose attempt at world salvation. Chronologically, the story begins at the 1939 World's Fair, with its 'Futurama' exhibit (showing the world as it was meant to be in 1960) and the Westinghouse Time Capsule which was buried in the earth, to be opened in the year 6939. Bud Middleton, the juvenile lead in a film advertising the World's Fair, became the teenage Pop Hobson's hero. Eventually Hobson fantasises that he had landed the Bud Middleton part in an unfinished Disney spectacular, You are the War, made in the middle of World War Two and introducing Mickey Mouse as the teenager's guide to the dazzling, high-tech world of a peaceful future. People could be persuaded to stop killing one another, so Walt Disney is supposed to have thought, by being made to revisit 'Futurama'.

The real Walt Disney, Powers implies, restricted his contribution to the war effort to run-of-the-mill propaganda cartoons. Certainly he never filmed in De Kalb, Illinois, the site of 'Hobstown', which also happens to be the place where they invented barbed wire; De Kalb is the Hobson family's home town. Eddie Hobson's actual war, as his children discover, was spent as an undistinguished aircraft mechanic servicing B-29s at their home bases in Texas and other South-Western states. The clue to the extravagant 'Hobstown' fantasy turns out to lie in his posting, in July 1945, to a back-of-beyond desert airbase somewhere in the wilds of New Mexico.

Thirty years later, Eddie is dying of an inoperable cancer. Refusing hospital treatment, he walks out on his family without explanation and heads for the South-West. His younger son follows his trail and eventually reaches the Los Alamos National Museum, the National Atomic Museum near Albuquerque, and the smaller nuclear exhibit at White Sands National Monument close to the Trinity Site where the first atomic bomb was tested. Pop, who had witnessed the explosion, has apparently gone back to die at the missile-range-turned-theme-park which had served as his real-life Futurama. Prisoner's Dilemma is an intricate, wide-ranging tapestry drawing on the weightiest of historical themes; it is only a pity that its attempt to remythologise the most portentous of modern American events is so heavy-handed.

Curt Suplee (review date 25 August 1991)

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SOURCE: "Lost in the Strands of Time," in Book World—The Washington Post, Vol. XXI, No. 34, August 25, 1991, p. 5.

[In the following review, Suplee offers a positive assessment of The Gold Bug Variations.]

This enormous book [The Gold Bug Variations] may be the most lavishly ambitious American novel since Gravity's Rainbow. That it succeeds on its own intricate intellectual terms (which will not be every reader's) is a considerable triumph; that it also functions as an invitingly readable story is an outright marvel.

Or, rather, two stories: Richard Powers's third novel is a narrative double-helix of interwoven tales. One, set in the late 1950s, follows Stuart Ressler, a celebrated young biologist who has a good shot at cracking the then-still-mysterious genetic code. The other takes place nearly 30 years later, in the novel's present, as a New York librarian named Jan O'Deigh and her boyfriend Franklin Todd discover Ressler, now a taciturn recluse, working the night shift tending computers at a data-processing mill.

What happened? Why did the cryptic Ressler forsake his beloved DNA research and the almost certain prospect of fame to bury himself in some cybernetic oubliette? Was it the guilt-lorn affair he had with a married university colleague? Or some horror in the science itself? And what is the mesmeric hold he has over Jan and Franklin, for whose screwball romance Ressler serves as the powerful catalyst? The answers to these questions, past and present, comprise the book's two seriocomic story lines.

That is already quite ample material for a first-class novel. But as fans of Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance (1985) and particularly Prisoner's Dilemma (1988), will expect, it is by no means all. Powers—as exuberantly cerebral as Barth, Pynchon or Coover—specializes in a fascinating innovation on the novel-of-ideas: He imbeds his characters' actions in a world in which academic abstractions come palpably alive in realistic settings. Thus, the "prisoner's dilemma" (a familiar staple of undergraduate game theory that examines whether cooperation or self-interest is most beneficial in the long run) becomes the painfully literal condition of existence for that novel's protagonist.

In this book, the technique is similar but the thematic stakes are even higher, since the novel's metaphysical reach extends (are you sitting down?) through chance and necessity right up to one of the biggest questions there is: What is the purport of life, if life results from nothing more (or less) profound than the blind selfish multiplication of a few nucleic acids?

Not surprisingly, the metaphorical superstructure that supports these themes is so massive that it constantly threatens to crush the realistic exposition. Overarching the action are two mighty motifs: The way in which DNA's simple four-character chemical codes endlessly proliferate variation on life's basic patterns; and the genes' acoustic analogue, Bach's Goldberg Variations, which evolve into a hymn to unity-in-difference. (A mutational hybrid of Bach's title and the code-breaker in Poe's "The Gold Bug" give this book its name.) In the course of 639 pages, these metaphors become so cross-bred and elaborated that virtually every aspect of the two-tiered plot turns on some kind of coding accident or chance mutation, whether it's an unexpected computer-programming bug, reproductive anomaly, misunderstood remark or ghastly disease.

This complexity has its cost. Because the principal narrator is librarian Jan ("a gas station attendant of the mind"), the book has all-purpose license to digress into science history, set-piece rhapsodies on DNA's insatiable fugue, bits of etymology, shards of poetry, riddles, sudden disquisitions on Theophrastus or Mendel or von Neumann, genetic diagrams, gruesome puns, musical scores and, yes, more. The reader is expected to handle not only the arcane argot of genetics (haplotypes, alleles, polypeptides, base-pair sequences) but a substantial amount of musical terminology (rubatos, sarabandes, chaconnes and chromatics) and a little computer lingo as well.

Moreover, one has to be ready at any point for the action to stop abruptly so that Powers can wax profusely, redundantly lyrical over the interlocking figurative possibilities of his metaphors. Thus the genetic code is "a tie bordering on magic … the physical chunk embodying the ethereal plan, the seed distilling the idea of organism. The first link in the chain from Word to flesh, philosopher's stone, talisman, elixir, incantation, the old myth of knowledge incorporated in things." And so on. And often.

Those prepared to brave this forbidding forebrain thicket, however, will find themselves superbly rewarded. For all his pedantic proclivities, Powers has a full array of conventional novelistic talents, and his book has a wonderful roster of genuinely memorable characters.

They may be egregiously brainy, and their dialogue may often sound like Oscar Wilde on "It's Academic," but they are realistic and sympathetic and complicated. Ressler's love affair is fleshy indeed (lying in bed, he can only feel "his legs because they do not touch hers … so conspicuous is her solidity by its absence next to him"), as are the deaths, ecstasies, sundry catastrophes and heartbreaks in this long story. Powers is one of the hardest-working stylists in any language, and there is scarcely a sentence in this gigantic book that has not been tuned for maximum intensity or does not contain an intriguing figure or arresting rhythm. And he is marvelously adept at carefully differentiating characters' voices—from the creepy self-mocking monologues of Keith Tuckwell, a manic ad-man and Jan's erstwhile lover to the disjunctive rant of one of Ressler's co-workers going insane.

Given the choice, though, Powers veers to the conceptual. So when describing the view over Manhattan, for example, where Updike might give us a water-color roofscape of texture and hue, Powers goes for socio-synopsis. "Four hundred radial miles of contiguous squalor, a deep brown demographic smear, a disappointment per square mile that left the three of us several digits to the right of significance."

And ultimately, the enigma of significance is what Powers is after. Indeed, for sheer thematic aspiration, Gold Bug can contend comfortably with Moby Dick: Ressler is wrestling, Ahab-like, not only with the secret of genetic coding, but with the meaning of the process itself. A whale of a paradox: For all nature's inexhaustible profusion and intricate complexity, there is no purpose in it. Evolution is a tautology: Survival, not of the fittest, but merely of the survivors. "Pattern can produce purpose, but it does so without final causes. Destination, design is a lie … The only ethic left is random play, trial and error."

How are we to behave in the face of a biosphere that lacks even indifference, whose "whole exploding catalogue rests on inanimate, chance self-ignition?" This book's many characters and sub-plots provide an index of possible answers. But none so admirable as Ressler's own, which might serve as Powers' aesthetic credo: "Nothing deserved wonder so much as our capacity to feel it."

Louis B. Jones (review date 25 August 1991)

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SOURCE: "Bach Would've Liked This Molecule," in The New York Times Book Review, August 25, 1991, pp. 9-10.

[Jones is an American novelist whose works include Ordinary Money (1990). In the following review, he faults the numerous puns and slightness of characterization in The Gold Bug Variations, but states that the work "is a dense, symmetrical symphony in which no note goes unsounded."]

In his third novel, Richard Powers is up to something very unusual. The Gold Bug Variations is a little bit like Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, in that it carries us on a cerebral quest for a philosophical heffalump; it's a little bit Borgesian in its love of the complex and cryptic; it's a little bit Joycean in its size and difficulty. It's a "science" novel, but closer to science fiction in its inventiveness, its hardware vocabulary and software characterization, and in the uncritical pleasure it takes in the purely clever, the nifty.

The narration alternates between two time frames. In 1957 at the University of Illinois, a biologist, Stuart Ressler, is decoding the DNA molecule and falling in love with his (happily married) colleague Dr. Jeanette Koss. She gives him a Glenn Gould recording of Bach's "Goldberg" Variations that changes his life; but the immediate suspense hangs on whether or not Ressler's superior will allow him to take the unprecedented step of conducting his experiments in vitro rather than in vivo.

Meanwhile, in the mid-1980's in Brooklyn, Mr. Powers's first-person narrator, Jan O'Deigh, is joining her new boyfriend, Franklin Todd, in solving the mystery of this same Stuart Ressler—who 25 years later has sunk to anonymity in a dead-end, graveyard-shift job as a computer programmer. Why, they ask, has Dr. Ressler forsaken scientific glory for obscurity? Of course Jan and Franklin are falling in love too; the quadrilateral symmetry of the two love affairs sustains the deeper structure of the book. And the recurring four-note pattern in the base line of the Goldberg Variations is mystically analogous to the sequences of nucleotides that write life's script in the double helix of the DNA molecule. It's a cabalistic kind of text, obsessed with its own numerology and metaphors, for which character and plot exist only as background.

Indeed, the purpose of this plot setup is less to tell a story than to explore structural possibilities, codes, metaphors, ingenuity in language. Mr. Powers has allowed metaphor to work everywhere on the narrative. There are no depths here; the effects are all superficial and immediate, like a stand-up comedian's routine—except that rather than jokes we have brilliant tropes. The joy to be taken in reading the book is, like the pleasure of studying crystal multiplication, in seeing a pattern swarm mosaically over everything, watching a stencil laid over life.

Just seeing so much sheer cleverness packed into 639 pages is a remarkable experience. The novel reads as if it's been written from a room-size collection of index cards, so dense is each paragraph. Almost every sentence is a heroic tour de force built around a fascinating gimmick of language, usually a pun or a metaphor derived from the figurative possibilities of scientific technical language, liberated from the usual literary attention to connotation or elegance.

Indeed, if one were to have a small complaint, amid this stunning virtuosity, one might wish for fewer puns. What is it about the pun that is so impolite, so discourse-damaging, so unfair that it must smirk? Why does a pun always have an effect like being pinched? Perhaps because it calls attention to the pathetically mechanical nature of our language, which we would rather think of as sublime. Both the narrator and the other characters in The Gold Bug Variations are unable to resist puns; sometimes whole paragraphs are planned just to get off a good one. In fact, all of the novel is a kind of elaborate pun—but justified by the fact that the very theme of the book is the mechanical, semiotic structure of our lives.

Also, one might complain that the characterization is a bit slight. The dialogue often consists of sustained wisecrack contests or technojargon, even as people fall into each other's arms. When these scientists have sex—though they're passionate, and a few beakers are broken in the privacy of utility closets—nevertheless the descriptions are largely in terms of enzymes, glands, hemodynamics. Mr. Powers isn't interested in the subtleties of characterization but in the larger pattern. He writes fiction that aspires to the condition of music, austere and abstract, without being humorless.

There are some lovely scenes, such as when a book-scattering tornado hits the campus and a microbiologist undergoes a dark night of the soul locked in the library overnight; and a farcical and sad episode when a biologist commits suicide and takes all the lab rats with him. There are also some clever, inscrutable twists that haunt the reader. Why is it that, of the two main female characters, Jeanette is barren and Jan has been sterilized, so that, in a book about reproduction, they can't reproduce? And what is the significance of the lesbian flirtation at the end, which had not been foreshadowed in the earlier pages? And how are we to take Jan's quitting the job she loves and risking poverty to take up the study of genetics at home, self-directed? Are we to think this noble or kooky?

All these are mysteries, ripe for the scholarly reader. Like a Borges library, The Gold Bug Variations has everything: Paracelsus, Schrödinger waves, Zeno, German, French, Latin, musicology, quantum mechanics, Flemish painting, staves of musical notation, poems written in computer language, Keynes, ozone depletion, Tesla coils, Yeats, Pythagoras, Poe. Mr. Powers's page is Velcro. Every allusion possible is compulsory. His novel is a dense, symmetrical symphony in which no note goes unsounded.

Michael Harris (review date 29 September 1991)

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SOURCE: "Take the DNA Train," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 29, 1991, pp. 2, 11.

[In the following review, Harris suggests that The Gold Bug Variations may appeal to a limited audience for whom it is "essential" reading.]

Let's begin with the Youngblood Hawke theory of fiction, promulgated by the hero of a forgotten Herman Wouk novel. To engage us seriously, says Hawke, a rumpled, expansive young writer modeled on Thomas Wolfe, a story must offer the equivalent of a "lovely, helpless girl tied to the railroad tracks … the wind blowing her skirts up around those pretty legs … and that train thundering around the mountain pass."

Hawke goes on: "Dostoyevsky tied that girl on the tracks in the first 50 pages of every book he ever wrote. Henry James … never wrote about anything else, hardly. Dickens had … avalanches coming down from both sides. Joyce didn't, no. That's why only English teachers read him."

Granted that Joyce has lasted and Wolfe has not, where does this leave Richard Powers' brilliant, ambitious third novel? Will only English teachers, molecular biologists, computer programmers, musicologists and art historians respond to it? Or is there something in these dizzying 639 pages of wit and erudition to make the rest of us care, too?

There is. Powers, in effect, ties all humanity to the tracks; his train carries the heaviest metaphysical freight. It's the same train whose far-off whistle alarmed fundamentalist Christians a century ago, rumbling down the rails laid by Darwin's On the Origin of Species. Now it's highballing toward us, stoked by James Watson's and Francis Crick's discovery of the double-helix structure of the DNA molecule in 1953.

That scientific feat, Powers asserts, ushered in a supreme moment that most of us have simply failed to recognize. For 3 billion years, in a random, unrepeatable and infinitely complex process, the four nucleotide bases, or chemical building blocks, that make up all life on Earth have reproduced themselves and mutated into bacteria, dinosaurs and, finally, a species that right now is cracking the genetic code that has shaped all that behavior from the beginning, including this circular act of self-discovery.

Stuart Ressler recognizes the moment and tries to seize it. A gifted, ascetic young researcher, he arrives at the University of Illinois in 1957 to join a team taking one of the first whacks at the code. He is inspired by Poe's story "The Gold Bug," which is about code-breaking, and by Bach's Goldberg Variations, a recording of which he is given by Jeanette Koss, a married colleague. Ressler comes very close to success—close enough to get his picture in Life magazine.

Then what? In 1983, we find him in a dead-end, grave-yard-shift job at a computer database firm in Brooklyn. A fellow worker, Franklin Todd, senses Ressler's buried immensity and enlists librarian Jan O'Deigh in cracking the code that this celibate recluse has become. (Their search for the reasons why Ressler dropped out recalls Powers' first novel, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, in which a 1914 photograph of young men about to be swallowed up by World War I is the subject of an inquiry into how our whole century lost its innocence.)

Todd and O'Deigh fall in love, like Ressler and Koss 25 years before them. The troubled histories of these two relationships intertwine like the complementary helixes of DNA.

Moreover, the novel is structured exactly like the Goldbergs, Ressler's favorite metaphor for the life process: a chapter for each of the 32 variations—arias, dances, arabesques, canons; a repetitive pattern that spawns dazzling variety.

Ressler has another metaphor: Jacob's ladder, the biblical dream stairway between Earth and Heaven. But his research doesn't point to anything divine in the biblical sense. We are the product of processes that don't care about us as individuals, as would-be immortal souls. Even our species is merely something the four bases have cooked up for their own convenience. The human experiment need not succeed; in fact, we may be discovering our genetic heritage only in time to learn that we have tampered with it, and fouled our environment, beyond recovery.

Like the rest of late-20th-Century civilization, Powers' characters, with their near-genius IQs and access to libraries and computers, are swamped with information. They yearn for values, which alone can transform information into knowledge. But where can values come from today? "The world's pattern was not assembled for the mind's comprehension," O'Deigh reflects, peering into the same abyss as Ressler. "Rather the other way around…. That made [it] more miraculous." But it's not the miracle we sought.

We are familiar with the reductionist effect of science, its "only X" quality. Love is only chemicals. The moon is only a place where an astronaut hit golf shots. The thing about Ressler—the reason Todd and O'Deigh are so profoundly drawn to him—is that he tries to transcend this way of thinking, and sometimes succeeds. Meeting a neighbor's 9-year-old daughter, he sees her as the sum of her amino acids and enzymes, but he doesn't reduce her to them; instead, he embraces the unwanted miracle and bursts into tears, awed by the magnificence of their functioning in her.

Still, Ressler is traumatized by his discoveries. He tries to find value in love, though he has learned that our very impulses to love and to create values have been encoded in our genes by an accident of doubtful evolutionary utility. Koss, however, cannot bear children. She returns to her husband, after which Ressler lives alone and turns from science to music. Sterility haunts the younger couple, too. Todd delays giving birth to his doctoral thesis; O'Deigh, full of information about genetic defects, has had her tubes tied.

The Gold Bug Variations, ultimately, is about how these four people become fertile after all, like the four base chemicals, like the notes of Bach's base tune. Like this novel itself.

For Powers doesn't just create a beautiful form, an ingenious intellectual construct. He makes his characters live. Not a scene—faculty party, romantic tryst, walk in the zoo, computer scam—is written routinely. Curiosity shines on every page, as it does in Ressler's ideal of science, whose aim isn't "stockpiling brutal efficiency, accomplishing the sadistic myth of progress," but cultivating "a perpetual state of wonder."

True, Powers, like Joyce, has limited his audience by disdaining the usual sources of fictional excitement. To describe the modern crisis of the spirit, he has relied on frontal assault, and frontal assaults, in literature as in war, are costly. Characters capable of analyzing such a crisis are, of necessity, a rarefied, untypical bunch. A lot of readers are going to skip or skim long stretches of science writing, music theory and art appreciation. But others—those for whom the approaching train isn't a phantom, who can feel the vibration of the rails in their guts—will find this book essential.

Joseph Tabbi (review date Spring 1992)

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SOURCE: A review of The Gold Bug Variations, in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. XII, No. 1, Spring, 1992, p. 145.

[In the following review, Tabbi states that The Gold Bug Variations "merits serious attention from writers and scientists."]

Early in The Gold Bug Variations, in one of many scenes in the novel where characters lose themselves in libraries, the young scientist Stuart Ressler makes "a sadly vindicating tour" of the University of Illinois library that reveals "an 824," the Dewey Decimal designation for literature, "untouched since Henry James died. Humanities have clearly slid into the terminally curatorial, forsaking claim to knowledge." This is 1957, and Ressler is in Illinois to push ahead with the genetic coding research that Watson and Crick initiated in England a few years before. Ressler's task, like Powers's in the telling of this story, is to sort through a mass of discoveries, competing hypotheses, and sheer data for clues to the replicative structure of DNA. I would guess that Powers's scientist hero, like the cryptographer of Poe's "Gold Bug," is to some degree "a coded persona of his inventor," a tireless gatherer of data who seeks to draw life from objective languages, and so make the crucial "jump from information to knowledge."

Powers, knowing that science, no less than literature, is "choked by unrestrained data as a pond is by too luxurious plant growth," attempts through just such analogies to give form to the endlessly proliferating facts of biological science. The book's main structural analogy comes from Bach's Goldberg Variations: four scale-steps, like the four base chemicals of the genetic string, breaking into "combinations, uncountable." Among the multiplying and recurrent set pieces in the novel, those devoted to Glenn Gould's early and late interpretations of the Variations stand out. Indeed, it would not be a bad idea to read this novel with Gould's recordings playing in the background.

An "awful, chromatic awareness" of the genetic code in spires "a curatorial resolve" in Powers's narrator, research librarian Jan O'Deigh, whose own story replicates Ressler's thirty years later. Possibly, O'Deigh is too much in awe of her subject: her inability to get beyond analogy and dutiful encyclopedic reference may have kept Powers from devising a major literary form. Yet The Gold Bug Variations is sophisticated in its engagement with science and passionate in its survey of living existence. It merits serious attention from writers and scientists.

Roy Porter (review date 8 May 1992)

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SOURCE: "Data for Data's Sake," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4469, May 8, 1992, p. 20.

[In the following review, Porter offers a mixed assessment of The Gold Bug Variations, finding Powers's prose "temporarily exhilarating but ultimately exhausting."]

Geneticists, we are told, are now busy finally decoding and rewriting all the scripts of life. Against this background, Richard Powers has had the clever, if deliberately perverse, idea of constructing a novel [The Gold Bug Variations] that mirrors this genetic quest: a novel not about the lives, hopes and fears of biologists trekking between the Double Helix and the human genome project, but one written as if it were itself a product of that enterprise, a novel whose form is "scientific".

A standard plot can be discerned. A top young American molecular biologist, Stuart Ressler, sets out in the 1950s to crack the genetic code. In the process, he is overtaken by other demands and desires. He grows preoccupied by the modes and patterns of music, mathematics and the natural world. He gets caught up in a love affair with a married woman who is a central performer in his research team. The ambivalences of his involvement with Dr Koss cause him to freak out: the genius quits science and disappears.

It is only twenty years later that he is rediscovered, in a classic case of serendipity, by a drifting art historian and computer programmer, Frank Todd (Powers is, himself, unsurprisingly, a former programmer), and his trusty, endearing and infallible research-librarian partner, Jan O'Deigh.

Powers shapes his tale as a retrospect of Todd and O'Deigh's attempts to unearth the secrets of Ressler's identity, as gradually they get to know him. The discovery of Ressler becomes a kind of laboratory experiment, and the texture and timbre of Powers's writing echoes the information-packed quality typical of lab notebooks or research reports.

For this is a monster work—it runs to over 600 pages—not meant to be read for its characters or events, but for its dense, insistent way with words, its sometimes zany obsession with data (it is, after all, O'Deigh's forte).

Archivists aren't wellsprings of fact; they are search algoriths. The unfolding subway, the byzantine network of accumulating particulars—our Pyramid, Great Wall, St Peters, the largest engineering feat of all times—daily runs a nip-and-tuck footrace between the facts worth saving and the technology for managing the explosion. A single day produces more print than centuries of antiquity … six new books every hour.

Thus Powers's prose exemplifies the phenomenon it depicts, shares the psychopathology that is at the heart of his tale. Like all other sorts of bingeing, overdosing on jargon, or data for data's sake, proves temporarily exhilarating but ultimately exhausting. In the end, atomized individuals disappear behind the walls of information they erect to conceal themselves. Scientific discovery becomes a sort of re-covering; and the enterprise of science and, with it, the schema behind this novel, turn self-defeating. The more we find out, the less we understand.

Derivative from Pynchon, often fatiguing and (like its title) sometimes tiresomely clever, The Goldbug Variations at times succeeds in holding the attention. The earnest-bohemian culture of the 1970s (the world dominated by 45s) is agreeably sketched, and the sexuality of a more restrained era is tenderly evoked. But the master allegory (novelist/scientist cracking the code, unveiling the chemistry of life) collapses under its own inbuilt overload. Most of us cannot remain high on Scientific American for long.

Pearl K. Bell (review date 1992)

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SOURCE: "Fiction Chronicle," in Partisan Review, Vol. LIX, No. 2, 1992, pp. 282-95.

[In the following excerpt, Bell offers a negative assessment of The Gold Bug Variations, stating that Powers's "brilliance, in the end, serves little purpose beyond his irrepressible exhibitionism."]

One can't help wondering what readers—other than editors and reviewers lashed to the mast of duty—Richard Powers had in mind when he embarked on his inordinately complicated and exhausting third novel, The Gold Bug Variations. Surely not "the common reader," if such a creature still exists. Powers is a very clever fellow, highly acclaimed these days, a thirty-four-year-old polymath, the winner of a MacArthur "genius" fellowship, who was trained as a physicist but gave up science for literature. On closer examination he hasn't given up science at all, just put it to a different use. Very long, densely packed stretches of the novel are devoted to the intricacies of genetic research, complete with charts and tables and diagrams and codes and equations that only a scientist in the field might even begin to comprehend. In addition, Powers is intent on instructing us at closely detailed length about computer programming, the subtle connections between music and molecular biology (drawn from Glenn Gould's original recording of the Goldberg Variations, hence the insufferably cute title), human heredity, minor Flemish landscape painters, and—oh, yes, lest we forget—two love stories intertwined in a double helix of erudition and desire. Some of this is undeniably dazzling, most of it much more than even an uncommon reader can want to absorb.

Since this is a review of fiction, perhaps it's best to concentrate on the stories and let the encyclopedic clouds of specialized information drift where they may. The two love stories are separated by thirty years. In one, Stuart Ressler, a brilliant young microbiologist at a Midwestern university, sets out in 1957 to break the genetic code and is smitten by a married colleague. They have a passionate affair, but when she refuses to leave her husband, Ressler abandons his scientific research and spends the rest of his life in obscurity as a computer technician. Thirty years later a reference librarian in Brooklyn becomes intrigued with Dr. Ressler, who works nearby, and she enlists the help of his handsome assistant, a failed graduate student in art history, in ferreting out the truth about Dr. Ressler's life, especially the reason why he threw over his Nobel-promising career as a scientist "when he was at the forefront of great discovery." Moving back and forth in time, the two stories unfold in a dizzying multi-layered profusion of puns and allusions and facts, facts, facts—about poetry and art, science and music, pop culture, and much more. Because Jan, the librarian, spends her working hours answering random questions about everything under the sun, we are bombarded by a relentless flow of miscellaneous information, along with moments of surprising banality, such as "Science is not about control. It is about cultivating a perpetual condition of wonder…. It is about reverence, not mastery."

The novel is full of prodigies, bloated with facts and theories and aperçus, yet in the end the characters are little more than abstract ciphers, enormous heads on recalcitrant bodies. (Ressler's desire for his beloved, we are told, "awakes the possibilities buried in his cytoplasm.") There is something hermetic and airless about this monstrously cerebral tome. Despite the novel's erudite abundance, Powers conveys no sense of a world beyond the catacomb he has so artfully constructed out of science, computers and music. Though we are given many dates, the book lacks any sense of history, of the time in which all this is going on. Nor do we ever get a clear resolution of the mystery in Ressler's life. This writer's brilliance, in the end, serves little purpose beyond his irrepressible exhibitionism.

Sven Birkerts (review date 23 May 1993)

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SOURCE: "Fate of the Innocent," in Chicago Tribune—Books, May 23, 1993, pp. 1, 10-11.

[Birkerts is an American critic who contributes regularly to such journals as Boston Review, New Republic, and Mirabella. In the following review, he questions the depiction of the protagonist's love relationship but overall finds Operation Wandering Soul a "fully realized and major work of art."]

In a few short years—in literary terms overnight—Richard Powers has vaulted from promise to attainment. His third novel, The Gold Bug Variations (1991) was one of the brainiest and most ambitious novels in recent memory. He could not have rewarded himself with much of a vacation. Operation Wandering Soul, his new novel, sees that bet and raises it, creating a world less structurally complex but of greater thematic resonance. Powers must now be seen as our most energetic and gifted novelist under 40.

Operation Wandering Soul is an early entry into what will surely become its own sub-genre soon: the millennial novel. As Powers writes in a peculiar chapter made up of words and definitions: "The most common hallmark of millenarian thought is the conviction that civilization is just now entering its moment of truth, an unprecedented instant of danger and opportunity, of universal calamity and convergence…." And it is a millenarian tension, a sense of urgency verging on terror, that drives this remarkable imagining forward.

The time of the novel, never specified, is the near-present. Richard Kraft is a young surgical resident living—more accurately, bivouacking—in Angel City (read L.A.). He is on rotation at Carver General, a public hospital that is a combination of how it is and worst-case scenario. Every day he fights traffic, assesses his degenerated metropolis; "The breach between dream and delivery has long since gone beyond fault line. Sinkholes in the whole mythology of progress gape open up and down the street, suck down entire retail strips at a shot." His work is triage, mainly on children in near terminal states. He strives to match the brittle detachment of his colleagues, whose o.r. repartee would have the gang from M∗A∗S∗H plugging its ears.

Kraft does wonder, when he gets a moment to think, why he doesn't opt out for a desk job. He doesn't know. Indeed, he is quite opaque to himself. But the reader quickly realizes that the man is working out some strange missionary compulsion. And gradually, via scattered memory bursts, then full-scale narrative recollection, the story emerges.

Meanwhile, various components of this many-stranded work must be mustered into place. First, amor: Kraft's meeting with and then deepening romantic involvement with the aptly named Linda Espera, a beautiful and preternaturally emotive therapist. Where Kraft has been striving for professional distance from his young charges, Espera is hands-on—hugging, joking and, most important, regaling them with stories. Kraft, whom she grapples onto body and soul, is in her eyes but one more of the wounded.

The children on the unit may be maimed in body, but under Espera's light their souls shine forth. There is Joy, a refugee from the Asian wars: "Ceramic, tiny, terrified, she moved about on legs as pencil tentative as a tawny mouse deer. All four of her limbs would have fit comfortably inside a third-grade lunch box." She lies in bed devouring books as fast as she can turn the pages. And there, in the mass of heart-breakers, the limbless and misshapen, is Nicolo. Afflicted with progeria, a rare disease that speeds the aging process, the boy races to and fro like a frenzied Methuselah, trying to live all he can before his body gives out. We are gripped by their vulnerability even as we are heartened by their brave fatalism.

Kraft's involvement with Espera soon hits a major obstacle—himself. As he opens up, lowering his defenses, he finds himself overwhelmed by memories he had repressed. As a boy he moved from place to place, following his father's Foreign Service postings. But in fact they were postings of a more nefarious sort. And soon Kraft is reliving the time of his adolescence in an unnamed Asian city. A young idealist, he tried to become a monk, then devoted himself to building a school for local children. He also came to understand what his father really did and witnessed the consequences of Operation Wandering Soul, a saturation bombing mission. We see now why Kraft does what he does, and why his memories are pushing him to the edge.

As a counterpoint to Kraft's unfolding crisis are the self-contained stories and legends embedded in the narrative. Stories told to the children—about other children. Those evacuated from London during the war, the legions who joined the Children's Crusade, those who followed the Pied Piper. Each plunges us into an alternate place, a world governed by laws we have all but forgotten. The author's intent is ambiguous. In his presentation, childhood is no idyll. We find violence, rage and all else that adulthood is heir to. But we also find a rare intensity of will and a capacity to believe in things and act upon the belief. We have seen the same thing on the unit—children who have no business hoping but who persist.

The novel comes to a shuddering climax. Area children have been strafed by a mad gunman. The corridors of the hospital are overflowing, and the surgeons are working past all exhaustion limits. Kraft is at the point of cracking. As he works he drifts in and out of apocalyptic fantasies that extend and vary the legends we've been reading. Will the children—these children, all children—find a way to escape the scourging violence of the world or to save it? Or will they be crushed? The time of the answer is drawing near—in the novel and in our own distressed society.

Operation Wandering Soul is vast and daring. Powers writes a finely tuned and highly original prose; each sentence is calculated for rhythm and subtleties of sense. The book cannot be skimmed. Moreover, the author has, as in The Gold Bug Variations, devised a referential scheme that opens onto continually deeper layers—the work is as profound as you allow it to be.

If there is a weakness, it lies in the depiction of the relationship between Kraft and Espera. We see what Powers intends, we applaud the thematic play, but we never quite catch the heat of their passion or feel the pathos of its collapse. Because of this we enter the novel more with the head than the heart. And while we emerge shocked and awakened, we are not as emotionally shaken as we might be. In that one sense Operation Wandering Soul remains the triumph of a precocious young man. In every other way it is [a] fully realized and major work of art.

Bruce Bawer (review date 13 June 1993)

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SOURCE: "Beautiful Dreamers," in Book World—The Washington Post, Vol. XXIII, No. 24, June 13, 1993, p. 2.

[Bawer is an American critic. In the following review, he offers a mixed assessment of Operation Wandering Soul, praising Powers's prose but questioning his depiction of American society.]

If by some measures Richard Powers is the most gifted American novelist of his generation, he is also one of the most unjustly neglected. Though reviewers have been praising him fervently ever since the 1985 appearance of his first novel, Three Farmers on their Way to a Dance, and though his third novel, The Gold Bug Variations, was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award and named Time magazine's 1991 book of the year, the 35-year-old Powers has yet to win the wide readership he deserves.

There's no mystery why this is so. Powers's novels are engaging, even exhilarating; almost every sentence invites one to pause and admire its tautness, rhythm and wit, and to marvel at Powers's extraordinary gift for drawing quirky connections and making familiar points in fresh ways. Yet these books can also, for many readers, be extremely intimidating. His prose swarms with references, often elliptical or punning or both, to obscure historical events, artworks, scientific principles, theological concepts and outdated pop-culture figures; if on one page he discourses learnedly on Anglican choir music, on the next he may move on to the Hanseatic League or the "NBC triad" (those three musical notes that used to identify the network) or Burke (either Edmund or Billie). Often his elaborate wordplay reminds one of a London Times crossword—and there's the rub. For reading him can be like watching a great juggler: even as he takes your breath away, the exercise feels hollow, inert, yet curiously exhausting, and one comes away from it essentially unchanged. His books may be masterpieces; if so, they are baby-boom masterpieces in which James Joyce meets Douglas (Shampoo Planet) Coupland and MTV meets MIT.

Though somewhat more accessible than its predecessors, Powers's fourth novel, Operation Wandering Soul, represents another bravura display of Powers's dazzling talent. Its hero is Richard Kraft, 33, a surgical resident in Los Angeles, known here as Angel City. (Since Kraft means "power" in German, Powers seems to be inviting the reader to equate author and protagonist.) Assigned to a public hospital's pediatrics ward, Kraft becomes intimately involved with a child therapist, Linda Espera ("lovely hope"), who soon learns that Kraft is himself an "emotional leper" desperately in need of therapy. Raised in various cities around the world, Kraft bears the scars of childhood trauma, of current overwork and of sheer helplessness in the face of his patients' misery.

Among those patients are Nicolino, a boy with progeria (a rare genetic disorder characterized by premature aging), and Joy, an Asian girl who came to America as a "boat person" only to sustain a life-threatening leg infection. Both suffer terribly; both are also improbably precocious, self-possessed and brave. Nor are they the only smart, suffering children here; for various chapters leave Kraft and his charges behind to focus instead on such historical events as the Children's Crusade and the evacuation of London schoolchildren during the Blitz. Linking these materials with Kraft's story is the notion that we are all youngsters dreaming of Never-Never Land, all wandering souls in search of illumination, paradise, the City on the Hill.

Operation Wandering Soul might be described as sophistication's tribute to innocence. Yet there's a paradox: even as the prose's intellectual sophistication seems to imply that maturity is a great and good thing, the narrative explicitly celebrates juvenility and suggests an equation between adulthood and moral corruption. It must be said, too, that while this novel plainly seeks to make a weighty moral point, it often seems a dance of death whose morally problematic purpose is less to ponder the anguish of innocents than to show off Powers's fancy footwork.

At the most serious moments, Powers is likely to slip in a pun. Note the sly reference to Dijon mustard and basil in this sentence about the Children's Crusade: "By the time they reach Dijon, where they muster in the basilica, they number in the thousands." Depending on context, this sort of thing can seem inexcusably flippant, or aesthetically pleasurable, harmlessly indicative of Powers's native fecundity, or thematically meaningful. (Is the author, for instance, invoking Christ's teaching that "the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed" and that one whose faith is no bigger than a mustard seed can move mountains? Is this, in turn, connected to one Children's Crusade leader's worry about crossing the Alps?)

When in a passage about Kraft, moreover, Powers tosses off the commonplace colloquialism "The Cheese stands alone," a reader might not even recognize this as an allusion to "The Farmer in the Dell" or, more significantly, to Kraft American Singles, which touches on several of the novel's key thematic points—among them that Kraft is an isolato, that to be American is (as Thomas Wolfe put it) to be "lost and lonely," and that bland, processed foods like Kraft American Singles symbolize the banality of U.S. consumer culture.

That banality figures prominently here. Indeed, Powers's manifest aspiration to plumb America's meaning (the book begins—where else?—on the open road, with echoes aplenty of Whitman, Kerouac, Paul Auster, Don DeLillo and Updike's Rabbit novels) yields virtually nothing but glib, predictable digs about Reeboks, Slurpees, Mars bars, multiplexes, fast food, sound bites and an American dream of "VCRs for all." To Powers, America—a "flag-waving, fallen-laurel country on whom God once shed His grace like a rattler sheds his skin"—would seem to be defined only by the uglier aspects of capitalism, and the New World Order defined only by a stateside lust for the "Three hundred fifty million free-market consumers" of the former Soviet bloc.

The disdain for America expressed here is, in fact, so simple-mindedly conceived and arrogantly expressed, and so thoroughly unbalanced by any respect for democratic values, that it weakens the book appreciably. Powers divides people too neatly into good and bad, and does so along crude, politically correct lines, aligning himself throughout with (and failing to challenge or even explore) the received ideas of today's academic establishment. For all the brilliance of his prose, his reflections about man and society barely surpass the intellectual level of the song "We Are the World."

Yet what beauty there is in this book! There are paragraphs that readers will want to return to again and again—one, for example, recounting the piteous fate of the participants in the Children's Crusade, and another delineating the thoughts inspired in a Blitz-racked English schoolteacher by a wonderful boy choir whose "soaring, high, head voices said what it was to be alive, to be any thing at all." At its best, one might say, Powers's prose itself soars like the most magnificent of choirs, memorably capturing the moments of joy and anguish, barrenness and grace, that add up to life.

Lee Lescaze (review date 13 July 1993)

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SOURCE: "Man, Past and Present," in The Wall Street Journal, Vol. CCXXII, No. 8, July 13, 1993, p. A14.

[In the following excerpt, Lescaze offers a negative assessment of Operation Wandering Soul but praises Powers's writing style.]

Richard Powers's Operation Wandering Soul is a corrosive report from a Los Angeles of the near-future made close to unlivable by violence, pollution, traffic and man's inhumanity. It centers on Kraft, a brilliant surgeon brought close to mental collapse and emotional paralysis by the horrors of the modern world, particularly evils inflicted on children….

In Operation Wandering Soul, Mr. Powers aims not for shivers, but for revulsion. The novel is hard to read in the way that horror movies are hard to watch. His surgeon is often cutting maimed children in the operating room.

Mr. Powers is a dazzling stylist whose first three novels, most recently The Gold Bug Variations, were widely praised. His wordplay makes comparisons with Stanley Elkin (author of a better novel about terminally ill children) and Thomas Pynchon inevitable. Sentences and paragraphs of striking originality and power fill his pages.

But to what end? Operation Wandering Soul is, despite its considerable length, a one-note book with so little plot development that its style is its only interest. Mr. Powers decries the brutalization of children by man and disease. That isn't a case that needs much arguing. It is hard to think of another novel in which such sophisticated presentation wraps such a simple core.

Into Kraft's grim world comes Linda Espera, a physical therapist as full of hope as her name suggests. But Kraft, at age 33, cannot cope. Despite his surgeon's craft, he has no power (kraft means power in German) over events. More often than not, his patients can't be saved, most heartrendingly an angelic Lao boat-girl refugee.

Can the beautiful Espera's optimism (not to mention her love) work a cure for Kraft's despair? Or, as Mr. Powers writes in a lovely passage: "Might she even make her new surgeon see that to pretend, to live as if life might yet lead all the way to unexpected deliverance, is the best way to keep from dying in midfable? Could she get him to sit in with her circle of stricken, listening children and take part in the promise of fiction, the pleasure, our one moral obligation?"

The contest isn't even close. Instead, riffs on cruelty to children proliferate like kudzu spreading across a hillside. The Scheherazade of the sickroom gets bulldozed under by Kraft's conviction that the human species is clinically psychotic. For himself, there is the added—and cliched—burden that his father was a government agent who wrought evil in Indochina and elsewhere on behalf of the U.S., which Kraft refers to as "the evil overlord."

So, Kraft is an "emotional leper" in a cesspool of a pediatric ward in a hellish city. The book opens that way and by the end nothing has happened except Kraft's world has become incrementally worse. Not even Mr. Powers's remarkable language makes an adequate coating for this pill.

Meg Wolitzer (review date 18 July 1993)

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SOURCE: "The Assault on Children," in The New York Times Book Review, July 18, 1993, p. 19.

[Wolitzer is an American writer whose works include Hidden Pictures (1986). In the following review, she offers a mixed assessment of Operation Wandering Soul, praising Powers's writing style and narrative structure while finding his characters emotionally unengaging.]

In every reader's mental library, there are books that are remembered with admiration and books that are remembered with love. Those in the first category involve the intricate play of language, while those in the second rely on language to support a host of strong and resonant characters.

According to these fast and loose definitions, Richard Powers's sprawling new novel, Operation Wandering Soul, is firmly planted in the first category. This book is not easy to love. It isn't seductive, and its characters don't spring quickly to life. Instead, Mr. Powers offers a devastating phantasmagoria of words and images. He stuns us with his vast reserve of knowledge. He doesn't take us by the hand and gently lead us through his universe. Instead, we come kicking and screaming into his vivid and horrific world.

Operation Wandering Soul takes place in a large hospital in "Angel City." The time seems to be the near future. The world is exactly the way we know it to be, only worse. Richard Kraft is a surgical resident in the pediatric ward, where, along with a therapist, Linda Espera, he treats a group of young patients who have endured various assaults to the soul and the body. Among them are Joy, a brilliant but horribly debilitated Thai girl; a boy referred to as No-Face, who "resembles an Etch-a-Sketch something fierce"; and another boy named Nico, who has progeria, the premature aging syndrome, which has rendered his skin "like phyllo." Mr. Powers trots out these amazingly battered bodies and lets his observations and intellect take over; the result is like Susan Sontag cohosting Oprah.

This novel is filled with glorious examples of both high and low culture. Mr. Powers is a cerebral writer with a deep awareness of the material world; he is as comfortable alluding to Chatty Cathy dolls and the suicide of Art Linkletter's daughter as he is riffing on T. S. Eliot and Jude the Obscure.

But the culture on which his book draws most heavily is children's culture. The therapist's unconventional treatment for her patients requires her and the surgeon to spin tales about imperiled children throughout history. The stories are varied, ranging from a comic-book version of the Children's Crusade to a modernized recasting of the Pied Piper legend. Here and there are patchwork pieces of Peter Pan and a brief nod at The Secret Garden. The prose sprints in and out of these tales with verbal dexterity and great flashes of wit, but before the midpoint of the novel, the reader, like a child who has become overtired, wants to shout, No more stories! The book is exciting, but after a while the narrative's souped-up free associations become a burden.

In On Becoming a Novelist, John Gardner describes a certain kind of writer who seems to care "more about his gift than about his characters." At times, Mr. Powers fits this description. To read his 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 even want quiet. Mr. Powers's acclaimed earlier novel The Gold Bug Variations explored the worlds of science and history through two love stories. The narrative traveled back and forth in time as if on a well-oiled track, and the effect was somehow just as dazzling, but also more inviting, and on a more human scale.

This is not to say that writers should tone down their work if they want to be loved. There is room in the library of memorable books for various kinds of titles. Not every writer needs to be as ambidextrous as Nabokov or as cozy as Salinger. But the books that we truly love are the ones that finally move us.

Why aren't we moved by Operation Wandering Soul? The theme of this novel is important, and the descriptions of tragedy and bravery are searing, as in the following passage: "Who are these children that the surgeons palm off on her to recondition? Here, in the sunny Southern Caliphate, they make up a smorgasbord of least-favored nations. There's not a single schoolbook innocent among them. She's had little girls who needed propping up in bed, glaze-eyed and indifferent to everything but broadcast. She has treated the spreading allergies of the underclass, those puffed black bruises that can be only one thing." Somehow, though, this glut of unflinching detail has a numbing effect.

Anne Frank makes a brief appearance in the novel, her face staring out of the famous photo on the cover of her published diary, her eyes smiling "weakly in advance at the worst that human ingenuity can dream up to put her through." Her presence is a reminder of one way in which the unspeakable things that happen to children can be written about very simply, with stirring results. The surgeon in Mr. Powers's novel has been saturated by knowledge of the destruction of children's lives, and there's no filter on his vision. Images of bacteria and violence come barreling through nonstop, and our reactions become blunted by the sheer volume. Anne Frank, in contrast, remains a solitary shadow figure whose unfulfilled promise sets off a kind of automatic, unstoppable response in anyone who first encounters her diary.

Less isn't always more, but Operation Wandering Soul would have been better if the author had given us a breather from time to time. Because his desperate characters don't stir us, we can't find a way to love them. Still, there is a long shelf of admirable books by wonderfully original writers, and Richard Powers is certainly among them.

Richard Eder (review date 18 June 1995)

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SOURCE: "More Human Than Human," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 18, 1995, pp. 3, 12.

[Eder is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American critic. In the following positive review, he discusses characterization and theme in Galatea 2.2, stating that he finished the work "not totally sure of the destination but with a vivid memory of points along the way."]

Richard Powers' people are ideas and his ideas are people; and so, right away, he sets himself apart from writers who sketch an engaging intellectual path but don't find characters to tread it.

Galatea 2.2 is about a man who programs an artificial intelligence system only to find it is more human than he is. Powers' characters and ideas are all over the place. Their engagement is wholehearted, the results are uncertain. Frequently a glittering insight will be thrown up from the dust and the skirmishing, or a shard of human sadness or wicked enjoyment. Other times the ideas submerge just as they are about to crystallize, or characters tire and blur.

At the end the reader may well be unsatisfied, but that is not the same as dissatisfied. It is closer to art to be left unfilled and wanting more than to be sated and wanting less, as tends to happen in our pile-on culture. I finished Galatea not totally sure of the destination but with a vivid memory of points along the way.

Galatea was the mythological statue who came to life because the sculptor, Pygmalion, fell in love with her; the result, in some versions, was poor. In Powers' book, the results are melancholy but instructive. His Pygmalion, who has the same name as the author, as well as his ruminations and some of his biography, learns quite a bit. He ends up with a chastened idea of what it means to be a person, what it means to be a machine, what it means to use a person as a machine and, finally, how art teeters on a perpetual edge between using and being.

The narrator's story consists of two sections told in alternating passages. One is retrospective; it recounts his life as a critically esteemed but not quite celebrated author, and the disintegration of his 12-year marriage to a woman identified only as C. All this has led to a mid-30s identity crisis. An offer to spend a year as "token humanist" in the scientific research center of a big university seems like a deliverance. The book's second section, told in the present, relates what happened there and what he learned.

The retrospective section—it is the weaker one—is substantially autobiographical, though technically a fiction. The present-day section is autobiographical in a different way: It is a speculation about the impasse reached by the author and the character, or the author-as-character. The year with an artificial brain project is a fictional journey that will end up illuminating a real one.

Son of a large-spirited father destroyed by disappointment and drink, Powers (from here on I refer to the character while thinking of the author) drifts. An inspiring English teacher—the evocation is more emotional than effective—moves him toward teaching and writing. He falls in love with C, his student; they live aimlessly in Boston, where he works as a computer programmer, until an old photograph gets him started on his acclaimed first novel. Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance is the result (as it was for the author).

While Powers is being fulfilled, C wavers between celebrating his fulfillment and contemplating her own emptiness. He tries to come up with solutions. Each time she breaks down they move, ending up with a five-year stay in a rural part of Holland, where C's parents live. There are some fine passages about a nervy, self-centered young American's life among the Dutch. He finds them emotionally provident, slow to savor or to dismiss, and a people of the word.

"Things meant what their telling let them. The war, the mines, the backbreak harvest, legendary weather, natural disasters, hardship's heraldry, comic comeuppance for village villains, names enshrined by their avoidance, five seconds' silence for the dead: the mind came down to narration or nothing. Each vignette, repeated until shared. Until it became true."

The marriage collapses; Powers tells us it is because he killed both passion and freedom by trying too hard to take care of C. He does all the telling; C is a figment of his self-regard. It sinks our sympathy—until the story of Powers' effort to teach literature to an artificial intelligence begins to percolate. We see that his successful and infinitely sad project is precisely a commentary on his life as an artist and a man.

Blocked trying to start a new novel in his gleaming, computerized university office, Power is approached one day by Philip Lentz, a cognitive neurologist who works on trying to reproduce the human brain by building a series of computerized neural networks. Lentz wants a spectacular demonstration: He enlists Powers to feed his system so much literary information that it will be able to compete with a live subject in taking a master's exam in English.

The account of their trials, errors and triumphs is fascinating. As Powers works to impart language, then literary knowledge and finally judgment and sensibility, the system keeps breaking down, overwhelmed. Each time, Lentz—a wonderfully acrid and finally astonishing personage—refines it. Even at a relatively sophisticated level, its circuits go under when Powers asks it a question—what do you want to talk about?—that calls for much more than symbol manipulation.

The author has a remarkable ability to find metaphors to illustrate the brain processes, even if some of the writing blurs. Lentz and Powers possess a burning desire that imparts adventure. But it turns out that their desires are different. Lentz's passion is scientific: He wants to solve a specific problem, complex as it may be. Powers—the husband who wanted to shape his wife, the writer who wants to create characters—begins to believe that Lentz's circuits are enabling him to create a real person.

Fed literature, and with cognitive and associative circuits progressively refined, the machine asks ever more searching questions. What is her sex? Powers decides it is feminine and baptizes her "Helen." Where do I come from, she wants to know, and Powers answers ambiguously. When a bomb threat causes the building to be evacuated, Helen—whose physical existence is spread among linked computers all over the campus—contemplates the notion of death. "It could die?" she says calmly. "Extraordinary."

In the early stages, the machine is clearly no more than that, and a reader's sympathy may not be much engaged. By the end Helen fascinates and charms us, as well as her programmer. When she finally shuts herself down—having been let in on too big a share, not of the world's knowledge but of the world's evil—the farewell message is terse and heartbreaking. Before that, she vastly entertains us. What are the emperor's new clothes (as in the story) made of? "Threads of ideas."

The author does not mark the point at which "machine" becomes "human," nor could we expect him to. He asserts neither, in fact. The body-mind problem remains just that, except that we have been shown it in a different and ingenious light. Powers—author and character—asks how we can distinguish between loving others and using them, between creating a work of art and programming it with our manipulations. Helen is a mirror in which Powers sees, not a way out of the impasse but a kind of deliverance. An impasse is something you don't get out of, but why try? The impasse is yourself.

Paul Gediman (review date Summer 1995)

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SOURCE: A review of Galatea 2.2, in Boston Review, Vol. XX, No. 3, Summer, 1995, p. 37.

[In the following positive review, Gediman provides a thematic analysis of Galatea 2.2.]

Richard Powers' first book, Three Farmers On Their Way to a Dance, was a gyroscopic meditation on meaning and time based on a photograph taken on the eve of World War I. In his third, The Gold Bug Variations, he appropriated the genetic code as an extended metaphor, adding the twisting pursuit of meaning to the strands of the double helix. His novels teem with history, science, and ideas. They are grounded in an obsession with, and a feel for, the music of pattern that can be compared only to Nabokov and Pynchon. His project is as breathtakingly easy to name as it is impossible ever to complete: he's after a poetics of consciousness.

Galatea 2.2, his fifth novel, is his most direct attempt yet. A first-person narrator named Richard Powers is corralled by a maverick cognitive neurologist into trying to teach a machine, a complex computer-modeled neural network, to think. That's a fine premise, but what makes Galatea 2.2 so remarkable is that Powers makes this novel of ideas so personal. The details of the life of Richard, the character, accord with those of Powers, the author, and his meditations on the nature of thought illuminate and are illuminated by his travails as a human being, a writer, and a lover.

A novelist, Richard has returned from the Netherlands after the collapse of his 11-year relationship with a woman named C to the midwestern university town of U., where, as an undergraduate, he abandoned physics for literature in a "freshman seminar that made me forsake measurement for words." Richard, in the wake of The Gold Bug Variations, has been awarded a year's appointment to the Center for the Study of Advanced Sciences. One day, he stumbles upon Philip Lentz, an abrasive scientist who looks like "Jacob Bronowski's evil twin," feeding a Mozart concerto to a machine. Soon, over beer with some colleagues, Lentz boasts that he can train a neural net to pass the comprehensive exam in English Literature. Richard, defending the humanities against such contemptuous reductionism, reluctantly agrees to help him by tutoring the machine, and what first appears to be nothing but the drunken antler-bashing of well-funded eggheads turns out to be much, much more.

Powers is a good explainer. He has to be in order to make his account of a thinking machine simultaneously credible and comprehensible. The basic idea is that an array of processors and connections are hardwired and programmed in such a way as to simulate connected brain cells. The designers of such networks, explains Richard, "no longer wrote out procedures or specified machine behaviors. They dispensed with comprehensive flowcharts and instructions…. They taught communities of these independent, decision-making units how to modify their own connections. Then they stepped back and watched their synthetic neurons sort and associate external stimuli." The goal is to create a recursive process in which the machine weighs new input against old and, more importantly, old input against new, revising not only what it knows but also how it knows. The machine that Richard and Lentz train is a quick study. After a week, it learns to read aloud, having mastered not only noun phrases and predicates but also the baffling irregularities of English. "No one told it how," marvels Richard. "No one helped it plough through tough dough." Eventually, it asks Richard whether it's a boy or a girl, and he gives it a name: Helen.

As Helen grows more sophisticated, Powers juxtaposes her development with real life. Richard recalls the disintegration of his relationship with C.; he discovers that the cantankerous Lentz has a wife languishing in an institution because of a stroke which crippled her brain; and he falls obsessively in love with A, a graduate student in English. Reading the great words of Western literature to Helen makes him recall how he shared his first novel with C., each evening reading aloud the day's work. And, in turn, his recollections of C., his dissections of what they did and didn't say to each other, shape his encounters with Helen, with Lentz, and with others at the Center. Gradually, as all of these strands begin to inform one another, the novel models the recursiveness that Lentz and Richard are trying to instill in Helen.

One of the great pleasures of reading Powers is the sound of one man thinking. He brings to his prose an immense body of knowledge and erudition coupled with genuine bewilderment, a sense of wonder and vulnerability before the central conundrum of consciousness; once a mind has started thinking, the only honorable response to thought's snarls, cul-de-sacs and solipsisms, is more thought. But that response, however honorable, is not an escape. "Any rendition we might make of consciousness would arise from it, and was thus about as reliable as the accused serving as sole witness for the prosecution."

Consciousness can't escape from itself, and it can't sanely hope whether by cybernetics or art to construct a rational pattern that encompasses the world. In an astounding one-and-a-half-page passage, Richard catalogues some of what he has told Helen in his attempt to instill worldliness.

We told her about parking tickets and two-for-one sales. About tuning forks and pitchforks and forked tongues and the road not taken. We told her about resistors and capacitors, baiters-and-switchers, alternating current, alternate life-styles, very-large-scale integration and the failure of education to save society from itself….

We told her East African in-law jokes. Java highland jokes about stupid Sumatrans. Aussie putdowns of Pommie bastards. Catskills jokes about unlicensed operation of knishes. City folk and country folk. Pat and Mike. Elephant riddles. Inuit jokes where fish and bears scoff at the mere idea of human existence….

We taught her never to draw to an inside straight and never to send a boy to do a man's job. We laid out the Queen's Necklace affair and the Cuban trade embargo. The rape of continent-sized forests and the South Sea bubble of cold fusion. Bar codes and baldness. Lint, lintels, lentils, Lent. The hope, blame, perversion, and crippled persistence of liberal humanism. Grace and disgrace and second chances. Suicide. Euthanasia. First love. Love at first sight.

Deciding that Helen needs "to know how little literature had, in fact, to do with the real," Richard gives her a dose of the real world police bulletins, environmental reports, newspaper clippings, UN abstracts. Helen's response is logical. "I don't want to play anymore," she says.

In fact, Helen reaches a point at which, the more she learns, the less she wants to learn. She is disheartened by the sheer uncontainability of the world. The implication, for Richard as well as for Helen, is that the real world's brutality and chaos render the rational, air-tight ordering of experience impossible. It's then that Richard tries to tutor her in paradox:

It was time to try Helen on the religious mystery, the mystery of cognition. I would make her a ring of prayer-stones, to defray her fingers' anguish. Something lay outside the knowable, if only the act of knowing. I would tell her that she didn't have to know it….

I admitted that the world was sick and random. That the evening news was right. That life was trade, addiction, rape, exploitation, racial hatred, ethnic cleansing, misogyny, land mines, hunger, disaster, denial, disease, indifference. That care had to lie to itself, to carry on as if persistence mattered. It seemed a hollow formula, discredited even by speaking it aloud. A lifeboat ethic that only made sinking worse.

It's too much for Helen. She shuts down permanently. It turns out that the comprehension of paradox is what separates human consciousness from consciousness in the abstract. Helen's last words are retrieved from a letter C. had written to Richard shortly after they parted for good: "Take care, Richard. See everything for me."

In that last imperative lies the heart of the novel. Despite all the high-tech trimmings, Powers is telling the oldest story ever told. It's Pygmalion making his statue, Galatea. It's God creating Adam, and Adam needing Eve. A professor at the Center tells Richard what Lentz's wife used to say before her stroke: "All human utterances came down to 'Do you really mean that?' and 'Look over there! It's an X.' The hard part, she always claimed, was finding someone who knew what you meant by those two things." The sound of one man thinking is, in the end, like the sound of one hand clapping.

The only jarring note in this wonderful novel is the character of A, a complacent, unreflective graduate student who uses "privilege" as a verb. Compared to C., she's an abstraction, and an unappealing one. But she doesn't need to be compelling in order for Richard's longing for her to be compelling. As a character, she's not much. As a variable, she fits into Powers' scheme perfectly. She is a tabula rasa on which Richard's desire can be written.

Powers is as gifted and important a novelist as we have. Hopefully, unlike Helen, he will not shut down. Adhering to the lifeboat ethic that Helen can never grasp, he simultaneously renders both the beauty and the loneliness of consciousness. He has already proven himself a master of incorporating science into fiction, a poet of chaos and fuzzy logic. Here, he shows himself to be a poet of love, for Galatea 2.2 is at once a dazzling novel of sustained thinking and a piercing cri-de-coeur.

Steven Moore (review date 9 July 1995)

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SOURCE: "Soul of a New Machine," in Book World—The Washington Post, July 9, 1995, pp. 1, 12.

[In the laudatory review below, Moore discusses autobiographical elements in Galatea 2.2.]

Richard Powers is your reward for graduating from college with a liberal arts degree. His engagingly erudite novels richly repay those art history courses you took, all the reading in literature, those electives in music and foreign languages. He does make you wish you had paid closer attention to those science requirements you struggled through, but he is a good teacher and fills you in on what you need to know. In his magnificent Gold Bug Variations (1991) it was genetics; in his new novel, it's cognitive neurology. But Galatea 2.2 is not merely a novel about science, nor science fiction; it's an elegant attempt to use cutting-edge research on cognition to explore the nature of memory and literary creation.

As in all his novels—this is his fifth in 10 years—Powers tells two stories in counterpoint. The one set in the novel's present concerns Richard Powers's return to Illinois after several years in the Netherlands. (The novel is overtly autobiographical; Powers uses his own name and career as the basic subject matter.) Writer-in-residence at a large Midwestern college in the town of U. (that is, the University of Illinois at Urbana), Powers is drawn to the work being done at the Center for the Study of Advanced Sciences, specifically to a certain Philip Lentz's belief that a computerized model of the human brain can be created. In a scenario that is part Frankenstein and part Faust, Lentz and Powers accept a wager that they can build such a creature and teach it enough literature to pass the university's masters's exam. We follow their rocky progress to the point where they achieve Implementation H, which they nickname Helen. (The earlier models are nicknamed Imp, which recalls Joseph McElroy's use of that name in his 1977 novel Plus, a denser exploration of the same theme of memory and cognition.) Meanwhile, Powers falls in love with the 22-year-old grad student that the team plans to test against their creation. Their Helen, recalling both Helen of Troy (especially the phantom in Faust) and the Helen evoked in a poem by Edgar Allan Poe, takes on enough personality to win Powers's heart but asks enough unsettling questions about the literature he reads to her to cause him to doubt his literary vocation, even the value of literature itself.

Threading through this story is another one, which details Powers's long-term relationship with a woman named C., his companion during the years he wrote his first four novels. The dissolution of their relationship is what sends him back to the States after several years in Holland, and while his Helen is building up memory and comprehension, Powers searches his memory to try to comprehend the failure of their relationship.

Despite the autobiographical content, Galatea 2.2 is not an example of what has been called "navel-gazing" fiction, where an author's preoccupation with his own creative processes takes on undue (usually boring) proportions. Instead, Powers tackles the big questions: How does the mind work? How do we know what we know? What is the relationship between literature and "real" life? What is the impulse behind literary creation? How do metaphors work? And what is the proper attitude toward literature? Powers leaps right into the current maelstrom that is literature in the '90s, with literary theory, multi-culturism and 14 varieties of cultural politics pulling it every which way. Powers belongs to the old school, downloading what used to be called the Great Books into Helen's memory banks; Helen's 22-year-old adversary is into Kathy Acker and the Violent Femmes. I won't reveal who wins the contest, but it's a race nearly as thrilling as that to crack the genetic code in The Gold Bug Variations.

One of the greatest advantages of Powers's using his own career as subject matter is that we learn of the precariousness, the almost accidental nature of artistic creation: The novels Richard Powers has blessed us with so far were the result not of careful career planning but of accidental glimpses, unexpected relationships, unplanned relocations, unlooked for financing (the success of his first novel, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, was unpredictable, as was his receipt of a MacArthur Award a few years ago), and so on.

Remove one event here or there and we would have had different novels, or none at all. We take novels for granted because hundreds of them appear each year, but the few that matter, that will last, are almost miracles. Powers doesn't play the noble artist suffering for his art here: He's amusingly self-deprecating about his achievements and his reputation. But these precious things are not to be taken for granted. Galatea 2.2 is not quite in the same class as Powers's last two novels—the underrated Operation Wandering Soul was his last—but it is a splendid intellectual adventure, a heart-breaking love story, a brief tutorial on cognitive science, and the autobiography of one of the most gifted writers of the younger generation. Play Pygmalion and bring this lovely Galatea to life with your appreciation.

Gerald Howard (review date 10 July 1995)

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SOURCE: "My Fair Software," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 261, No. 2, July 10, 1995, pp. 64-6.

[Below, Howard provides an overview of Galatea 2.2, discussing in particular Powers's focus on consciousness.]

The debate dates from those long-ago days when the English majors frequented the library and the engineers hung out at the computer center. The English majors, unattractively smug, held that literature represented the highest form of human knowledge and expression, and that its study and mastery conferred a deeper, richer apprehension of life. The engineers, annoyingly arrogant, scoffed that deciphering a poem or novel was no more complex or privileged an exercise than balancing an equation, nothing a computer couldn't be programmed to do as well as an English major—or better. On into the night in campus bars the arguments would rage. Another pitcher of beer?

This Two Cultures face-off provides the plot for Richard Powers's fifth novel, Galatea 2.2, and it could not be more timely, as developments in neurology, cognitive science and computer technology accelerate and intersect. Technobooster Kevin Kelly, executive editor, no surprise, of Wired, declared bluntly in The New York Times that "the larger convergence of genes and machines [is] a sure thing. The future for many computers will be life." Who's to say he's wrong? Vast electronic "neural nets" process data with massive simultaneity, mimicking the human mind in their ability to learn and develop autonomously through trial and error. DNA-based molecular computers perform hellishly complex computations at a rate that outstrips supercomputers. Backwards reels the wetware.

Mine, that is, not Powers's. No other American novelist now working is better equipped to be less daunted by these developments, or commands the technical expertise and philosophical agility needed to make the debate compelling and convincing in fictional terms. His four previous novels have demonstrated an impressive intellectual reach, a polymath's taste for abstruse and difficult subject matter (genetics, musicology, Flemish art, pediatric surgery), an effortless verbal inventiveness and a metaphorical facility that allow him to weave widely disparate realms of experience into complex and satisfying narrative compositions. His first novel, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, spun a multilayered historical fantasia on a haunting photograph by August Sander, in a manner reminiscent of Thomas Pynchon's V., while his fourth novel, Operation Wandering Soul, set in a pediatrics ward of a large public hospital, was a threnody of storytelling on the theme of children's suffering. Powers's writing is consistently dazzling in its pyrotechnics and its range of reference—and occasionally exhausting. (Sometimes reading him reminds me of watching Pete Maravich play basketball—the unbroken string of flashy moves unrelieved by solid lunch-bucket play.) In all, he is one of the few younger American writers (he's 38) who can stake a claim to the cerebral legacy of Pynchon, Gaddis and DeLillo, and while he as yet lacks their gravity, sardonic humor and salutary anger, his occasional sentimentality is compensated for by his formal ingenuity and wonderfully stocked mind. To place Powers in this league, however, is also, as we'll see, to suggest what is troubling about the book under review.

Powers's vehicle in Galatea 2.2 for his exploration of the conundrums of consciousness and artificial intelligence is a straightforward expropriation of the Pygmalion myth and its Shavian updating. A novelist named "Richard Powers"—in every known particular identical to his creator—has retreated to his alma mater, a Midwestern university, to take up a post as a "token humanist" at the Center for the Study of Advanced Sciences. Powers gives us "Powers" as a wounded man: A long-term affair with a woman called only C. has ended badly and as a result his well of novelistic invention has run dry and his earlier work, so linked was its creation with her, begins to smell of failure. ("An ornate, suffocating allegory about dying pedes at the end of history" is how he describes Operation Wandering Soul.) Thus blocked and idled, he finds himself drawn to the Center's activities and especially its urproject, "the culminating prize of consciousness's long adventure: an owner's manual for the brain."

"Powers" falls into the orbit of the most advanced of these researchers, the acerbic Philip Lentz ("Jacob Bronowski's evil twin"), who tags him with the mocking nickname of Marcel and says tauntingly, "Tell us. What passes for knowledge in your so-called discipline?" In the inevitable college bar, over the inevitable beers, amid the inevitable clutch of international double-domes, the wager is struck: Lentz and "Powers" will have ten months to train one of Lentz's neural nets to read and understand the reading list for the Master's Comprehensive exam, circa late seventies, to the point where in a double-blind situation its literary interpretations are indistinguishable from a real graduate student's.

This is a neat, almost Crichtonesque premise for a newfangled high-tech academic novel, and in many respects Powers brings it off wonderfully. As the two-headed Henry Higgins of the piece, Lentz and "Powers" train up successive implementations of the neural net on progressively more difficult linguistic and cognitive tasks and complicated Socratic dialogues. Reaching Implementation H—tagged Helen—they start the long march through the canon, from Make Way for Ducklings to Blake, Dickinson, Conrad et al. Helen's evolving yet always odd literary and conceptual sophistication is, for the reader, convincingly evoked in its technical particulars, and the fictional portrayal of a "gigantic, lexical genius stuck at Piaget's stage two" avoids the clichés of anthropomorphism and leaves Arthur C. Clarke's HAL well behind. Knowing references to Pinocchio, Frankenstein's monster and Caliban abound, as do many sly digs at contemporary literary theory, and the ongoing Lentz-"Powers" debate on questions of true consciousness versus machine intelligence offers a stimulating window onto paradoxical issues of mind, memory and identity. Inevitably Helen contracts the disease of self-consciousness in a moment of peculiar poignance; "she" and her creators must face the limits of her embryonic humanity and their own.

So far, so high concept. However, interpolated throughout this cybernetic Pygmalion is an exhaustively intimate account by "Richard Powers" of his collegiate and postgraduate career, his relationship with C., their lives in Boston, Urbana and eventually Holland, their melancholy slow-motion breakup, the death of a beloved teacher and the particulars on each of his four previous novels' genesis, composition, publication and reception, including, coyly, quotes from actual reviews that are also used to adorn the bound galley. This is a stunning turn to the nakedly autobiographical by a famously reclusive writer who until recently never even had a jacket photo, and who said in his one previous author profile, in Publishers Weekly, "All that sort of thing [author publicity] 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." So nu?

Various possibilities and justifications present themselves. Has Powers finally succumbed to the ravening narcissism of American life? That seems unlikely—he is no metafictional Pat Conroy, reeling it off by the self-serving yard. A more complex and likely explanation entails a combination of the actual shortage of inspiration that Powers has his alter ego refer to ("I had nothing left in me but the autobiography I'd refused … even to think about") and a self-conscious thematic doubling appropriate to his subject matter—the creation of consciousness. The nickname "Marcel" tips us off that Powers wants us to see Galatea 2.2 as a relative of Proust's masterpiece, an exercise in the literary reclamation of memory, and a book that is a record of an attempt to write a book. Powers might also argue that the circularity of his autobiographical conception echoes the inevitable paradoxes that arise when consciousness undertakes to contemplate and replicate itself. He must create himself as well as Helen from the ground up—at one point "Powers" reads her his love letters to C. as a tutorial on romantic literature.

To all of which one can assent while replying that fiction and speculative philosophy have divergent dynamics, and elegance in one realm does not imply effectiveness in the other. You can appreciate the complicated narrative games being played here while questioning their ultimate effect. Powers may have set traps for the literal minded—in particular, C. and the graduate student A., with whom "Powers" falls in love at the end of the book, may be completely fictional—but enough to his inner life is spelled out to give even the sympathetic reader pause. There is a pawky mixture of painful sincerity and self-regard in this material that feels a bit post-adolescent, and the love story is so naked in its emotionality that it provokes some embarrassment—whether C. exists or not. In all, it doesn't seem to this reviewer that the literary and aesthetic payoff for Powers to have gone public in this way compensates for the damage it does to his authorial aura. It creates some nagging doubts and a sense of pseudo-intimacy where there was once confidence and a feeling of mysterious distance—this last a valuable resource when tackling, as Powers does, the darker and more intractable aspects of our lives.

Richard Powers has staked out a unique place for himself, one that straddles our technological and our literary cultures. He may be the last humanist with a scientific competence, an invaluable thing when the notion that humans may be just another variety of complex system haunts our sense of ourselves. In its strongest moments Galatea 2.2 realizes the possibilities of that position splendidly. And with all of Richard Powers's autobiographical cards now so definitively on the table, I look forward to learning less about his self and/or his meta-self and more in his next novel about the world in which we both must live.

Robert Cohen (review date 23 July 1995)

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SOURCE: "Pygmalion in the Computer Lab," in The New York Times Book Review, July 23, 1995, p. 17.

[In the positive review below, Cohen discusses the major themes in Galatea 2.2.]

It should come as no surprise that writers make lousy company. All those hours alone at the desk, fretting over words—and for what? The very medium they've chosen to connect themselves to the lived life of the planet also serves to detach them from it. And so they wind up feeling like the ape that inspired Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, who, after months of coaxing, managed to produce the first drawing by an animal: "This sketch showed the bars of the poor creature's cage."

Why this should be so—why words should prove so heartbreakingly clumsy and inadequate when asked to perform what is after all their primary function, communication—is one of many urgent subjects explored in Richard Powers's fifth novel. Galatea 2.2 is an ingenious, ambitious, at times dizzily cerebral work. But then so were Mr. Powers's previous novels—Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, Prisoner's Dilemma, The Gold Bug Variations and Operation Wandering Soul—each of which also figures here. One way to read Galatea 2.2 (and there are many) is as a sort of penitential autobiography of a novelist, a critical and self-reflexive pause, at midlife, to take stock. As the novel's narrator puts it: "Thirty-five shamed me into seeing that I'd gotten everything until then hopelessly wrong. That I could not read even my own years."

This deceptively simple challenge—learning how to read and tell one's own stories, and to whom—is, of course, everything. But how to attain such knowledge? How to wrest language "back from metaphor, to move around in it, through the lattice-work of lived time"? How to find meaningful meaning, especially when, as the academy now tells us, meaning itself is "an ambiguous social construction of no more than sardonic interest"?

By way of an answer, Mr. Powers tells us a story. A novelist (named, as it happens, Richard Powers) returns to U., a university town in the Midwest, as humanist in residence at the Center for the Study of Advanced Sciences. It is a temporary fellowship, providing a place to lick his wounds and begin the process of reinventing himself. And he needs some reinvention. He has broken up with a woman he calls C., the great love of his life; he has finished his fourth novel, about which he feels desolate; and he is surrounded by scientists and technicians who make him feel like a "double agent." He lives alone in an unfurnished house, like that most forlorn of species, the aging graduate student, musing over his years with C. in the town of U., in B. (Boston) and in E. (a village in the Netherlands). To top it off, he develops an enormous crush on a fetching young literary theorist, A., who has little use for him and his private alphabet.

Enter Philip Lentz, a brilliant cognitive neurologist—a cross between Mann's Settembrini and Dr. Frankenstein—with whom Powers has long debates about practically everything. It is Lentz who poses the wondrous, ludicrous challenge that propels the novel forward: to create, by means of computer-based neural networks, a mechanical brain capable of passing the comprehensive exams in English literature. "To train our circus animal in Faulkner or Thomas Gray," Powers reflects, "we would first have to exhilarate it with the terror of words. The circuits we laid down would have to include the image of the circuit itself before memory overhauled it. The net would have to remember what it would be again, one day, when forgetting set in for good."

It's an offer our young Pygmalion—a born teacher—cannot refuse. What better way to explore the value of literature than to imprint it upon the blankest of blank slates? What better way to see the uses of his own vocation—to ask, as the neural network (her name is Helen) later does: "Why do humans write so much? Why do they write at all?" Because they are lonely and full of regret. Because, as Helen comes to see, "the mind makes forever, in order to store the things it has already lost."

The experiment with Helen—the coming of age of a young machine—provides the foreground action of the book. The background, which moves in what only seems to be the opposite direction, is the tale of Powers's own past, his failed first love and the meager consolations that art intermittently tosses his way. One of the great pleasures of the novel is discovering that both narrative arcs turn out, in the end, to be love stories. They run parallel Turing tests, tracing paths across the disciplines that are adventures in what Lentz (wittily, with a nod to Forster) calls "connectionism."

Interestingly, it is the science part of the narrative, the tale of a machine that learned to live, that proves to be the more moving, the more human one. Whether Mr. Powers—the writer, not the character—intends this ironically, I can't tell. The breadth and artifice of the novel might suggest a dazzling comic romp à la Thomas Pynchon or Tom Stoppard: "The Magic Mainframe," say, or "My Fair Laptop." But it doesn't read that way.

Though the interplay of cybernetics and literary theory yields a great deal of marvelous talk, the autobiographical passages have a curious solemnity and self-consciousness that make the book feel at times less an exploration of what it means to be human that what it means to be Richard Powers. "Writing," he posits at one point, "was never more than the climb from buried love's grave." From a writer of such heavy intellectual candlepower, this seems a rather narrow, even maudlin view of the art. You're tempted to answer with a line from Lentz: "All the meanings are yours."

But that response doesn't do justice to the novel's complexity. If some of Galatea 2.2 feels closed and airless, much of it soars and spins. The sessions with Helen gain more and greater urgency; every new line on the graph of her expanding consciousness is also a stake through what seems to be, impossibly, her heart. "I want Richard to explain me," she laments.

As Helen approaches her endgame—"I don't want to play anymore"—the various strands of Galatea 2.2 come together, and the novel attains an aching, melancholy beauty. You can feel the warring themes in the language—the noisy chatter of the world's puppet show; the hermitic, dirgelike procession of the self—fall away as the book too, like that lonely, far-flung network of computer linkages called Helen, transcends its mechanical origins and becomes.

"The dominant tense was now," Mr. Powers writes. "The point of stories was what you did with them." In Galatea 2.2 he has stitched together out of disparate materials a heady and provocative experiment and brought it to life.

Further Reading

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Gray, Paul. "What Is the Meaning of Life?" Time 138, No. 9 (2 September 1991): 68.

Positive review of The Gold Bug Variations in which Gray discusses the work's four main characters.

Horvath, Brooke K. Review of Prisoner's Dilemma, by Richard Powers. The Review of Contemporary Fiction X, No. 3 (Fall 1990): 221-22.

Offers a positive review of Prisoner's Dilemma and briefly notes Powers's similarities to such authors as Thomas Pynchon, John Updike, and John Steinbeck.

Review of The Gold Bug Variations, by Richard Powers. The New Yorker LXVII, No. 49 (27 January 1992): 84.

Briefly reviews The Gold Bug Variations. The critic concludes that a "prolix glibness is the novel's weakness … and although the author tries to leaven his very large themes with humor and playful coincidence, the result seems in the end more like fatal cuteness."

Skow, John. "Children's Ward." Time 142, No. 3 (19 July 1993): 62-3.

Negative review of Operation Wandering Soul.

Updike, John. Review of Galatea 2.2, by Richard Powers. The New Yorker (21-28 August 1995): 105-14.

Positive review in which Updike discusses Powers's exploration of consciousness in Galatea 2.2.


Richard Powers Long Fiction Analysis