Sunday, April 25, 2010

Galatea 2.2, by Richard Powers

[Wikipedia summary of the novel here.]

I want to propose a rule about Richard Powers which I shall immediately break: only Richard Powers should write about Richard Powers's books.

Because in Galatea 2.2 there is some really extraordinary criticism of his own earlier novels: Three Farmers on the Way to a Dance, Prisoner's Dilemma, The Goldbug Variations, and Operation Wandering Soul. Now, granted, I have not read these books, but Powers both sells and critiques them well. And by doing so, he saves Galatea 2.2 from being a fairly flat-footed allegory or hypothetical étude; by making his past fiction so much a part of the present fiction, he lifts his reflections about literature and authorship and humanism out of the conditional and grounds it in something like lived experience. Metafiction here strangely serves to bring a narrative down to earth, not to send it careening off in recursive loops of fictive speculation. It also (rather counter-intuitively) makes Powers more likable, both as a character and as the author. He's actually much more charming when he's being kind of proud of his books; it's when he's sawing off about Literature in general that he's tedious or pedantic.

And there is a fair bit of frustration to be had in this novel. As a sort of homeopathic effort to prevent myself from getting too angry at the extraordinary awfulness of many passages, I tattooed the margins of this book liberally with "ughs" and "wtfs." (E.g., "We made interstellar contact, paralyzed by the mutual knowledge that any attempt to communicate would be culture-bound" or "I was so far out on a narrative limb that I knew I was ripe for amputation.") Very little, however, could diminish my irritation with Powers's glib depictions of theory-mad English students and his winsome reduction of humanism to remembering famous lines from famous poems and a constant "can-you-identify-the-allusion" memory game.

But I'd happily defend the novel, and even recommend it, and I'm sure I'll be returning to Powers, maybe even shortly (Gain has me very interested).

For one thing, it's entirely possible that the quasi-malapropisms Powers writes are simply an ill-advised high-wire act, an effort to turn the prose of the novel into a constant demonstration of the "clash of the Two cultures" fable that the novel is. Something like the interstellar contact line above or the exceedingly bad pun on "limb" is maybe someone's idea of what happens when scientific lingo and humanistic sentiment get drunk and throw up on each other, or more charitably and less evocatively (but still pretty much the same thing), what happens when they try to find an appropriate linguistic middle ground. I don't know—I throw it out as a possibility.

But even if that's not the case and there is no clever rationale behind the bad prose, rather like Dreiser's famous clumsiness, it's at least never the result of a lack of effort or a slackening of the writer's interest in his story. Whatever it is, it's not cynical, not just words on the page, a paragraph that exists just to get to the next. Powers, like Dreiser, earns his bad prose.

Powers talks very frequently about his love for high modernism, and it is all over his novels: "Proust, Mann, Joyce, Musil, Kafka" as he renders it in this minnesota review interview with Jeffrey Williams (whose interviews are models of the form). Yet right before that he mentions Thomas Hardy, and I feel that he probably undersells the influence of that type of realism on his novels because it's less sexy on the back cover as a blurb. Powers's books would probably sell many fewer copies if he were being compared to Dreiser (or Norris) and Hardy and not to Pynchon and Joyce. And it's interesting how Mann becomes strictly a modernist when Powers is acknowledging him as a forebear rather than as the realist Lukács and others have known him as. (Mann is really unrivaled in the last century as this type of double agent, and it's always interesting to see what writers do with him, how he can serve as a pivot, a way of turning oneself into a modernist even while much of one's allegiances may yet lie with the realists.)

One short observation about the Midwestern-ness of Powers or at any rate of this book. I know that California is really crucial for Prisoner's Dilemma and to Operation Wandering Soul, but in Galatea 2.2, Powers fits in pretty well with the "Midwest is west enough" geography I've written about earlier. There is a neat feature from Google Books that tags all the geographic locations mentioned in a book (or rather, all the city names—it seems not to tag names of U.S. states or other nations), and the orientation of the book is pretty clear, even though Powers codes the most important locations of the book (Urbana as U., Boston as B., and a city in the Netherlands I can't figure out as E.—Echt?). West and south of Illinois, there's basically nothing. The quarter of the country that includes the cis-Mississippi Midwest and the Northeast is for all intents and purposes the entire United States: the two references to Los Angeles are both in regard to Operation Wandering Soul, and the reference Google Maps interprets as being to Austin, TX is actually a reference to J. L. Austin.

View Larger Map
Google Maps doesn't catch it, but there are a few scattered references to the Yukon, where Powers's father goes to die. But the axis of the novel is very clearly one running from Chicago/Urbana through Boston to the Netherlands, and that maps along pretty damn well to my argument about Midwestern fiction more generally.


Anonymous said...

Gain is by far his best novel. The sections on Clare are some of the best fictional writing on American business and corporate ideology.

SEK said...

I might be misremembering--my body's convinced I'm still in London and my brain's followed suit--but the liberal arts professor who voices some of those criticisms is heavily based on the Internets' own Michael Bérubé, who's friends with Powers and has discussed his books with him extensively. (I don't think I'm making that up, but then again, I'm very tired.)

Andrew Seal said...

That makes sense, actually--wasn't Bérubé at UIUC for awhile?

I'm having trouble figuring out who the professor could be, though--this is embarrassing since I just read it, but I can't recall one who matches him in age and department. Could it be a different Powers novel that Bérubé is fictionalized in?

SEK said...

My brain's not working, but luckily Google is. I think I'm conflating that post with an actual conversation Michael and I had about it at the MLA that year, though, as I'm not seeing anything there about him being the source of some of those self-critical interpretive gestures in the novel. I think I half-wrote a post about it at the time but never published it. When I'm something resembling alert, I'll dig through my drafts folder and see if I can't find it for you.

Anonymous said...

The Echo Maker is set in Nebraska, if I recall correctly, so not all of Powers fits perfectly in the "Midwest is west enough" theory.

Andrew Seal said...

You don't consider Nebraska the Midwest? I have to say, coming from Indiana, I didn't at first ("it's a plains state," I said), but I've since come around to a more inclusive definition of the region. In fact, historically, Nebraska--along with Kansas--seems to have been the first state to have the label Middle West attached to it.

But I do recognize that not all of Powers's work fits into my Midwestern thesis--as I noted, Prisoner's Dilemma and Operation Wandering Soul certainly do not. But Galatea sure does.

Anonymous said...

I consider the Dakotas to be in the West, and Texas and Oklahoma, so Kansas and Nebraska feel like they ought to be. There are Westerns set there, after all. But having never been I suppose my impression could be miles away from how the actual residents consider it.

The Gold Bug Variations, meanwhile, was a book I was almost immediately reminded of upon reading your original post on the subject.

bianca steele said...

Did you like Galatea? I won't apologize for recommending it then. I'm not sure about it myself anymore but wondered if I should reconsider once again--but if he didn't even get the lit-crit stuff right either it probably won't be at the top of my list. Scott's info about Berube is interesting though.

The midwest thing is interesting esp. if it might explain a contrast between say Powers and Stephenson, who has a similar background.

Richard said...

I think this is Powers' best book (having read all but the most recent). I nice take on the writer struggling with being able to write again, calling into question his own previous work. And the sections on his lover's depression and the subsequent distance is excellent. I was always able to ignore the occasional clunkers in the prose.

Also, I'd rather not know about any Bérubé connection.