The Time of Our Singing
Formal patterning has always been a predominant feature of Richard Powers's fiction. Powers doesn't so much tell stories (although his fiction has plenty of narrative power) as allow them to emerge from the interplay of buried forces, illustrated most fundamentally, perhaps, by the DNA molecule, the quest for the stucture of which is dramatized in The Gold-Bug Variation (and in turn is associated with the formal patterning of music, represented by J.S. Bach's use of counterpoint.) Typically a Powers novel connects two narrative "strands" together in such a way that the result--the novel itself--exceeds the effects each story might have produced separately, creating something "new." (Gain, for example, poses the story of a woman fighting ovarian cancer against the history of the company that very likely produced the fertilizer that caused the cancer, offering up a more complex perspective on the depicted events in the process; Plowing the Dark accomplishes the same effect by juxtaposing the development of an advanced version of virtual reality with the plight of a man taken hostage in Lebanon, who has, of course, only the "virtual" reality he can summon up inside his head.)
The Time of Our Singing is every bit as ambitious as Powers's previous novels in its themes (history, the nature of time itself), but in this case his treatment of these themes is at least as heavy-handed as the themes are profound. It's not that Powers lacks insight or sensitivity in his approach to the novel's most incendiary theme--race--but his insights seem too explicitly telegraphed, the formal patterning and its suggestiveness too pat. I agree with Sven Birkerts: ". . .Powers also wants to fathom the root brutalities of race, and at this he is less successful. If he has always fallen short in the presentation of viscerally compelling characters (his are too often fleshed-out tendencies, personalities conveniently narrowed around their obsessions), he has generally compensated with the intricacy of his designs and with sentences rich in ideas. But his previous subjects. . .lent themselves more readily to his formalism." The Time of Our Singing either points up the limitations of Powers's kind of formalism, or it reveals Powers's ambitions in this instance to be leading him in a direction not well-suited to his strengths as a novelist. Or both.
To say that Powers "has always fallen short in the presentation of viscerally compelling characters" is to say only that he has attempted to exploit the possibilities of fiction in a way that doesn't rely on "viscerally compelling characters" to engage the reader's interest. He wants the reader to involve him/herself in the "intricacy" of design, to find in the tracing out of the incremental, spiralling pattern a source of interest at least as compelling as character identification, if not more so, since Powers's novels make it clear that the writer's job is not merely to tell stories and evoke characters, but to use such things as story and character to make something fresh from the form, to find the means to unite story, character, and theme with form in a way that is mutually reinforcing: character is tied to the evolving revelations of form, formal ingenuity itself embodies and discloses theme. It is said that Powers is a novelist interested in "ideas," especially scientific ideas, but even here Powers uses science--in The Time of Our Singing, quantum physics--to help construct formal patterns that, while illustrative of the ideas and their implications, are also themselves aesthetically provocative.
But in The Time of Our Singing, Powers seems to want his overlapping episodes and cross-narrative echoes to do more than reverberate with implied or suggestive meaning. He wants his complex construction to carry a heavy thematic load indeed, no less than the racial history of the United States in the twentieth century. He wants to sum up that history through his emblematic characters (a pair of biracial brothers attempting to make it the all-white world of classical music) and his narrative stops at key events in postwar history (the Emmett Till murder, the 60s riots, the Million Man March). He wants the novel to dramatize the intractability of racial attitudes, the consequences of struggling with those attitudes (or, in the case of one of the brothers, Jonah, depicted in the novel as a musical prodigy of gargantuan proportions, of attempting to avoid them), the fate of idealism in such a morally compromised country as the United States. These themes come off as, at best, obvious, if anything even more banal because of the elaborate structure supporting them; it's a needlessly labored way of proffering "ideas" that don't require such circuitous treatment.
In my opinion, the most intriguing theme Powers pursues in this novel is the putative conflict between high art (as represented by Western classical music) and folk or popular art (as represented by various forms of African-American music). Is Jonah guilty of betraying his race by attempting to distinguish himself as a singer of the white man's music, or is he demonstrating that serious art is beyond race? But I have to say that, at best, Powers equivocates on the matter. On the one hand, Jonah's musical performances are almost always described in a rapturous manner (over the course of a 630-page novel, this actually become rather tiresome), as if he had indeed found himself in a realm that denies cultural markers. On the other, Jonah acquires a tinge of moral dishonor that he never really loses. That he dies of injuries sustained during the Los Angeles riots unavoidably implies he only gets what is coming to him. There is finally a tone of political correctness in Powers's portrayal of these matters that sounds some disappointingly flat notes.
On the other hand, I cannot agree with Daniel Mendelsohn, who in his review of the novel writes that Powers's "weakness as a writer is the weakness of all conceptual artists: you may admire his elaborate installations, but you sometimes find yourself missing the simple pleasures of good old-fashioned painting. (Beautiful brushwork, for one: Powers has never been a writer of lovely sentences. . . ." If Mendelsohn means by "lovely sentences" the kind of safe, pseudo-poetic figurative language that passes for "good writing" in too much literary fiction, then I would agree that Powers's prose is not "lovely." But if Mendelsohn is suggesting that Powers has no prose style, that he sacrifices language to the contrivances of his "elaborate installations," then I have to say that Mendelsohn is not reading Richard Powers very attentively. Take, for instance this remarkable bit of Cubistic prose::
"My brother's face was a school of fishes. His grin was not one thing, but a hundred darting ones. I have a photograph--one of the few from my childhood that escaped incineration. In it, the two of us open Christmas presents on the nubby floral-print sofa that sat in our front room. His eyes look everywhere at once; at his own present, a three-segment expanding telescope; at mine, a metronome; at Rootie, who clutches his knee, wanting to see for herself; at our photographing father deep in his act of stopping time; at Mama, just past the picture's frame; at a future audience, looking, from a century on, at this sheltered Christmas creche, long after all of us are dead."
Or this passage, evoking the narrator's struggle to understand his own musical experience:
"The game was leverage, control. Speed and span, how to crack open the intervals, widen them from on high, raise the body's focus from finger into arm, lengthen the arm like a hawk on the wing. I'd coat the line in rubato, or tie every note into a legato flow. I'd round the phrase or clip it, then pedal the envelope and let it ring. I'd turn the baby grand into a two-manual harpsichord. Play, stop, lift, rewind, repeat, stop, lift, back a line, back a phrase, back two bars, half a bar, the turn, the transition, the note, the thinnest edge of attack. My brain sank into states of perfect tedium laced with intense thrill. I was a plant extracting petals from sunlight, water wearing away a continent's coast."
Powers's prose style may not be conventionally "lovely," but its rough spots are part of what makes it compelling. It has an exuberance, a headlong rush of energy, of determination to describe as vividly as possible the phenomena under scrutiny, that makes most workshop-derived "loveliness" seem dessicated in comparison. Powers provides plenty of arresting images--"My brother's face was a school of fishes," "a plant extracting petals from sunlight"--but his prose is distinctive for its stop-start rhythm, its unrestrained alliteration, its use of lists and various kinds of cumulative phrasing.
It is precisely his style, his immersion in language, combined with his formal imagination, that has made me an admirer of Richard Powers's fiction. Unfortunately, in The Time of Our Singing (as he also did in Operation Wandering Soul), Powers too tightly harnesses both style and form to the exposition of "theme" in a manner that is much too earnest for my taste.
The Echo Maker
In his review of Richard Powers's The Echo Maker, William Deresiewicz exclaims that Powers "has been called an experimental novelist for some reason, but aside from a predilection for double plots, his approach to narrative is quite conventional, even naïve."
On the other hand, "The Echo Maker will tell you a great deal about neuroscience, environmental degradation and the migratory patterns of the sandhill crane, but like Powers's other novels, it won't tell you much about what its laboriously accumulated information and elaborately constructed concepts have to do with what it means to be alive at a particular time and place, or what it feels like," which, pronounces Deresiewicz, "is what novels are for."
Thus Deresiewicz the narrative theorist finds Powers insufficiently attuned to the possibilities of formal experiment, while Deresiewicz the "naive" thematic critic, preoccupied with "content," faults him for not focusing on "what it means to be alive at a particular time and place." It's a pretty good critical trick, to censure a novelist both for overemphasizing his "elaborately constructed concepts" and not emphasizing them enough. Powers excessively stresses "head" and "heart," all at the same time!
Always beware of literary critics who come to inform us what novels really "are for." It's the act of someone who usually doesn't much care about the artistic possibilities of literary forms at all but has decided that some works pass muster according to the critic's own selective criteria. More often than not, we're told that fiction ought to perform the function Deresiewicz appears to favor (we'll assume he's really more a partisan of the heart), that it reveal something about what it means "to be human," but whether the mold to which novels should conform is formal or thematic, a conventionalizing of manner or matter, the effect is to reinforce the notion that "the novel" is a single entity, a fixed form, something that can produce either genuine copies of itself or else some aberrational version, a mere literary pretender in prose.
The processes of self-replication are, of course, at the heart of what I think is still Powers's best novel, The Gold Bug Variations, embedded in its very formal/narrative arrangement as it tells, in part, the story of the uncovering of the double helix structure of the DNA molecule. But what the novel suggests, in the intertwining of this story with the present-day story of the uncovering of a now-forgotten scientist's role in the earlier uncovering, etc. is that the meeting-up of a few basic, fairly simple parts (the DNA proteins) can result in continually new, potentially infinite combinations, resulting in both varied human organisms and, as applied analogically and metaphorically to the writing of fiction, fresh and surprising formal compositions. ("Composition" being further implicated in the aesthetic design of The Gold Bug Variations through the associations the scientist, Stuart Ressler, himself makes between the DNA strand and the musicals scores of J.S. Bach.) For the most part, Powers's subsequent books have attempted to explore the possibilities of this alernative view of "storytelling," through which stories are linked to other stories, all such stories themselves composed of the additional, previous stories making them what they are.
I actually agree with Deresiewicz that The Time of Our Singing, Powers's last novel, "represented something of a departure" from his established practice (and he surely ought not to be criticized simply for attempting something different, at least in the context of his own developing career). I also agree that it suffers from didacticism and sentimentality, although one would think that Deresiewicz would acknowledge that these flaws mostly originate from the effort to fill the prescription he himself is issuing, to depict "what it feels like" to "be alive at a particular time and place," but he instead only affirms what we long-term Powers readers already know: that his talent does not lend itself to the conventional tasks of "fleshing out" his characters in a manner acceptable to the critic looking for "real people" in fiction rather than formal ingenuity or stylistic brilliance. Since Deresiewicz concludes that the moralizing of The Time of Our Singing "make[s] you feel as if you were being jabbed in the chest by someone on the verge of bursting into tears," it would seem only logical to allow that Powers might perhaps better serve his talent by sticking to those "elaborately constructed concepts" featured in his other novels.
How surprising, then, that after correctly pointing out the weaknesses of The Time of Our Singing, Deresiewicz tells us that "The Echo Maker marks. . .a further departure in promising directions," even if it does ultimately signal "the return of old problems." Ultimately, Deresiewicz's principal criticism of Powers's work is the same criticism that has periodically been made since the publication of his first book, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance. It's too cerebral, too interested in "ideas" at the expense of characters and plots, too "cold." That Powers has now chosen to tell stories that hew "closer than before to the emotional bone" would seem to take care of most of these problems, but no, the ideas still "bury the story that's meant to bear them." As it happens, I share the view that The Echo Maker continues the "departure" begun by The Time of Our Singing, but I think it's a lamentable development and that, far from weighing down "the story" in The Echo Maker, the ideas are borne much too lightly, are too facilely incorporated into a story that otherwise doesn't really convey much interest.
Part of the problem with The Echo Maker flows from the narrative technique Powers employs, quite consciously, as it turns out: ". . .my technique was what some scholars of narrative have called double voicing. Every section of the book (until a few passages at the end) is so closely focalized through Mark, Karin, or Weber that even the narration of material event is voiced entirely through their cognitive process: the world is nothing more than what these sensibilities assemble, without any appeal to outside authority." In other words, Powers has chosen a more or less conventional version of "psychological realism." Everything that happens is filtered through the consciousness and understanding of one of the three characters; their world is presented to us as they perceive it through their ongoing experiences.
To the extent that the novel is focused thematically on the way in which "reality" is affected if not determined by our own brain states, this strategy makes perfect sense, but it does make it necessary that the ideas of neuroscience, which Powers certainly does seem interested in explicating, are offered up in a version of the "infodump," scattered around as lumps of Gerald Weber's "cognitive process." To me, the conceit of "misrecognition," or other potential tropes derived from neuroanalysis, are never really integrated into the novel's narrative scheme, made into a complementary formal device in the way The Gold Bug Variation or Gain uses the double helix. The ideas are talked about, reflected upon, but never really transformed into aesthetic effects that make the novel interesting as something other than a forum for discussion of the fragility of neural networks.
A secondary consequence of this is that The Echo Maker abandons Powers's previous strategy of transposing events in time and space, hitching together seemingly unrelated stories (as in Plowing the Dark, say), to produce unanticipated correspondences. Paradoxically, The Echo Maker lacks this "echoing" effect. I could only read it as a disappointingly orthodox psychological study of three characters confronting crisis and emerging changed but more or less intact. The characters themselves are not really interesting enough to carry the weight of a 450-page narrative, and the occasional lyric interludes (some of which are nevertheless very impressive, especially those devoted to the sandhill cranes and their own environmental crisis) cannot make up for the novel's overall aesthetic lassitude. I found myself struggling to get through some of this book, which has never before happened in my reading of Richard Powers.
In his conclusion, Deresiewicz asserts that "Instead of letting the story speak, [Powers] is the only one who speaks. Instead of locating meaning in experience, he locates it in ideas. But novels should test ideas, not surrender to them." On the one hand, this only demonstrates that Deresiewicz is unable to make even the most basic kind of distinction between author and character, between characters who "speak" and authors who merely allow them to do so. He is unable to appreciate the aesthetic choice Powers has made to evoke a world that is "nothing more than what these sensibilities assemble, without any appeal to outside authority." If the characters in a novel discuss "ideas," by Deresiewicz's reckoning those ideas are perforce the author's ideas. On the other hand, he apparently doesn't recognize that in The Echo Maker Powers is precisely "testing ideas," and that this is the reason it ultimately fails to satisfy. Powers is engaged in "locating meaning in experience," it's just that the experiences being rendered are litterred with unprocessed ideas, leaving both the experiences and the ideas inadequately shaped into a compelling aesthetic whole.
It seems to me that in both of his last two books Powers shows signs of listening to the criticisms of his work that have been made by the likes of William Deresiewicz, that he is too enthralled with scientific ideas and his characters are insufficiently "human." He has tried to write novels more obviously rooted in character and emotion, but if Deresiewicz's response is any indication, trying to satisfy his critics is a losing propostion. He'll never be accepted as a writer who tells us "what it feels like." Although I fear that, having been rewarded for this latest effort with a National Book Award, Powers will conclude that his "departure" toward more conventional literary terrain has been rewarded, and he will stay for a while on this misguided path.