Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Human Novels

A friend emailed me recently to say she thought she understood why I did not like Richard Powers' most recent novel, The Echo Maker, as much as I'd liked his others. She said, "it is by far his most human novel ever – I find the emotions in it to be so raw – it is almost painful to read and I hate to have it be over". I answered, somewhat amused, "you're saying I don't like 'human' novels??" She meant that it's more of a tearjerker, "like a chick flick".

I was amused by the initial comment, in part because I wasn't overly surprised, given that our tastes don't easily mesh (for example, she had a hard time finishing Tom McCarthy's fantastic Remainder because she found the narrator so unpleasant), but also because I am very aware that Powers has often been accused of being a cold writer, that his writing is not "human" (or concerned primarily with characters with whom the reader might identify). It's a strange criticism, and hard to respond to. Hard for me to respond to, anyway, not just because it's something I disagree with about Powers, but because it's not the kind of criticism I would likely ever make about anything. It's not a category of criticism I use or find helpful. As Dan Green might say "if it's not human, then what is it?"

In a post from February that I noticed only a few weeks ago, Scott Esposito wrote about his reading of another Powers novel, Galatea 2.2. Scott, relatively new to Powers, was not liking it as much as he had liked both The Echo Maker and The Gold Bug Variations. In Galatea 2.2, a fictional Richard Powers is Humanist-in-Residence at the Center for the Study of Advanced Studies in Illinois. He becomes involved with Philip Lentz, a cognitive neurologist working on using a neural network to model the human brain (I've read the book twice, but for convenience I am basically paraphrasing the back of the book here). Lentz enlists Powers to teach the various iterations of the network the canonical Great Books. Scott praises this part of the novel, but there is a subplot that he had a problem with. Here's what he says about it:
This [subplot] one tells of Richard Powers the recent grad--his relationship with a woman he met while teaching an undergrad class and the writing of his first novel. The problem here is that it always feels like I am reading this narrative at a distance. The characters of young Richard and his love (only known as "C.") feel like 2-D representations of your typical couple at loose ends after college. This part is described, not told, which is a shame, because I have seen what Powers can do, and he can do much more than this. For example:
We were alone. For the first time in our lives, neither of us was going anywhere. We navigated from winter night to winter night, in a state where winter starts in October and rages on into May. In an apartment halfway along its forced march from genteel to desperate, we made a home too familiar for words.
Now, there's nothing wrong with this kind of fly-over narration if used sparingly to jet us past certain spots, but when virtually the entire story is narrated in these bland, distant terms, we have a problem. I don't want to be told that "we made a home too familiar for words," I want to see it being made. Moreover, there's no suspense in this plot. We know Powers will write his novel and become a famous author, that his relationship will end badly. The only thing in it for us is a vivid portrayal of it happening, but we're not getting that. And, lastly, halfway through the novel, I'm still not seeing the links between this narrative and the other one.
In a comment, Scott says that he finished the novel and ended up not liking it, finding the writing "loose" and "clunky" (I certainly disagree with this), the subplots never coming together for him.

It's difficult to argue with someone's dislike of a novel. It's more difficult when the dislike is couched in terms that seem so far removed from your own experience of the novel. In this case, I fear that Scott--who has shown an openness to various kinds of non-conventional fiction--is bringing expectations of a certain kind of book to his reading of this one. And I fear that Powers has encouraged this by his recent move toward more conventional psychological fiction (perhaps, too, Galatea 2.2's superficial resemblance to such books lends one to believe these kinds of expectations will be met). Worse, in his phrase "he can do much more than this" Scott appears to be privileging the aesthetics of this kind fiction, over even those more experimental novels he admittedly admires.

Essentially, with Galatea 2.2, Scott is telling Powers to "show not tell". Just as I think it's strange to criticize a novel for not being "human", I think this is a strange criticism of this novel. When Powers the character arrives in Illinois he is damaged, unsure whether he will be able to write again, whether he wants to write again. At some point he has obviously regained the urge to write (he is writing this book), and in doing so he writes about how he and C. came together, tentative at first:
By mutual agreement, we kept mum and avoided incident. I teased her about her previous incarnations. "Do you have any documentary evidence?"

At her next conference, she produced a photo out of her backpack. "Documentary evidence of prior lives." Flirting, under deniability's cloak.
He writes about his impetus to start writing, and about how his writing career had begun to flourish just as the depressive C. was becoming unreachable. His relationship with C. left him unsure of where he stood with himself. His writing in these sections is not "flyover", but I agree that there is a distance in it. Scott says that he has "seen what Powers can do"--that is, tell a psychologically convincing story, as he tried to do with The Echo Maker--write a tearjerker, as my friend would put it. Scott wants to "see" the relationship that Powers is instead describing. I assume this means more "natural" dialogue and psychological investigation into the mind of the Powers character. But to the Powers character, the narrator, these sections are not merely a narrative, they are the pieces of his former life, the damage to which has left him adrift, both as a man and as a writer. The distance is entirely appropriate, not least because he is never able to get to C. He is completely shut out; she recedes further and further from him. Her distance from him necessitates her distance from us. And his distance from her, effects his distance from other people.

The connection with the rest of the book becomes apparent by the end when in the course of his Great Books survey with Lentz's neural network, he finds himself attached to this network, needing the unlikely relationship that emerges with its artificial intelligence. Powers emerges, through this interaction, as well as through his contact with the other faculty and students at the Center (including Lentz and the grad student, A.; Scott inexplicably finds this latter interaction "creepy"), able to begin writing again, able to write something of the story of his life with C. and the distance that came between them.


patti digh said...

I wonder if I might take a side trip from your post about the work of Powers you mention here to ask if you have written about his book, The Time of Our Singing - and, if so, where you believe it stands relative to this criticism of coldness, of telling?

Richard said...

Hi. No, I have not written about The Time of Our Singing (click on the Richard Powers label to see other posts of mine about Powers and his work). I loved that book when I read it. Looking back, I think it may be part of a move by Powers to address this criticism of coldness. He's talked a lot about wanting to join the cerebral and the emotional in his fiction. But I've never understood the charge of coldness; I thought he already had been doing this, unless by "emotional" he (or others) mean something quite different than I would (do they indeed mean "tearjerkers"?). So, I didn't think he needed to make the kinds of changes he may have been consciously making with his last two novels in order to counteract it (coldness).

I would need to re-read the novel to be sure, though. I wasn't thinking about fiction in the same ways at the time I read it (admittedly not so long ago, since it was only published 4 or 5 years ago). I do recall feeling a sense of relief that he had handled the racial material so well (as far as I, also white, can understand it), representing a believable (politically and otherwise) set of social milieus. Now I might wonder at the need to cram so much in, to cover all the bases like he did.

You might be interested in Dan Green's take on The Time of Our Singing here and The Echo Maker here, in which he writes about the changes he perceives in Powers recent fiction (much of which I agree with).