Thursday, July 24, 2008

Books: The Gold Bug Variations, by Richard Powers

A cover quotation on the front and center of this New York Times Bestseller claims that this book is, in fact, the most astounding lap-breaker since Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. While I'm hardly a fan of that book, and while this book is, in its own way, equally unreadable, having read both, I must admit that they hardly belong in the same category. Certainly, a reader must be awfully nerdy to appreciate either, but where Pynchon consistently turns out the paranoid's pornography of conspiracy theories, governments that can't be trusted, and unwitting everymen caught inside the great spiderweb of the industrial-military complex, Powers, at least here, writes a kind of Harlequin Romance for the science club set, a book in which medium-depth discussions of genetics, music theory, and computer programming give way to steamy love scenes, where quotations from history and literature are fetishized on 3x5 notecards and newspaper clippings are pasted into artist's notebooks (where they are drawn over with portraiture: Vermeer faces and Da Vinci hands).

Powers uses a female character as his pivot, and works deftly focalizing through a narrator of that opposite gender. Jan O'Deigh is a reference librarian in the early 1980s (when such people were more desperately needed) who maintains a question board at her Brooklyn branch library. A mysterious all-but-dissertation PhD (whose focus is Flemish painting), who happens to be a terribly handsome young man drops into her library one day, asking for help in unearthing the background of his co-worker, one Stuart Ressler, who, they eventually discover, did some initial ground-breaking work on the genetic code in the early 1950s as a post-doc, but never did anything afterward. From that point, the narrative splinters between the 1950s and 1980s, and between the burgeoning love stories of Ms. O'Deigh and her Franklin Todd and Stuart Ressler and his Jeanette Koss, another post-doc on his research team who, despite being married, seduces him.

The reader's sexual gratification is delayed by lengthy and detailed discussions of the troubles in cracking the genetic code (including a direct allusion to Edgar Allan Poe's The Gold Bug, which I found myself, not unlike Ressler does himself, having to track down and read in order to service further understanding of the plot). Another extended metaphor and delay is the continuous discussion of Bach's Goldberg Variations (their numeric coincidences with the genetic code are perhaps more thoroughly rung out than the parallel connections discussed in non-fiction Goedel, Escher, Bach), and again, like the characters in the book, I found myself compelled to obtain a recording of these as well (the recording, in fact, by Glenn Gould, which is the one the characters speak of, without ever naming his name). Strangely enough, I did not find myself compelled to locate any images of paintings by Herri Met De Bles, the subject of Franklin Todd's unwritten dissertation (perhaps because Frank describes him as not very good at all, whereas Bach is described as literally life-changing).

Perhaps I am too self-conscious of a reader that I find myself troubled with the relative ease of this book. I use the term "ease" in an odd way, for, as I've already explained, the tome does go into extremely specialized discussions boggy with jargon that recall my sophomore year of high school and AP Biology class, and I've in fact called it "unreadable" in the first paragraph. But in the propulsion of the romance, of the mystery, the book is somewhat gossipy, and limpid where Pynchon would obfuscate. Perhaps it is not fair to ch allege the quality of a work of literature based on its ease. But perhaps there is something other than "ease" per se that I am driving at. There is an ebullient romanticism here (while Ressler's relationship tanks, O'Deigh's and Todds, after a brief emergency of unfaithfulness, a respite of a year of silence, during which the librarian dedicates herself to the research of genetics and music, and during which the art historian writes the biography of Ressler (now dead: cancer), flourishes, and they combine their two tomes to make, presumably, the book that we are now reading)—an embrasure of not only the possibility, but the probability of a happy ending, a productive rather than destructive understanding of life, that smacks of pap. Rather than working in the tradition of Melville, Hardy, Beckett, Powers takes cues from Dickens and Hugo; for him, the post-modern inclination to include everything but the kitchen sink is only a coping strategy, a means to the same old end, so that, unlike in Gaddis or Foster Wallace, Vollman or Roth, Barth or Fowles, or yes, Pynchon, nothing fresh happens. The degree of drivel is, even, sub-DeLillo, bordering on Kundera. Harsh criticism, I know. I'll read his The Echo Maker before I set my conclusions in stone. It just won't be anytime soon.

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