Richard Powers by Sven Birkerts

With his novel Gain, Richard Powers turns again to his millennial concerns: the velocity of progress, the intricate correspondence of the private and the historical, the search for the ground of ethics.

BOMB 64 Summer 1998
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New York Live Arts presents

Marjani Forte
Nov 15-19

Richard Powers

Richard Powers

The only time I have met Richard Powers was in the crowded banquet room at the 1993 National Book Awards. His novel, Operation Wandering Soul, was a finalist for the fiction prize and I congratulated him. We had a brief exchange over the heads of some milling literati. Powers looked sincere when he said, backing away to his seat, “We’ll talk again.” And so we finally did, though it took an interview assignment to make it happen. What a pleasure it was to prepare for our phone conversation. Powers’ books are in a prominent place on a shelf near my bed, but after a while the eye stops registering the particular spines. But when I set them all out on the bed, the room grows busy with recollected impressions—lines of connection and implication criss-cross until suddenly it seems like too much. There is no way to prepare except by having read. I will not start making notes.

Here are the galleys of the new novel, Gain, the ostensible pretext for this interview. It sits among the others like a new neighbor, not quite in on the conversation. Startling, original, surely part of the continuum—but I realize that I don’t want to talk much about it. There are too many other things to find out about. And I want the book’s wave to break with fresh surprise for the reader as it did for me. For Gain is a departure, stunningly simple in its formal means, and chilling in its implications. I wonder if Powers will mind. He doesn’t seem to. He fields my questions, one after the next, with generous absorption. Only at the very end, when we are off the record, does he remark, “We didn’t get to the new book.” But in every sense but the literal we did—for the full range of his preoccupation is there: the velocity of progress, the intricate correspondence of the private and the historical, the search for the ground of ethics … the reader is almost compelled to look back and consider how the novels grow one from the next. To imagine this as a time-lapse phenomenon is to feel the jaw drop.

Sven Birkerts Flannery O’Connor wrote that for the writer of fiction, everything of true fundamental importance happens by the time of adolescence. Of course, she is talking about a somewhat less cerebral fiction than yours, but I suspect there is some core truth here. Can you give a sense of where your writing self hails from—the version you might tell the inquisitive stranger on the train who you’ll never see again?

Richard Powers For the inquisitive stranger on the train I’d be tempted to make something up—that’s when you can get away with it. It’s interesting; the challenge of connecting my writing self to the biographical facts. By my adolescence, I’d spent 11 years on the north side of Chicago, then lived from age 11 to 16 in Bangkok, Thailand. That divide, that sense of overhauled cultural expectation, has been formative, both in my personal life and in my sense of a writing self. I returned from Bangkok to the Midwest. By the time I went to college, I was under the impression that I was destined to become a scientist.

SB What sort of scientist?

RP A physicist. I was born in the year that Sputnik was launched, and we know what that did to this country’s sense of technological and scientific vocation. So in that sense, at least, I think that O’Connor’s observation applies to me as well. But the way those crises and challenges found their solution in the writing life—that didn’t come to me until much later.

SB That experience in Thailand, would it be a misinterpretation to define it as very much a plunge into solitude and privacy?

RP I would say the opposite. That culture takes place much more publicly than the culture that I was familiar with. Being transported at the age of 11 to a place that was much more in tune with a deep-seated, communal, ongoing sense of tradition was eye-opening to me.

SB I’m going to assume from the extraordinary range of knowledge you exhibit in all of the novels, that you’ve always been a passionate reader. I’d like to hear a little bit about your early reading formation.

RP My bias toward empirical knowledge definitely influenced what I was reading. I read copiously pretty early. I sort of skipped over the youthful entrancement with alternate reality and latched on to a more direct engagement with non-fiction. One of my formative early reading experiences was Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, which I read in fourth grade and I really thought: this is the life. I did read the Iliad and the Odyssey and so forth, but for me those were more ethnographic than fictional experiences.

SB And were you reading novels at this point?

RP It took me a while to realize that the widest embrace of knowledge probably requires a relaxation into fiction. I guess I’d trace that understanding to my experience as an undergrad at the University of Illinois. At that point, I’d gotten far enough into physics to realize that what had appealed to me initially—the sense of being closer to fundamentals—was in danger of professional compromise. The more adept I got in understanding the basics of that discipline, the more a certain inevitable specialization set in. I guess this is the hedgehog/fox dichotomy. Whatever your temperamental inclination, the reductionist program means that if you want to add to disciplinary knowledge, you have to become the quintessential hedgehog. You have to learn more and more about less and less until you know everything about nothing. At this moment, I saw just what specialization would require of me. And this other body of knowledge that I had discounted as tainted by invention began to seem like the place where a larger synthesis might occur.

SB Was there a particular encounter that really showed you what fiction could do?

RP That first happened for me with James Joyce. I got this sense of fantastic parallax from him. He told this absolutely dense realistic story—a compendium of a day in the life. But parallel to that was a frame completely contiguous to the first, and yet a kind of intellectual commentary on it. And so here were these two frames, and between the two, they straddled the great divide. Knowledge by incorporation; knowledge by exposition. The lives of these characters were somehow being doubled by the life of this grand encyclopedia. This notion that you can produce three dimensions out of two complimentary planes was the one that I subsequently picked up and tried to work with in Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, my first novel.

SB Would you say that once you caught the Joyce contagion there was in some sense no going back, or was there a long bending path that you had to follow before you first picked up a pen or sat down next to a typewriter?

RP Well, few years go by when I don’t fantasize about going back. That is, when I don’t get this compensatory desire to reconnect to more empirical disciplines, more systematic knowledge. But in the other sense of no return from the seduction of fiction: yeah. When I look back, the process was inexorable from there on out.

SB One of the key distinctive features of most of your novels has been what I see as a very sophisticated braiding of plot lines. The word “counterpoint” is the one that I’ve thought of. Do you feel that you have an architectonic writing sensibility? Do you get intuitions of structure before you get intuitions of character or plot developments?

RP I would characterize myself as a top-down writer who’s learning how to become a bottom-up writer.

SB The top being structure and the bottom being character?

RP Yeah. In other words, I gravitate naturally toward architectural design. What’s interesting is that design moves me viscerally. I don’t think that’s true for everybody. For me, a formal rightness is a very powerful, emotion thing. But I know that many readers don’t feel that same sense of awe in the aerial view and need a point of identification that’s closer to eye level. When I write a book—and this has been different every time out—I’ll start with this structural invention and begin to press down into detail, to try to resolve it, to flesh out the skeleton with particulars that reinforce the grand scheme. But at the same time I become passive and receptive to those scenes or those characters, the off-hand comment or the gesture or the stance that wants to assert its autonomy in the face of the scheme. That is bottom-up percolation: watching a character or listening to her, to see where she wants to go.

SB Are you musically inclined, educated?

RP Music has been essential to my life. I’ve sung ever since I was a little kid and I was trained formally in the cello. In many of my books—The Gold Bug Variations is the most prominent—the musical analogy is central. Suppose that what we do when we listen is a lot like what we do when we read. There is a deeply emotional response to having a formal expectation either satisfied or frustrated. Even if the average listener isn’t sitting down and saying, “Ah, sonata allegro form. Here’s the primary theme group; here’s the secondary theme group; and now I expect that instability to be resolved through the development section.” Maybe we don’t listen like that any more, but at some level, our viscera are responding to those things.

SB Absolutely.

RP We focus on the local turn of melody or on the small ravishment of a particular modulation. Yet all that gets its sense of poignancy from the surrounding architecture. So really, I think you’re looking for a work that has the perfection of an organism. Whatever gauge you choose to engage the work, there’s a kind of appropriate resemblance. Just as in a living thing there’s a grand design, but as you step up magnifications to the organ and the cell and the nucleus of the cell, all of these small-scale structures are both sovereign and subordinate to the larger aggregate. When a book works—even if we’re not fully conscious of it—it’s because the particularity of style, the flare of the individual sentence does what it needs to do in that scene and in that chapter, and in the book as a whole.

SB Do you live with a sense of your own thematic evolution, the evolution of your preoccupations? Do you see it from book to book?

RP You’re asking the author to narrate the course of his narration.

SB Or even to comment on why he can’t.

RP No, I do. I’ve often thought that each book is, in some ways, an attempt to answer those questions that I failed to answer in previous books. Even at the moment of delivery, most of the captives escape. The desire to go back in and write again is the desire to come to terms with those things that eluded closure. Consequently, my even-numbered books are quite different from my odd-numbered books. There’s almost a kind of two-stroke engine at work.

SB You’re thinking of Prisoner’s DilemmaOperation Wandering Soul, and Gain?

RP Quite different, it seems to me, from Three FarmersGold Bug Variations, and Galatea. To return to the vocabulary that we were using, the odd-numbered ones are more top-down. The evens are almost compensatory attempts to go back in and re-imagine the problems from the bottom-up.

SB Do you think that it’s part of your own writerly economy then to require or to allow something contrary to happen?

RP I think, yeah. All authors must feel some exhaustion after three or four years on a project.

SB Some feel revulsion at the thing made, too.

RP I suspect that whatever allows you to get over that revulsion may be the single most important trait a writer can have. Just so that you can work for three years without destroying what you made. But you have to put that revulsion against the great exhilaration that a made thing can give you. Maybe they’re complimentary. The revulsion gets a lot of press, but obviously writing wouldn’t be such a seductive occupation if despair weren’t more than compensated for.

SB I guess, in a way I think of that revulsion as almost being what one feels initially toward a self that one outgrows, even though fondness can enter. It’s almost like a principle of growth.

RP That’s a wonderful way of putting it. I feel much more threatened by the last thing that I did than by the second to the last. I think you’re right. If your paradigm is growth, then the small differences seem more destabilizing. You need to feel as if you’re no longer there. That may involve some degree of repudiation.

SB Do you have a favorite child?

RP Oh God. Sophie’s Choice, huh? If this were the desert island game, I guess I’d have to say Gold Bug because you get more for your money. It’s longer and the canvas is a bit bigger. I’m very glad to have written Prisoner’s Dilemma and Three Farmers because they have a kind of goofiness that I think would be hard for me to achieve now. There’s a youthful exuberance to them that makes me happy. I am also fond of the way that everything came together in a gratifying way in Galatea. There, the joints seem all connected. One of the odd things about Galatea was how I narrated my own life as part of that book’s fictional autobiography. There, the plot depends on my disowning my previous book, Operation Wandering Soul. And I’ve gotten letters from readers saying, “You’re so hard on the book; go easy on it.” Of course that’s not how I feel about that work. And yet I do fear that the unrelenting quality of that book made it difficult for readers to engage.

SB There’s a passage in Three Farmers which I have returned to many a time because it checks into my own preoccupations. It’s the one where you meditate on Charles Péguy’s observation that the world has changed less since the death of Jesus than in the last thirty years. You flush out that notion of historical acceleration and also the idea of reaching a trigger point. It helps me explain a sense that I get of the mounting historical pressure that comes on in Gain, your new novel. It seems to be almost following a geometrical progression moving toward … the trigger point. And when the trigger point comes finally, it’s an ethical one, it’s the death. Do you still hearken to the idea of the trigger as one of the defining concepts of modern life? I think of it almost as a definition of postmodernism.

RP I’ve come back to it again, actually. As you say, Gain is deeply influenced by a vision of technological acceleration. The book I’m writing now is obsessed with the idea. There are two components to the Three Farmers formulation that I could return to forever. One is this idea that the stories we tell ourselves are contingent on the material conditions of existence at that moment. Narrative is a response to crisis. And crisis, in modern human existence, is usually a function of technology. Our acceleration is even more profound than in Péguy’s formula. If you think that homo-erectus arrived on the scene, what, a million and a half years ago? You have an unthinkable number of generations for whom existence meant accepting the conditions that the previous generations accepted.

SB Right. Absolutely.

RP A kind of changelessness, aside from the coming and going of ice sheets. Then you hit the Upper Paleolithic, a long time down the road, and things start to take off. Suddenly you have this notion that what your ancestors took for granted, you cannot necessarily take for granted. That’s just when we get cave art! The period of time past which you can no longer take things for granted has shrunk now in a bizarre parody of Moore’s Law to something less than 18 months.

SB You can’t even take your older brother’s reality for granted anymore.

RP We have this incredible explosion of art of all sorts that now threatens to collapse under its own weight. Our ability to converse about a work we know in common breaks down under the sheer number of titles published every year. We are on the run from our own ingenuity. But the notion that something in private experience remains static is, for me, a kind of saving grace. In knowing that your body will follow a certain course from infancy to grave, you recapitulate certain unchanging facts of human experience. Although we’ve tinkered with the statistics … there’s something about the inevitability of death.

SB I think that’s what we’re mercifully left with. The cold comfort. A minute ago you said narrative is always a response to crisis. All your novels are powered by a sense of emergency. Do you believe we are a culture, a world in crisis? I sense that you do. Do you write with a sense of private mission?

RP In a sense, what’s true for narrative is also true for technology. We’re trying to invent our way out of crisis. Of course, each invention changes the conditions of existence, which further rocks the ground we stand on. It’s stunning. As the pace of acceleration changes, our sense of what constitutes the distant future shrinks. We write out of a condition of perpetual change. Will this always be the case? Certainly in our lifetime. But asking where we’ve been put down is only partially satisfied by seeing where our individual life lies on the curve. We also want to see how our little narrative hooks up against the longer one. Our sense of comfort and despair, perhaps irrationally, depends on making some kind of coherent story out of the intersection of those two arcs.

SB So we’re back to Leopold Bloom in a sense there.

RP If I had to characterize my fiction, I’d say it’s concerned with the intersection of local and global arcs. My sense is that change won’t always dominate human existence the way it does now. We are living at a moment of technological acceleration that can’t last forever. What happens beyond that? Again, I think that’s the pleasure of reading. A book suspends my trajectory for a moment and sets me in another one. What does mine look like from there?

SB Yeah. I recognize that’s certainly part of what draws me to reading. I like the arresting of your own trajectory as much as the taking up of another one. They’re both part of the act.

RP And so this notion of narrating ourselves into a future well beyond any that will impact us is a way of seeing whether the things that we assume about our own lives are valid, or whether they’re just based on some local aberration. This notion of the book as moratorium is a very powerful one. And most of my books try to work their way to an ending where the reader realizes that the story starts when you put it down. The act of looking is powerful, if you can see the look. And for that you need some device that gives you parallax. I use optimism to leverage a view of pessimism, and vice versa. The temperament that has the best odds of figuring out its location is the one that plays off itself and reaches out in a binocular way to its complementary parts.

SB If you had to say that in a non-abstract way, how would you do it?

RP I would say that you earn your right to feel good about the world by taking a full look at the worst. And you reinvent your capacity for engagement in the face of despair by stepping back and recalling that despair, too, is a coping story that you’ve told yourself.

SB That clarifies it for me considerably. In Galatea you have Helen, the intelligent program pull a Bartelby, “preferring not to”—which seemed to me a wonderful paradox, for it suggested not only the desired attainment of conscious intelligence, but also something resembling a moral reflex. How do you view the prospect of artificial intelligence finally, and how do you think that digital technology is reshaping the world?

RP One of the pleasures of writing Galatea was this gradual discovery that machine intelligence would require the full width of human experience. By the end of the book, the book itself becomes a kind of artificial intelligence. The Galatea in the book, Galatea 2.0, is superceded by revision 2.2, the one that you’ve been reading. The suspension that’s required to credit the fable—to believe in this neural network that’s capable of reading any work of fiction—leads to a wider self-reflection: I couldn’t possibly have made sense of this book I’ve just read except through the encyclopedic density of my own life. I think that this desire to migrate our intelligence out into a stand alone machine—which, in some sense characterizes all of technological history—is a fantasy that reveals the degree to which we are at war with our own stories.

SB And the fear of death?

RP We have that sense of soul fastened to dying animal. And that if we could extract and put ourselves into a gallium arsenide substrate we’d be in much better shape. The point of Galatea is that it’s the dying animal that makes the soul the soul. It’s gratifying when readers write and say that when the judge of Helen’s Turing Test awards the upper hand to the human, he picks the wrong person. Helen is the one who says, “How the hell can I understand this?” Which is ultimately the fuller human response. We humans don’t like this feeling being overwhelmed, this sense that our intellect is being dragged down by the turmoil of our emotional responses. The book asserts that the intellect is only the intellect because of the turmoil of the emotions. The stars get their brightness from the surrounding dark. I think that what we’ve learned in the age of intelligent machines is how much bigger intelligence is than we thought.

SB If you could call the genie of the binary back into the bottle would you?

RP No, I don’t think so. Pandora’s Box is the story of hope, which is the last thing to come out of the box. We’re making this thing that we hope to have a conversation with, and like it or not, we are conversing with it. The desire to put the binary genie back in the bottle is real, and I do feel it. But I think you can learn more by examining that desire than by acting on it.

SB That’s well put.

RP You might as well ask if you’d stop those Upper Paleolithic people from painting on the cave walls. Then we would have had what we’d had for the million and a half years before: some degree of surviving conditions and surviving ourselves. We’re not always capable of knowing the moral, let alone the material consequences of our actions. But we’re adult enough at this point to live them. We do need to change this notion that everything we can do we must do. In other words, a growth in technology forces on us an attendant growth in moral sense.

SB It’s also that these things are the decisions that then force certain kinds of adulthood on us. It’s not that we are adult enough to deal with them, it’s that we may have to become adults in order to deal with them.

RP I think that a lot of the despair that technological development produces is exactly that: this fear that machine dreams must follow an inevitable path. The things that we make come about partly as a consequence of what technology makes possible, but also in part from what we desire to bring about.

SB That’s the best argument I can think of for the continuation of true artistic expression—artistic vision—so that we have the faculty with which to imagine in order to make the right wishes.

RP Remember that writing is a far more dangerous, destabilizing and catastrophic technology than anything digital. The impact that it’s had on the way that we live will never be exceeded by the technologies that derive from it. Bringing fire into the cave, the flint knife: these are great catastrophes. I’m not an apologist for any scenario of progress. The things that we bring about are fully loaded with existing narratives. But we further inscribe those things. We write them forward.

SB In Prisoner’s Dilemma and Galatea, certainly only a walk-on in the former but much more in the latter, you have a Richard Powers character. What do you think it adds to either of these novels—to draw a link in the reader’s mind between author Richard Powers and character Richard Powers?

RP Those two books work a little differently in their introduction of that recursion. But finally, it comes back to Bakhtin’s idea that every act of depicting is itself a depiction. I’d like my novel to arrest the trajectory of the reading life in order to take it upon another trajectory, from which the reader can get a glimpse of the narrative she was embarked upon before starting the book.

SB Now that’s interesting. You’re giving artificial intelligence to the novel.

RP Very much so. One of the most profound things that a book can do is to reveal the story that a reader brings to the reading act. Again, to try to link this back to those questions about where the constant change of technology leaves our moral sense, we need to see that we’re making this place. By revealing the book as a made thing, a thing that can both be lived in and accepted as real, one that calls attention to itself as something invented, an author can make the reader reflectively aware of the degree to which his life too is both received and invented. If we can preserve that dual sense, then we reserve the ability to go on writing our lives.

SB For this to work as you’re describing there also has to be a certain amount of faith on the part of the reader that the—let’s call him the Richard Powers character—is being represented not as an invented character. That he has the status of being kind of a Cubist paste-on, an import.

RP He functions with a foot in both of these worlds. He has to be palpable and real. And yet you have to see him as a character. We’re back to that discovery of fiction as being about a day in the life, but also about the aerial view that the author weds that day to.

SB I’m going to ask you a last question about history, and it really is just myself testing my own dreary perceptions. I’ve had this feeling—and it’s been especially vivid in the last year or so—that we really are in a very unusual, almost historical crisis in the sense of how we look at history, how we understand it. It comes to me most urgently as a teacher and as a father, I’m very worried that we’re beginning to see anything that happened before a certain date—and I don’t know where we’d inscribe it even, 1980 or 1985—as a species of camp, as something odd and funny. It has very much to do with the rotation of style and all of this acceleration we were talking about. We’re losing history. What’s your sense of where we stand in terms of this accumulated thing called history?

RP How much time do we have?

SB Oh, we’ve got a little bit of tape here.

RP Apparently, those Upper Paleolithic caves don’t change stylistically for 20,000 years. That’s an almost unthinkable amount of time to us, but of course in comparison with the previous million, it’s just an eyeblink. But once you introduce a permanent archive, you’re almost compelled to novelty. I’m deeply ambivalent toward the idea of the new, because in one sense it fits into your goal of growth, and in the other, if taken to its logical extreme, it annihilates growth. I think what you’re pointing to is real. The postmodern break hasn’t just been invented by theorists. Our notion of development has collapsed under its own proliferation. A permanent archive is like a tub with the plug in and the tap running: eventually it overflows. The length of an individual lifetime hasn’t changed all that much, if you discount infant mortality. But the amount that an individual would have to master to know where they are in history continues to go through the roof. So the sense of permanence gets replaced by a sense of perpetual transience. On the other hand, our being overwhelmed by the archive doesn’t change the fact that there is a human project. We may now be able to know it only as an aggregate. But an individual can still get glimpses of it, and still rough it out, and still … . Even this attempt to diagnose the postmodern break is an historical project. We can have some sense of beginning and we can have some sense of middle, in the scope of collective affairs. What has broken down, I think, is any consensus of where the curve goes out from here.

SB Right. And this now is a beautiful trope, me watching the tape wondering, Is he going to finish?

Sven Birkerts is the author of four books of essays, most recently The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. Graywolf will publish his new collection, Readings, early next year. He recently interviewed Saul Bellow for AGNI.

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Drawing from the bric-à-brac of history, in this case anecdotes and paradoxes from the likes of Benjamin Franklin, William James, and Gertrude Stein, novelist Maureen Howard plays with, and reinvents, the novel as form.

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Originally published in

BOMB 64, Summer 1998

Featuring interviews with Tracey Moffatt, Aharon Appelfeld, Eric Kraft, Maurice Berger, Patricia Williams, Richard Powers, Stellan Skarsgard, Jesus “Chucho” Valdes, and Lou Reed. 

Read the issue
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