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Richard Powers has been called reclusive, but the term is misleading. Although he struggles to maintain a low profile, fearing that celebrity will make inordinate demands on the time he needs to write, he is outgoing. Interviewers find him cooperative but firm in his refusal to share the personal information around which interviews with notables often revolve.

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This reluctance is not a pose Powers has adopted to project some calculated public image. He firmly believes, however, that one’s writing must stand on its merits, that details about the life of an author or an author’s autograph on the flyleaf of a book should affect neither the public perception of what authors produce nor the value of their books.

Powers’s novels display an easy command of specific information about an amazing range of subjects, from literature to art to photography to science to music to history to astronomy to folklore. His knowledge in this daunting array of subjects is not superficial: He has a thorough understanding of the subjects he chooses to explore and he absorbs complex information quickly.

An encompassing influence on Powers’s literary structure is the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, stemming from his exposure to Bach’s music as a cellist. Elements of Bach’s harmony and, particularly, Bach’s counterpoint underlie the structure of Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance (1985) and Prisoner’s Dilemma (1988). The Gold Bug Variations (1991) draws its title in part from Bach’s The Goldberg Variations; its structure stems from Powers’s comprehensive understanding of Bach’s inventions.

There are thirty Goldberg variations; Powers’s novel has thirty chapters. Bach’s Variations were based upon four notes or musical phrases; the number four, a controlling element in Powers’s novel, is fundamental to an understanding of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), the mysteries of which play a central role in The Gold Bug Variations. Powers’s title alludes both to Bach’s musical masterpiece and to Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Gold Bug.” The latter correspondence alerts readers to the cryptograms and veiled allusions that pervade the novel.

An interchapter toward the end of Prisoner’s Dilemma provides a rare bit of autobiographical information about Powers. Major elements of Prisoner’s Dilemma are autobiographical, although not dependably so. In the autobiographical interchapter, for example, Powers reveals that although his fictional family consists of the Hobsons and their four children, his actual family consisted of his parents, Richard Franklin and Donna Powers, and five children. Major elements of this book, set in De Kalb, Illinois, where Powers lived during his high school years, draw upon details surrounding his father’s final illness.

Much of Operation Wandering Soul (1993) is based upon experiences that the author’s older brother, a surgeon, had when he completed a rotation as a resident in pediatric surgery in a large California hospital. In this novel, the protagonist is named Richard Kraft. Kraft is German for power, the plural form of which is the author’s name. In his other novels, Powers plays with his surname, dedicating Prisoner’s Dilemma to “the powers.”

Powers, a physics major for his first two years at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, graduated in 1978 with a bachelor’s degree in rhetoric, completing his university studies with a perfect A average. The following fall, he entered Illinois’s master’s degree program in English, receiving the M.A. in 1980. For three semesters, he held teaching assistantships in composition and literature. Upon completing the master’s degree, Powers lived for nearly three years in the Boston area before returning to Champaign in 1983.

Powers, honored in 1986 by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, was named a MacArthur Fellow in 1989. Three Farmers on Their Way to a...

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