Friday, November 17, 2006

Richard Powers, in whose smart, empathetic novels art and science meet, wins National Book Award

Chicago Reader / Jason Lindsey

I was glad to see Richard Powers receive the National Book Award for fiction. It should increase the audience for this brainy, empathetic midwestern novelist and help lead more readers to his beautiful, award-winning novel, The Echo Maker. "The Genius in the Cornfield" is how the Chicago Reader headlined last month's profile of Powers, who lives in Urbana and teaches English at the University of Illinois -- a reference not only to his smart fiction but to the MacArthur "genius" fellowship that helped jump-start his career in 1989, as well as his midwestern heritage (Powers was born in Evanston, about 30 miles and nearly 40 years south of another Illinois native son and midwestern fabulist, Ray Bradbury). Stephen J. Lyons asked Powers about his feel for the midwest and the interest in science that are reflected in his fiction.
You seem to have found a narrative for the midwest, a place that is often dismissed as a bland fly-over region.

I don’t think there’s a single midwestern narrative. I’ve tried different ways in several books to tap into some of those long rhythms that the midwest invites us to hear. But it’s a subtle place that opens up only gradually as you keep looking at it, and keep listening.

But I think there’s something else about the midwest. It’s the portion of the country that supports the coasts and makes the coasts possible, so it’s absolutely essential to how the American mind works in its role as a kind of primary producer for all the rest of this complex ecosystem. So that’s always intrigued me: America stripped bare. America without props and without distractions or disguises and protections.

A brief bit about your history—you seem drawn to science.

I always thought I would be a scientist—an oceanographer, geologist, or physicist. I’ve tried to connect those disparate passions to fiction and to show, in my writing, ways in which science and art are not as far apart as a lot of people might think. Science and fiction are profoundly different cultures, profoundly different processes, yet they partake of each other, and they change each other. They are mutually defining, like nodes in a tangled network. You can’t understand humans without looking at both art and science.
His interest in science places Powers on the loosely defined border between science fiction and fiction about science. In the turf-conscious world of literary fiction, where even a whiff of genre writing can drop a career dead in its tracks, this has led to a certain amount of ambivalence and occasionally outright hostility to Powers. A dramatic recent example was Yale English prof William Deresiewicz's notorious takedown of Powers in the pages of the Nation. It was titled "Science Fiction," as if that were the ultimate insult.
The Echo Maker will tell you a great deal about neuroscience, environmental degradation and the migratory patterns of the sandhill crane, but like Powers' other novels, it won't tell you much about what its laboriously accumulated information and elaborately constructed concepts have to do with what it means to be alive at a particular time and place, or what it feels like. And that, crudely put, is what novels are for.
That, crudely put, is a slander. Or at least not The Echo Maker I read. Perhaps there's a portal to an alternate universe on the Yale campus, and Deresiewicz came across his version of the book there.

I prefer Stephen Burt's depiction in Slate of what he calls the scientific humanism of Powers.
If the term "science fiction" had no prior meaning, it would describe all the novels of Richard Powers. The MacArthur "genius"-grant winner, whose ninth novel, The Echo Maker, comes out this fall (and is nominated for a National Book Award), does not just write about scientists, programmers, and engineers, though such professions populate most of his books. Nor does he write about made-up future worlds. Rather, Powers' works depend on (often they pause to explain) how the sciences work. His best-crafted and most lyrical novel, Galatea 2.2 (1995), described a contest in which a computer program tries to pass for a human being. Plowing the Dark (2000) depicts the computerized studios where "virtual reality" came to be. And The Time of Our Singing (2003)—this very white novelist's shockingly ambitious 600-page look at race in America—takes its central metaphor from the problem particle physicists call "symmetry," whose equations ask (roughly) whether time is real. In his latest, The Echo Maker, half the plot concerns the ecology of a crane refuge in western Nebraska, and the other half delves into neuroscience via a character modeled on Oliver Sacks.

After reading Powers, C.P. Snow's once-famous complaint about the "two cultures"—scientists and humanists, each unable to listen to the other—melts away. The novelist trained as a physicist himself. No wonder he gets celebrated as a cerebral novelist, as an explainer, as the smartest writer on the block. Yet the interest in Powers as a man of science misses what keeps his characters alive. All his information-rich protagonists—teachers, programmers, professors, singers, accompanists, homemakers, hostages—have to master a vast array of data: All of them make, from that data, refuges, new spaces, kinds of art. All of them (Powers argues) need both the arts and the sciences in order to share a household, a nation, or a world.
His intellect often gets Powers lumped in with other writers like Pynchon and DeLillo, who are also known for their brilliance, but Burt sees a difference, and reaches back much further for a comparison.
Powers' insistence that we make one another up, that our personalities coalesce from clouds of floating information, practically requires reviewers to call him "Postmodern"; some would link him to Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, even William Gibson. Yet Powers is less these Postmodernistas' companion than he is their opposite: warm where they are cold, lyrical where they are clinical or satirical, most involved where they would be most distant. Powers wants to know not how and why we fall apart, amid paranoid systems, but how (with the help of the arts and the sciences) we might put one another together. His subject is not collapse but convalescence, and so reading Powers feels less like reading (say) Gravity's Rainbow than it feels like reading Middlemarch.
The reference to Mary Anne Evans is startling and apt, but I would supplement it with a comparison to a name rescued from the inventory Burt sets aside -- the William Gibson of Pattern Recognition, which is, like The Echo Maker, a novel about modern consciousness, about how the patterns we perceive are endowed with meaning through empathy and imagination.

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