Richard Powers is Americas greatest living novelist. So, in literary
circles, one is occasionally told, and the judgment gathers force with
each new Powers novel. Powerss first, Three Farmers on Their
Way to a Dance (1985), was such an extravaganza of virtues that
its cautious reception, while probably necessary, did meager justice
to its authors promise. Powerss third novel, The Gold
Bug Variations (1991), established him as valedictorian of the class
of young brainiac novelists like David Foster Wallace and William T.
Vollmann. After Goldbug came Operation Wandering Soul,
Galatea 2.2, and Gain, each striking critics such as John
Updike, Thomas Mallon, and Michiko Kakutani as singular achievements
of emotional intensity, intellectual reach, and prose as beautifully
allusive (if, occasionally, florid) as it is poetically precise. Here
was a writer who could, seemingly, capture anything in a sentence, from
the moral character of Henry Ford (in Farmers) to the agony of
cancer (in Gain).
All of which makes one approach Plowing the Dark, Powerss
seventh novel, with some expectation. Its opening chunk of italicized,
simile-beset prose causes some unease. (Powerss novels, it should
be said, often suffer awkward beginnings.) As one reads on, the never-explained
title grows more and more opaque, and one hopes that Plowing the
Dark shares only titular obscurity with Operation Wandering Soul,
by far Powerss least successful novel. Soon, though, familiar
Powers elements begin to cohere: the brilliant, disaffected characters;
the narrative based upon dueling storylines; and the huge, vaulting
themesin this case, the purpose of art.
The disaffected characters here are Steve Spiegel, an engineer-turned-poet-turned-code
writer; Adie Klarpol, a once-promising artist reduced to freelance design;
and Taimur Martin, a half-Iranian American fleeing Chicago and a failed
love affair to teach English in Beirut, where he is taken hostage by
Islamic terrorists. Spiegel and Klarpols story is staggered, not
always consistently, with Martins.
As the novel opens, Spiegel lures Klarpol away from her New York demimonde
to the nascent techworld (it is the mid 1980s) of the Pacific Northwest.
There, she serves as the resident artist for a start-up called the Realization
Lab. Its mandate is to construct a virtual reality antechamber known
as "the Cavern," which can morph into a jungle, a dreamscape,
or Van Goghs "Room at Arles," among other locales. Powerss
celebrated gifts of description never quite manage to convey the Caverns
actualities, and some of the details (VR glasses in 1987?) seem willful
anachronisms. The Caverns transfiguration, however, is another
matter. Here is a typically dazzling passage on the Caverns attempt
at a forest:
Try to climb a hill, and you pass right through it. Hedgerows serve
as mere suggestions. Approached, their bushes swell in detail, swimming
toward the eye until they fill it. Then, with an optical pop, they
vanish, freeing the scrawled grazing lands beyond them.
In the Spiegel-Klarpol sections, Powers seems to be suggesting that
what will displace the static diversion of literature will be full-scale
interactivity, "a life-sized poem that we can live inside."
("Arts done," Klarpol tells Spiegel.) Considering the
dross that today passes for interactive entertainment, one might find
such a notion easy to dismiss. But consider this: filmmaking began as
little more than an occasion to photograph sneezes and moving trains.
Is it too difficult to imagine that, in time, a group of dedicated VR
artists might emerge as the inevitable heirs to arts abdicated
throne? We are not anywhere near that point now, of course, and Powers
nicely captures the smart, petulant boy-men caught somewhere between
artist and programming drone. Of one, Klarpol notes: "How much
they knew, these new children. How concentrated their knowledge of every
mechanism, except for life."
As Klarpol and Spiegel explore and contribute to the Caverns
amazements, the real world falls apart around them: the Berlin Wall
collapses, the Soviet Union disintegrates, and Tiananmen Square is nightsticked
en masse. Soon Klarpol suspects that the Cavern, far from being the
portal into a marvelous new renaissance, will serve far uglier masters
in the defense industry. Her increasing disillusionment gives rise to
the literal and figurative center of Plowing the Dark, a flashback
to the painful love affair between Klarpol and an experimental composer
named Ted Zimmerman, now dying of MS in Ohio. Their affair began in
college, and Powers wisely narrates it from the perspective of Spiegel,
who remains enamored with both characters. The resultant set-piece of
young love and shifting ambition has more marrowy heart and insight
than the whole of most novels.
Plowing the Dark sports as an epigraph Audens elegy for
Yeats, with its famous aphorism that "poetry makes nothing happen."
But Powers elegantly rebuts this throughout the novel, using Yeatss
own "Sailing to Byzantium," that great epic of transfiguration
through art. The poems opening lines ("That is no country
for old men") inspire Spiegel and Klarpol to retrofit the Cavern
as an all-healing, all-comforting haven for the dying Zimmerman, whose
art has failed him no less cruelly than he has failed his art. Klarpol
and Spiegels progress is undercut with the hostage Taimur Martins
lack thereof. The Martin segments are told in the second person. What
initially has the tincture of gimmickry quickly becomes a wrenching
literary experience. Indeed, to communicate adequately the emotional
wallop of Martins captivity is probably impossible. Very little
actually happens. He is beaten. He begs for books. He thinks about Gwen,
his ex (Powers is surpassed only by Tim Parks in his ability to tally
the damage of razed love). He reads the Quran, providing Plowing
the Dark with some of its most beautiful mediations. He communicates
with a Frenchman via an elaborate code through his cell walls. It is
agonizing material, able to stand with the best of Solzhenitsyn, and
it is further reminder that, for all the vicarious thrills of virtual
reality, only the novel can offer one mind such primal link-up with
Martins story has no formal connection to Klarpol and Spiegels.
Rather, the connection is hinted at, sometimes coyly (stale chickpeas
consist Martins prison diet, while Klarpol eats more splendidly
prepared chickpeas in a Middle Eastern restaurant), sometimes didactically
(Zimmermans decline takes place in Lebanon, Ohio, while Martins
occurs in its less benevolent namesake). The real connection seems that
of the human imagination: "Where the body is chained," Martin
thinks, "the brain travels."
This brings to mind the novels one bothersome constituent. While
reading Plowing the Dark, to say nothing of Powerss other
novels, one wonders if his dueling storylines would retain their vigor
if forced to stand alone. If Operation Wandering Soul is any
indication, Powers is at his weakest when he sets his course to a single
narrative star. Is this structural tic an evasive action or an unapologetic
embrace of strength? In Plowing the Dark, however, it works at
such a strange, dream-like, and metaphorically perfect level that ones
reservations are wholly overturned. Powers does have his detractors,
as one might expect of a writer who once dismissed criticism as an irrelevance
whose point is "to spare people the inconvenience of reading."
His characters are too often fantastically quick and intelligent. (The
only truly dumb Powers character is the feckless creationist Annie from
Goldbug. But even she, with her garbled metaphors"Im
hungry enough to eat a house"gains a meaningful anti-intelligence.)
His dialogue sometimes comes off as an ingenious sitcom:
Its just that Ive been looking for this one story
Since you were nine?
Well, seven, if you must know.
Oh. Now. If I knew what the damn thing was called, I wouldnt
still be looking for it after all this time, would I?
His characters, particularly his female characters, as Sven Birkerts
once wrote, "carry a whiff of the laboratory." Klarpol sounds
and acts quite a bit like Jan ODeigh, the librarian heroine of
Goldbug: mannish, appealing, and a little stock. One of Plowing
the Darks supporting characters, a technochick named Susan
Loque, ranks among Powerss least inspired. Her bits of "Bingo,
babe" dialogue grate. Yet who but Powers could possibly summon
up the imaginative perspicacity to term knowledge "civilizations
bad penny"? Who else could drop the curtain on young love with
such startling accuracy: "They lost each other to multiple discoveries
halfway through their first semester. So life always liked to run the
little shill: the immortal cause vanishes, but the short term effects
Powers, unlike many of his contemporaries, has a thorough understanding
of the world beyond books, the breadth of which usually makes for the
sort of person who feels for poor, powerless art nothing but contempt.
Plowing the Dark is thus able to give seemingly inarguable misgivings
to a character like Kaladjian, an Armenian mathematician, who, like
Philip Lentz in Galatea 2.2, views science as modern humanitys
sole exporter of meaning. Klarpol, who has "a general hatred for
all things the cabled world hoped to become," occupies no less
an indelible bulwark, and their clash is staged by Powers with unbearable
nuance. It is Powerss strength as a novelist to force us to question
arts usefulness before providing, with Martins freedom,
its sorrowful validation. Plowing the Dark is a work of unsettling
brilliance, and the small chorus waiting to officially coronate Powers
as our greatest living novelist may, at last, have found its fiat.