Thursday, November 16, 2006


Earthly Powers

Yesterday afternoon I was chatting on the phone with a friend, and we tried to handicap the impending National Book Awards. I put my money on Richard Powers to win--he's been nominated for all sorts of prizes (including, on two different occasions, the NBCC) but tends to walk away empty-handed. I placed this bet without having read The Echo Maker, whose opening pages seemed a little purplish for my tastes. Lo and behold, he won. I thought I would mark the occasion by dredging up (I mean, repurposing) an interview I did with him in 1998, when Gain was published. At that point Powers was doing one of his rare publicity tours--he's not a guy with much relish for the PR treadmill--and I was working at Amazon. For the record, he was the only visiting author ever to ask if he could see the machine room, where the servers and silicon-based viscera of the company were stashed. (His request was declined: the room was top secret). I began the conversation by asking Powers about his intellectual background.

Richard Powers: I had studied physics as an undergraduate at the University of Illinois in Urbana. At some point, though, I realized that I would have to close as many doors in that discipline as in any other. So I took a master's degree in English literature, thinking that this was the last domain of the generalists. But fairly quickly I discovered that the professionalization of that field also made it impossible to keep the aerial view.

James Marcus: So you didn't go for a doctorate?

Powers: No. After leaving school, I moved to Boston and worked as a computer programmer and was pretty much reading in a random, pleasure-driven way. I did that for the better part of a year.

Marcus: What led you to begin Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance?

Powers: I was living in the Fens just behind the Fine Arts Museum, and would head in there every Saturday morning when you could go for free. One day they were having this retrospective of August Sander, a German photographer who was completely unknown to me--this was his first North American exhibition, I think. And I have a visceral memory of walking around the corner into this room and seeing that photograph. It really was an uncanny feeling. I felt as if that gaze had been positioned there for 70 years and I was just now coming into contact with it. And when I read the caption--"Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, Westerwald, 1914"--the hair on the back of my neck stood up. I realized they weren't on their way to the dance that they thought they were on their way to. Anyway, that was a Saturday. On Monday I gave my two weeks' notice.

Marcus: So it was this particular artifact that really set the book in motion?

Powers: Yeah. And as I looked at that artifact, or very shortly afterwards, I realized that everything I'd been reading at random for the last year and a half really converged around a single moment--the birth moment of the 20th century. The age of mechanical reproduction, the age of mass warfare, the age of the interdependence of the viewer and the viewed. My random walk through all the books I couldn't read while I was in graduate school really did cohere and coalesce.

Marcus: After this breakthrough, how long did it take you to write the book?

Powers: Just about two years. I kept ends together by freelancing--back then a little bit of programming skill went a long way. You could do a six-week job and build up the war chest for a while.

Marcus: Following the publication of Three Farmers, you were living abroad, weren't you?

Powers: That's right. I wrote a first draft of Prisoner's Dilemma and then moved to the Netherlands, where I finished it. Then I began work on Gold Bug. I spent almost six years there.

Marcus: Did you ever consider staying there, or did you know it was a temporary expatriation?

Powers: I never know anything. It's tough to figure out what's going on next week.

Marcus: For this week, anyway, you're living in New York City. Do you find that a congenial place?

Powers: It's been terrific. Very productive--a nice mix of isolation and connection.

Marcus: Your publisher made it clear that you wouldn't be signing books on this tour--or at all, for that matter. Is this a philosophical objection to books as commodities?

Powers: I suppose it is. In some sense all my books are concerned with recovering human meaning and human value from the commodity. But Three Farmers in particular revolved around a search for an original photograph--an authorized version. And having concluded that the authorized version of the 20th century is the one you authorize--by engagement with the story--I felt that it would be hypocritical to turn around and do limited, author-signed editions. That was the original impetus, and I've been foolishly consistent with it ever since.

Marcus: All of your books present a fairly jaundiced view of the 20th century. In Three Farmers, for example, World War I seems to mark the beginning of a disastrous era. In Gain, a reader might reasonably conclude that the invention of the steam engine sent us straight to hell. But was there a prelapsarian moment? Are the good old days pure mythology?

Powers: I do think that changes in technology sufficiently alter the material conditions of existence. Meaning that they also alter whatever state of mind we develop to survive the conditions of material existence. That's not to say that displacement, bafflement, and alienation, haven't always existed. Look at Ecclesiastes, right? But I don't think the books are jaundiced in the sense of denying any kind of emotional repertoire for responding to technology. In fact, one of the things that compels me about fiction is the attempt to open up a new dialogue with the terms of our existence. That strikes me as the opposite of jaundiced, really.

Marcus: I wasn't suggesting that your books were Luddite tracts! What's more, your evident fascination with computers or genetics or economics becomes quite contagious. You make technology a reader-friendly subject.

Powers: My sense of technology is that it's not separable from those of us who create, receive, and consume. And just as the current business crisis has been brought about by externalizing the costs--by sweeping the consequences and debits under the rug--the crisis of contemporary sensibility is the result of externalizing the process of technology. Somehow we want to exonerate ourselves from the world we are making. We want to blame other people with nefarious purposes. I think it's more accurate and honest to say that the processes that we've set in motion are us.

Marcus: In Gain you refer to "our culture of permanent adolescence." Is this a specifically American sort of adolescence?

Powers: However widespread it may be, we've certainly elevated it to a real art form. It's hard to think of anybody who's got a really big balance-of-trade advantage over us when it comes to cyclic consumer churning.

Marcus: You've interspersed commercial handbills and flyers from the fictional Clare Soap and Chemical Corporation throughout Gain. Was that part of your initial design?

Powers: Yes, that came fairly early on. I envisioned this book as dialogue between two individuals. One is the literal individual: Laura, a 42-year-old woman who's just minding her own business and trying to live the good life. The other is a limited liability corporation.

Marcus: Which is a peculiar sort of individual.

Powers: Exactly. In fact, John Marshall used the word fiction in that famous 1819 Supreme Court decision, Dartmouth v. Woodward. He wrote that "the corporation is a fictional entity." The thing is, a fictional entity like Clare Soap and Chemical is ultimately operating beyond any individual's ability to understand or control it. Yet this 180-year-old individual is in a constant dialogue with this woman, and she with it, even though they can scarcely conceive of each other. It was easy to develop a voice and a life for Laura, and a series of dramatic confrontations through which her plight becomes known to her and to the reader. But early on I realized that in order to bring this company to life, I was going to have to get into that rhetoric that corporations use to perpetuate themselves.

Marcus: There's a wonderful moment in the book when the brothers Clare are agonizing over whether to incorporate. In exchange for losing absolute control over the company, they'll be granting eternal life to the creature that is Clare. It's a kind of Faustian bargain, isn't it?

Powers: It's a strange Faustian bargain--and it's our principal one. When I was doing all the research on this, I made an interesting discovery, which is that corporations were deeply suspected, even by businessmen, in the early 19th century. They believed that people who couldn't run a business by themselves didn't deserve special dispensations.

Marcus: Along with being a history of corporate America, Gain struck me as an enormous meditation on transubstantiation--commercial, chemical, psychological, and so forth. In each case, there's something mysterious about how one thing changes into another.

Powers: I haven't heard a better formulation of what's at stake. You know, all commerce and industry is basically about this weird notion of taking something without value and turning it into something valuable. And "transubstantiation" links up to the religious, meaning mysterious, sense of that equation. There's a paradox in trade. You have widgets and I have gizmos, we make this swap, and somehow we both end up richer! The same thing is true of manufacture. Again, it's not a zero-sum game. I take a pound of fat, I make two pounds of soap with it. I take a pound of soap and trade it back for another pound of fat--and now I've got a pound left over to sell to somebody else. The mystery of profit is actually quite profound.

Marcus: Not to mention the mystery of cancer.

Powers: There is, as you say, something in the process of growth that passes all understanding. Yet I think Laura's illness gives her a kind of privileged position to look back and see what that mystery is--to see how deeply she has assimilated it into her life.

Marcus: At the end of the book, Laura's grown-up son creates a chunk of computer code that will transform just about anything: its "ambidextrous data structures looked out Janus-faced to mesh with both raw source and finished product." Several hundred pages earlier, the rudimentary chemistry of soap is described as a similarly Janus-faced operation. What are we to make of this symmetry?

Powers: I find that moment potentially quite chilling. The Janus-faced quality of the soap molecule, the Janus-faced quality of the protein-folding code--well, it's hard to tell whether the sins of the fathers are being recapitulated or redeemed! Are we creating the answer to the problems that we've set in motion, or are we compounding them? It's also the profound mystery of art, I guess. Are we mirroring the world or reducing it? The heart of the representation paradox is that the map isn't the place--but it can get us to the place, somehow, if we don't believe the map too much.

Marcus: Let me ask a question that applies not only to Gain but to all your books. Do your ideas--and these are very much novels of ideas--typically generate your narratives, or vice-versa?

Powers: It's been a little different with each project. What I'm really interested in doing is learning how to write a book where all of the processes that are available to the human organism are at work--the analytical side as well as the unmediated emotional engagement. There's some sense that these are inimical, and that you have to declare your mode and choose between them. But I don't think that's necessarily the case. I don't think that's the way that we live: we carry these things in consonance inside us. Consequently, I think that books have to evolve from two directions at once. There has to be that kind of top-down formulation where you know your theme and your research is driving outwards and accreting detail. At the same time, you have to work from the bottom up, providing a point of emotional identification for the reader. You have to flesh these characters out, and allow them to do things that are going to be surprising to you. The problem, of course, is that these two tunnels--the top-down tunnel and the bottom-up tunnel--are never going to meet on the first pass. So the act of writing is always the act of rewriting. The multiple revisions and edits give you the chance to align form and content at every level.

Marcus: Are there any contemporaries who seem particularly adept at getting those two tunnels to meet?

Powers: Sure. I mean, my fiction reading is slightly thwarted by the amount of research that I have to do to write the books. But in the time I do have to read my contemporaries, I'm constantly amazed at how vigorous and eclectic and far-ranging and adventuresome American fiction is right now. That happy confluence of a novel of ideas and a novel of character is actually being achieved by lots of people. Pynchon, for example, does it magnificently in Mason & Dixon, in a way that even the astonishments of his previous books didn't match. At the opposite end of the spectrum, there's somebody like Eric Kraft. He's writing deeply humorous and engaging and entertaining books, and yet they're all part of a big project, which is itself quite idea-driven and recursive. Between those poles, we have hundreds of writers. There's Maureen Howard and Bradford Morrow and Joanna Scott, to name just a few. And there are the folks I'm often compared to, like David Foster Wallace or Jonathan Franzen. All of them are linking ideas to character revelation, and doing it with the kind of success that would drive me to despair if there weren't so much pleasure in reading it.

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