Did you ever read a book review and realize that you have to get your hands on a title you’ve never heard of? That happened to me years ago, when I read a review in The Wall Street Journal of The Gold Bug Variations, a new novel by Richard Powers. In one sense, the plot was a love story about two different couples. It was also about many other things, including the intricacies of the genetic code, and composer Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations [BWV 988]. Powers immediately became one of my favorite writers.
Known as a brainy literary fiction writer – he won a MacArthur “genius” grant in 1989 – Powers has attracted an intense following. The former computer programmer and physics major (he later switched to English) always puts in a great deal of research into science, musicology and other disciplines, but his novels also explore the pleasures of romantic love, music and literature. His ninth novel, The Echo Maker, won the National Book Award for fiction. The main character has suffered a brain injury in an accident, but while you’ll learn a lot about cognitive science, the judges also must have been impressed with the clever mystery story that showed off Powers’ ability to construct a good plot.
Powers’ latest novel is Orfeo, about a modern classical music composer who attempts to obtain an immortality of sorts by rewriting the genetic code of bacteria, thinking that his biological “compositions” will live on when his music is forgotten. Instead, in the current atmosphere of fear about terrorism, he is labeled the “bioterrorist Bach” and becomes a fugitive from the US government. Ironically, the bad publicity finally allows his music to become better known.
Powers is the the Phil and Penny Knight Professor of Creative Writing in the Department of English at Stanford University in California. He answered my questions after flying back from New York City, where he did a reading at a concert that featured music mentioned in Orfeo.
Tom Jackson (TJ) One of my hobbies is listening to modern classical music – not a common pastime – so when I read Orfeo, I had a weird feeling that one of my favorite novelists had written a book for my personal enjoyment. Were you worried that a novel that discusses Steve Reich, Olivier Messiaen, etc. would lack mass appeal?
Richard Powers (RP) Well, I was sure that it wouldn’t have mass appeal! But then, in a time when there is so much creative work in all forms, and when the audience for books is dwarfed by those for film, television, games, and the Internet, I’m not sure that “mass appeal” is a meaningful goal for a literary novelist. The book itself takes art and connection as one of its subjects, and the life of Peter Els (the book’s hero) is a constant exploration of the trade-off between the expressive potential of music and the need to connect with large numbers of people. Orfeo is in part a meditation on the difficulty of making art in the age of “mass appeal” and the diversity of art that still gets made in obscurity. So I was pleasantly surprised, having written a story about a composer whose performances always have more people on stage than in the audience, at the numbers of people who bought, read, and wanted to talk about the book. A lot of people who thought they could never hear and enjoy “difficult” music discovered new sounds as the result of reading the book, and that thrilled me as much as any larger audience could have.
TJ Do you listen to music when you write, or do you prefer to work under silence?
RP Several of my eleven published novels have featured music of one kind or another in a starring role. One of the reasons I have come back to that subject again and again is that it gives me the chance to steep myself in listening, during the years that it takes to write a book. I can’t write at the same moment that good music is playing; the sounds are too interesting to concentrate on anything else! What I do is alternate, all day long: an hour or two of writing, then half an hour to an hour of intense listening, for refreshment and inspiration. It’s a great, two-stroke engine. When I wrote The Gold Bug Variations, I must have listened to one or another of Bach’s gems thousands of times.
TJ The Gold Bug Variations, Genie and Orfeo all discuss the genetic code. Do you view the genetic code as the primal code behind all other codes, such as language and musical notation?
RP Self-replicating molecules have set every living thing in motion, and that pattern-making impulse, at the inanimate level, is, in some profoundly mysterious way, the mother of all animate pattern-making and pattern-seeking urges. Of course, there are a lot of changes in nature as you move from molecules up to neurons and then to social institutions. But kinds of natural (and unnatural!) selection are at work all the way up and down the great hierarchy. Meditation on our molecular roots is tremendously inspiring, and thinking about the journey from the first self-replicating molecules to the pinnacles of human achievement is the deepest kind of spiritual reflection. As Darwin said at the end of The Origin of Species, “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
TJ Did you find that readers of Galatea 2.2 assumed that the character “Richard Powers” was in fact Richard Powers? If they assumed that, were they largely right?
RP Readers (and even some sophisticated critics) often confuse a central character with the author. Our high school English teachers tell us not to, but we can’t help it. And when the central character has exactly the same name, age, and biography as his author, the invitation for conflation is pretty strong! Galatea is me having fun with this most basic of reading fallacies, as a way of reflecting on the power of fiction and imaginative reinvention. Nevertheless, the Richard Powers at the heart of that story is himself an invention and one who finds himself in the heart of one of the oldest fictions in the world: the one where a person’s creation – in this case, an artificial intelligence program – comes alive.
TJ If we are waiting for you to pop up on Twitter, will we have a long wait? (Orfeo includes Tweets from the book’s protagonist).
RP I’m afraid so! I’m a long-form guy. I need space. But I did once write a six-word novel: “Lie detector eyeglasses invented; civilization collapses.”
Tom Jackson – Sandusky Register