A Conversation with Richard Powers By Jim Neilson

From “The Review of Contemporary Fiction,” Fall 1998, Vol. 18.3

Jim Neilson: If it’s all right with you, I thought we could begin by looking at a passage from your first novel, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance:

The paradox of the self-attacking observer is this century’s hallmark, reached simultaneously in countless disciplines. Psychologists now know there is no test so subtle that it won’t alter the tested behavior. Economic tracts suggest that Model A would be inviolably true if enough people realized its inviolability. Political polls create the outcome they predict. Even in the objective sciences, physicists, in describing the very small, have had to conclude that they can’t talk about a closed box, but that opening the box invariably disturbs the contents.

These are the recognizable bywords and cliches of our times. Casual talk abounds with the knowledge that there is no understanding a system without interfering with it. This much I knew well. What did not occur to me until the second time through the Ford biographies is that this position is itself tangled. Generalized, it attacks itself. “All observations are a product of their own times. Even this one.”

This recursion is critical, not because it places a limit on knowing, but because it shows the impossibility of knowing where knowledge leaves off and involvement begins. If there is no independent vantage point, if the sitter’s life is not separable from the biographer’s interfering observation, then each of the sitter’s actions must similarly be tied to biographical impulse. The two are inextricably tangled. Describing and altering are two inseparable parts of the same process, fusing into a murky totality

Now the zoologist on expedition to Africa to study the great apes is not freed by this paradox of the observer to make up figures or indulge in poetic whimsy. The scientist is obliged, however, to acknowledge that the presence of a field team and film cameras tells the apes as much about human motives as it tells humans about apes’ behavior in the wild.

With every action, we write our own biographies. I make each decision not just for its own sake but also to suggest to myself and others just what choices a fellow like me is likely to make. And when I look back on all my past decisions and experiences, I constantly attempt to form them into some biographical whole, inventing for myself a theme and a continuity. The continuity I invent in turn influences my new decisions, and each new action rearranges the old continuity. Creating oneself and explaining oneself proceed side by side, inseparably. Temperament is the act of commenting on itself.

RICHARD POWERS: I’ve always had trouble rereading my earlier books without getting vaguely queasy. Maybe that’s because I’ve always conceived of each new book as an answer to the previous one: a correction of its inadequacies or rejection of its excesses. And when you are working to form a new aesthetic, nothing is more of a blow to equanimity than to read what you once considered worth saying.

But sometimes, when I go far enough back, the immediate threat to my work in progress disappears and leaves behind, if not pleasure, at least a real curiosity. I wrote Three Farmers something like fourteen years ago now. That’s long enough for me to feel estranged and surprised to look into it again. Who was this guy? Why is he writing like this?

This passage produces in me an uncanny sense of recognition. Many of my later themes are there in embryo: little versus big, public versus private, the attempted synthesis of personal agency with the determinism of cultural construction. And of course, the ideas here about the bi directional relation between narrative and cognition are at the heart of my various attempts to wed narrative with discursive writing, to find a form where each betrays itself as the flip side of the other.

Something about the optimism and naked assertion in these pages still makes me wince a little. The style now betrays to me that liberating conviction that I had while writing this book that absolutely no one would ever bother reading it. At twenty-four, I was sure I would never get another chance to write a novel, and consequently I had to cram into it every idea I’d ever had.

Yet I’m glad that I wrote this way when I was younger, as the odds of my getting back around to that state of delight and intellectual conviction seem to diminish as age qualifies all my insights. I could not write like this now if I tried. But I do still like some of these sentences. “The impossibility of knowing where knowledge leaves off and involvement begins”: that strikes me as a good place to begin learning how to write a novel, and an adequate first line for one possible biography of my times.

JN: In answering your own question—”Why was I writing like this?”—you speak of the relation between narrative and cognition, or what elsewhere in Three Farmers you describe as creating and explaining, making and understanding. This perception of narrative seems far grander than its traditional, literary sense. How, I wonder, do you define narrative?

RP: Yes, I was using the term narrative in the broader sense sometimes given it in certain theoretical quarters. I mean it to include the whole process of fabulation, inference, and situational tale-spinning that consciousness uses to situate itself and make a continuity out of the interruptive fragments of perception. I am interested in this wider process of explanatory story making in all my books, and Galatea comes back to the theme again with that great bit of epistemology from the Psalms: “We live our lives like a tale told.”

I’ve never really formulated it this way, but it’s interesting to think of these books as exploring the relation between narrow narrative—the course of a plot as it unfolds inside the story-space of a book—and this wider idea of narrative as somehow an integral part of cognition. Does one bootstrap off the other, and if so, how? Can living inside the first, for a short time, give us a renewed take on the second?

The various techniques that I seem to come back to, such as recursion and interlocking story frames, are, in this sense, ways of using the problem of narrative representation to cast a light upon itself. I’m thinking now of that fairy tale in Linda Espera’s anthology in Operation Wandering Soul. An innkeeper dreams she will find a fortune outside the stock exchange in Amsterdam. She goes there, where a man laughs at her for her gullibility. “I myself have dreamed of a fortune under the bed in an inn.” The innkeeper goes home, pulls up the planks, and bingo. Both dreams are false, but held up to each other, their reflecting intersection can produce some truer story.

JN: In some theoretical quarters the notion that you identify—that consciousness uses narrative to make continuity out of the fragments of perception—becomes the basis for radical skepticism, for the questioning of any way of knowing that requires the imposition of narrative. Yet there’s no such skepticism in your novels. On the contrary, a book like Three Farmers, while concerned with how we construct (and are constructed by) the past, seems to argue for the importance of historical fact—the importance of learning from history. I’m curious, therefore, about where you stand on this question of the construction of narrative-derived knowledge. How, in other words, does “the reflecting intersection” produce a truer story rather than merely a heightened, more self conscious artificiality?

RP: You’re right. Without question, a growing awareness of the actively narrating consciousness has, for a long time now, produced a crisis of knowability among people who trouble themselves over such things. The idea that narrative necessarily informs any interpretation of the facts seems to relegate the facts to some non-circulating, unreachable place and to leave us stuck inside our own private construction. (The ironic thing, and this is the kind of knowledge that fiction excels at, is that a person’s response to this crisis—whether skeptical, cynical, wistful, delighted, or reactionary—probably depends more on personal temperament than on any deployment of the “facts” in the matter.)

But to my mind, those who announce the death of fact and meaning have replaced one incomplete model of knowing with another. If naive materialism has truth flowing on a one-way street from the outside in, naive social constructionism and naive linguistic determinism have interpretation flowing down a one-way street from the inside out.

I think a new consensus of thought may be forming, one that appreciates the two-way traffic of comprehension. The feedback loop between perception and story cuts two ways. So does the continuous arena of public debate. Remember that the actively narrating conscious brain is not arbitrary; it is itself the evolutionary product of several billion years of bumping up against the world. We are peculiarly fitted to make theories about the place whose shape natural selection theorizes. We may live our lives as a tale told, but the tale we tell takes its shape from the life we are limited to.

I don’t see the interdependence of narrative and measurement as the demise of empiricism or meaning. Rather, it feels to me like a call to reconstitute meaning as a two-way product, one that involves both data and its narrative collaborator. Gold Bug uses a Wallace Stevens line for a refrain: “Life consists of propositions about life.” By the same token, fiction can be a mirror in which we come to know our fictions about the world.

However much each of us might be locked in our own constructions, the view from somebody else’s cell can help us revise our representations. We can bruise ourselves against no end of worldliness out there: the astonishing periodic table, the inconceivable and disappearing diversity of life, the scandal of human inequity, the runaway avalanche of global capital. Our reading of these things ought to be at least equal to their reading of us.

JN: To explore some of these issues, let’s look at two passages from Gold Bug. I wonder if you’d mind addressing how this novel’s aesthetic teaches us to revise our representations and to improve our reading of the world?

A summer night, the last before his marriage to experiment, and Ressler spends the few, dark, warm hours soaking in the deep evangelical minister’s voice seeping in spirituals from K-53-C onto Stadium Terrace’s lawn. Robeson sings, “Sometimes it causes me to wonder. Ah, sometimes.” The sound ambushes Ressler, slack in his lawn chair. He watches the waves continue east at 1,134 feet per second, where they will arrive in D.C. later that evening. He hears the phrase knock at John Foster Dulles’s window as the secretary of state prepares for bed. Dulles curses, shouts for this blackfella to leave him be. He’s promised to return Ol’ Man River’s passport as soon as Robeson returns the ’52 International Stalin Peace Prize. Last year Dulles told a Life reporter that a man scared to go all the way to the brink is lost. “Brinkmanship” is now the going word. Dulles, hands full with the Suez and Syria, his troops in Lebanon within a year, shaken by the runaway slave’s son singing “Jordan river chilly and cold,” shouts out the window of the State Department at Ressler to turn the volume down and have a little respect, forgetting, under stress of the brink, that democracy is the privilege of not being able to escape the next man’s freedom of speakers.

“So what bothers you about genetic engineering?”

“It’s not science. Science is not about control. It is about cultivating a perpetual condition of wonder in the face of something that forever grows one step richer and subtler than our latest theory about it. It is about reverence, not mastery. It might, from time to time, spin off an occasional miracle cure of the kind you dream about. The world we would know, the living, interlocked world, is a lot more complex than any market. The market is a poor simulation of the ecosystem; market models will never more than parody the increasingly complex web of interdependent nature. All these plates in the air, and we want to flail at them. ‘Genetic engineering’ is full of attempts to replace a dense, diversified, heterogenous assortment of strains with one superior one. Something about us is in love with whittling down: we want the one solution that will drive out all others. Take our miracle superstrains, magnificent on the surface, but unlike the messy populations of nature, deceptive, thin, susceptible. One bug. One blight…. No; the human marketplace has about as much chance of improving on the work of natural selection as a per diem typist has of improving Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.”

“But does recombination research necessarily mean selling the field into the market? We have this incredible leverage, this light source, mind. The ability to work consequences out in advance. Shed the stone-and-chisel, save ourselves…” I could make out his humanist’s evolution: cell, plant, animal, speaking animal, rational animal, laboring animal, Homo fabor, and ultimately: life as its own designer. Something in Franker too, voting for wonder. But wonder full of immanent expectation.

Ressler was not buying, not all the way. “All we’ve done to date is uncover part of a pattern. We can’t mistake that for meaning. Meaning can’t be gotten at by pattern-matching.”

“That’s why work is more crucial than ever. We’re so close.”

“The experiment you want to extend is three billion years old. It may indeed be close to something unprecedented. All the more reason why we need to step back a bit and see how it runs.”

When we went to bed, Todd joined me in mine. I was up early. It had stopped snowing at last, but nearly three feet had obliterated the contour of ground. Standing out against the unbroken white, as conspicuous as the pope without clothes, conifers went about as if there was nothing more natural in the world than converting sunlight into more fondled slang thesaurus entries on the idea of green. My eyes attenuated to movements, birds, squirrels, the extension of that trapped energy in the branches. I picked up a cacophony of buzzes, whirs, and whistles—an orchestra tuning up, about to embark on big-time counterpoint. Imagining the invisible sub-snow system—the larvae, grubs, thimblefuls of soil a thousand species wide—I suddenly understood Ressler’s point of the previous night: the transcendent delivering world Franker so badly ached for: we were already there. Built into the middle of it, tangled so tightly in the net that we could not sense the balancing act always falling into some other, some farther configuration. The point of science was to lose ourselves in the world’s desire.

RP: These two sections actually hint, in embryo, at the book’s overall structure. I conceived of this story as a complementary double-education. The reference librarian O’Deigh concludes that she cannot hope to understand what happened to Ressler without first understanding the scientific riddle that waylaid him. She quits her library job and devotes a year to studies of ever lower-level codes, down to the molecular one. The humanist becomes an autodidact scientist, replaying and reinterpreting the Neo-Darwinian synthesis, which the reader must also do, in following the course of her learning.

Meanwhile, Ressler, the empiricist, is sidetracked in his own pursuit of that same low-level foundation by all the irreducibly complex high-level codes that won’t submit to reductionism: the social code, the sexual code, the moral code, or, as in this short passage, the code of American politics, circa 1957. The scientist finally becomes an autodidact humanist, spending the rest of his life composing music, “the mathematics of the central nervous system.”

The second passage, when O’Deigh, Todd, and Ressler debate the wisdom of genetic engineering up in a cabin in the New England woods, is still one of my favorites in this book. I like Ressler’s distinction between the urge toward knowledge and the urge toward power. A current, somewhat cynical camp of science studies would deny this difference between the human capacity for reverence and the human desire for mastery. This camp suggests that science, in practice, is necessarily in the pocket of business and power. That may well be, but if so, it is the fault of our ability to organize and regulate our social practices, not the fault of wanting to know.

The answer to greed and oppression is not the proscription of curiosity or the suppression of comprehension. I believe that the future depends on our ability to distinguish between science and technology, and to build human institutions capable of deciding what we want to do, based on some better reason than we can do it.

One of the best ways to decide what kind of world we want to live in may be to build our understanding of the kind of world we do live in. The answer to bad technology is not less science but more and better: physical, biological, political, narrative, and social. But the science that we do—and this is Ressler’s point— remains as much a two-way proposition as any human story, and must stay accountable to both facts and values.

The thing I was trying to bring about in Gold Bug, the vision that I tried to induce in the reader, was the state of staggered humility that a first glimpse of biology and genetics forces upon the looker. The educations of O’Deigh and Ressler arrive at this condition by complementary paths. Learning the language of life means learning to read.

JN: At the risk of sounding like a New Critic, I’d like to switch gears here and discuss your prose style. The section of Gold Bug from which the second passage is taken—”Winter Storm Waltzes”—is one of my favorite parts of any of your books. The prose in Gold Bug is often remarkably lyrical, but it’s a lyricism that’s grounded in the details and complexities of the biological sciences. Another feature of this prose is its incessant allusiveness (for instance, earlier in “Winter Storm Waltzes” you allude to Hopkins: “The place was penny-wedged, crammed, charged with doppelgangers, protean variants on the original: radial, ruddy, furred, barked, scaled, segmented, flecked, flat, lipped, stippled. Who knows how?”) There’s also an endless number of puns in this novel (from “the freedom of speakers” in the first passage above to the book’s title). Many reviewers chided you for your punning ways, although both puns and allusions seem to me extensions of the novel’s focus on variation, rough linguistic and literary analogues of genetic variation/ evolution. My question, finally, is threefold: First, how essential are stylistic concerns for you when formulating a book’s aesthetic? Second, how do you reconcile a difficult style that may limit your readership with your fiction’s moral and political urgency? And third, was the simpler style of Galatea 2.2 a corrective to the elaborate prose of Operation Wandering Soul?

RP: Every person probably writes in some inescapably personal, identifiable way. But I’ve tried to approach each book as an experiment in finding the style that best supports and exemplifies that particular story’s themes. I think the pleasure I take in revision stems from this desire to try to do something to rearrange my stylistics each time out.

I wrote Three Farmers longhand, on canary yellow legal pads, then transferred them into my second-ever personal computer, a CP/M suitcase with an intoxicating 64K of RAM that stored an inexhaustible 180K per floppy. I wrote some primitive style-checking routines: words per sentence, syllables per word, frequency of complex or compound sentences. I fed the book into the program, a chapter at a time. I had great fun tweaking each chapter until the machine reported three very distinct profiles of prose, each matching the book’s three different frames. I could tell what frame a given chapter belonged to just by looking at the output.

I’ve never tried anything similar since. But I have continued to try to learn how to write in different levels of diction, different cadences, different voices. In Prisoner’s Dilemma the chief attempt was that idioglossia, the secret argot of Hobsonspeak. I also tried to do a parody of newsreel style in some of the Hobstown sections.

Gold Bug was definitely a stylistic breakout for me. I had written a lot of poetry when I was younger, but stopped forever the minute I started writing novels. So Gold Bug was kind of the recovery of an old idiom for me. You’re right to point out that the book is about linguistic mutation and wordplay, and I tried to imitate my vision of the genetic code as a punning, runaway fecundity in the book’s prose. The continuous literary allusion that underwrites the prose is my attempt to join the themes of biology and language: the archive of literature as the race’s high-level genome.

It was a great, indulgent pleasure for me during those years to step back and let the words have free rein. But again, I tried to develop two styles, a Jan voice and a Todd voice, even though they converge on some things. (Presumably, the finished book is their joint collaboration.)

That verbal license spills over and becomes something more troubling in Operation Wandering Soul. This book is double-voiced with a medical resident who is falling apart, undergoing a kind of breakdown. So the style is often completely over the top, a verbal mania that is supposed to reflect Richard Kraft’s increasingly apocalyptic read on inner-city Los Angeles in late-capitalist America.

I’ve thought a lot about this stylistic attempt since writing the book. It’s too much for a lot of readers. The depictions in the book don’t come close to the horrors of the real world, of course. But from inside the conventions of narrative fiction, they run the risk of anaesthetizing the reader with overkill. In some ways, the gamble of this book’s style typifies the classic problem of symbolic representation: When does portrayal and critique pass invisibly over into participation? I am still glad that I wrote this book, and it has seemed to find its readers. But I do see the cost of empathy in such a narrative.

And Galatea is my attempt to redress these difficulties. The transparent style of the book tries to recapitulate the child Helen learning how to read. It’s interesting, what you point out about this compensatory movement between these two books. In some ways, I feel a similar sort of swing between any two consecutive books. They tend to move between being more global and more personal, more upbeat and darker, denser and more transparent. I guess this has something to do with needing to recuperate from living in the same inner world for two or three years at a time.

About reconciling the difficulty of my writing with its desire to reach people: I hope to come closer to bridging this gap in the book I’m now working on.

JN: That sounds like a cue to ask you about your work-in-progress. But before I do, I’d like to discuss your literary influences. If you’ll excuse a bit of hyperbole, your books at times seem without direct precedent. So I’m curious as to which novelists, poets, and nonfiction writers you’d identify as important influences.

RP: I find this always the hardest question to answer adequately. It seems to me that every writer’s debt must be endless, and every list more exclusionary than encompassing. To say “I learned X from this writer” is to use that name as a composite character while revising countless others out of the narrative.

I have always tried to write my personal landmarks directly into my books in some way, if not in an acknowledgments page, then by some quotation or homage or identifiable theft that brands the book’s indebtedness. So all those allusions or references: those are the people I’d like somehow to pay back.

Over the years, I seem to have built up this museum of passages in my head that give me some kind of emotional and intellectual touchstone as I work. I don’t revisit the actual texts very often, as I’m too afraid that my memory will be shattered and the use will vanish. Queequeg and Ishmael in bed; Marcel’s grandmother at the doctor’s; Hans Castorp in the snowstorm; Roger and Jessica at evensong; Rilke’s billboard, behind which everything is real.

Each book has had its own patron saint. Prisoner’s Dilemma is a kind of homage to a dog-eared, probably awful anthology of my father’s called One Hundred and One Best Loved Poems. For Operation Wandering Soul, it was Peter Pan, a book filled with hilarious and shocking lines. Galatea is practically an excuse for me to teach Dickinson’s “The brain—is wider than the sky” to a machine.

Gold Bug was born, in part, out of a little Lewis Thomas essay on the CETI project. He speculates about what it is that we would want to beam to extraterrestrials, if we ever found them. He votes for Bach, then adds something like: it would be a lie, of course. But there would be plenty of time for the harder truths later on.

The Chapman’s Homer experience may become less monolithic, less viscerally rearranging as we get older and have a bigger archive to dislodge. But if the overhaul of a new discovery is not as deep, it seems to widen with age. For the last couple of years, I’ve been discovering my contemporaries, in itself an endless proposition.

JN: Earlier you admitted that rereading your books can make you queasy. I hope this interview hasn’t sickened you too much. You also suggested that you conceive of each new book as an answer to the previous one. My final question, then, is what issues were raised by your last book that you hope to address in your work-in-progress?

RP: It’s becoming clear to me that Galatea was a kind of closing chapter on my first five books, which I published over the course of a decade. The autobiographical fiction in that story gave me a chance to do a personal look back over the shape of those narratives. It also allowed me one last intimate occasion to address the issue that ties all of these books together: the apology for fiction in a postfictional age.

Galatea ends with Helen, who is less a machine than she is a reader’s invention, a projection, a book’s deciding that the world is no place to be dropped down into halfway. She has come to understand, a little, the horrors of existence. But she is powerless to bump up against or do anything about them.

The problem with the world we have made is that it can’t be survived without the fictional moratorium that fiction provides, but it can’t be opposed adequately from within that fictional moratorium.

In that book, I build Helen by reading to her. And the only story that I know well enough to orient her with is my own. But in the end, when she demands to know the bits about existence that I haven’t told her, she gives up on us.

After I finished this book, I spent some time wondering: What, finally, did her in? And I decided that the answer was the rhino at the table that no polite storyteller talks about, the one that none of my other books has yet addressed. I mean the thing that pays the bills, that manufactures all the books, that arranges the shape of our lives, that dictates our well-being, and that enforces the system of prices that our thoughts come to accept. So I figured I had to write at least one long book about business.

I’ll tell you this much: the topic is a lot harder than anything else I’ve worked on. But I’m learning a lot, and I’m beginning to see what I’ll need to do to finish a draft. Beyond that, I don’t know. We live our lives as a tale told. I’ll be interested to find out what happens next.

Coda. (August 1998)

JIM NEILSON: When last we talked you were alluding to a work in-progress, a novel about business that’s subsequently been published—Gain. Congratulations. It’s an impressive and disturbing book, both in its detailed account of the ravages of cancer and its imagined history of a multinational corporation, Clare, Inc. It’s also your most polemical work. Which leads to a final question—what, in a world of entertainment conglomerates, (a world dominated by companies like Clare, Inc., a world in which capital seeks to occupy every space and moment), is the role of a writer of literary texts? How do political concerns enter into your novelistic considerations?

RICHARD POWERS: Madison Smartt Bell once wrote in a terrific piece that, in the age of late day commodification, literature was in danger of becoming, or perhaps had already become a poor relation to the entertainment industry. Embarrassing mad cousin in the attic might be more like it. And to the extent that novels have tried to compete in that industry, the two halves of the old imperative “to instruct and delight” have begun to seem inimical programs, whereas they ought to be more or less identical. What greater pleasure could there be than the exploration of where we are? False consciousness, of course, destroys that pleasure and the knowledge of that exploration.

Now I happen to believe that the deepest value of fiction is that, in its very fictiveness, it is the one arena where we can, at least temporarily, take apart and refuse to compete within the terms that the rest of existence insists on. Market value may come to drive out all other human values, except, perhaps, in the country of invented currency, the completely barter-driven economy of the imagination. Fiction, when it remembers its innate priority over other human transactions, can deal not in price but in worth. And that seems to me an act filled with political potential, as well as with pleasure.

Comments are closed.