Thursday, October 05, 2006

What if the World Were Already Lost?

I'm in the midst of re-reading Richard Powers' second novel, Prisoner's Dilemma, which was the first Powers book I ever read. In this book, Powers plays with history and time and family interactions and the question of how the individual can impact the world. The family in the novel is the Hobsons: Eddie Sr., his wife Ailene, and their four children, Artie, Lily, Rachel, and Eddie Jr. Eddie Sr. suffers from an ongoing illness that he refuses to have diagnosed and the rest of the family avoids talking about, has avoided talking about for years, finding elaborate ways of evading the issue. Powers' fiction is usually packed with puns and metaphor and allusion, and Prisoner's Dilemma is no different. Here, the engine of this language is Eddie Sr. and his battery of pedagogical tricks and referential tics. The children have all grown up under his dark, often tasteless humor and his constant barrage of movie quotes, literary allusions, bad puns, ad hoc mind games, science quizzes over breakfast--indeed, he speaks almost entirely in this language, leaving the children to figure out what he might be getting at with any given comment or joke or question. His way of teaching them how to make their way in the world. But the children, adept at playing the game, have each in his or her own way instead mastered the art of evasion: evasion of the topic and of having to admit their true feelings.

In the "present-day" narrative, as the book opens, it is November 1978 and the family is gathered for Eddie Jr.'s 18th birthday, and Eddie Sr. is increasingly, alarmingly ill. He is ill but somehow still able to bounce back from each seemingly awful collapse and maintain his cheerful, joking demeanor, and the rest of the family battles silently over how to confront him about it. The following passage is taken from the middle of the novel, towards the end of the visit, Rachel having finally coaxed the family into singing by providing the first line, "Lo, how a rose e’er blooming". The rest of the family joins in with four-part harmony:
All at once, the flash that each had tried so hard to evade was there, intact: a moment of tender visiting hovering over them as the tenors slid down that narrow half-step to the F sharp. They all felt it, momentarily. And each knew the others received a momentary hold on the instant, too. All six stood looking into a place before irony, before wit, before anxiety, before evasion. Surfaces dispersed, and in the still point underneath, they saw what was so terribly obvious to all of them, despite their long gainsaying: how hopelessly each cared what happened to the other. The care shouted out uninvited between them, like a candidate's criminal record. They had no choice but to tune their chord to it. They stood startled, flushed into that snare, aware for once of the connection between them that could reach down at leisure and destroy them. Caught in glorious chord, in facts gathered from each other's faces, they all felt the fissure--fragile, dangerous, and beautiful--close up and leave them in the incurable call back to tonic. The rose I have in mind.
That last sentence is too much of an apparent non sequitur to pass without notice. A short search came up with words to this Christmas carol:
Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming from tender stem hath sprung!
Of Jesse’s lineage coming, as men of old have sung.
It came, a floweret bright, amid the cold of winter,
When half spent was the night.

Isaiah ’twas foretold it, the Rose I have in mind;
With Mary we behold it, the virgin mother kind.
To show God’s love aright, she bore to men a Savior,
When half spent was the night.
So, as expected, it's clearly not a non sequitur. "The rose I have in mind" is just another line in the song. Or is it? The placement of the line in this manner implies a lot more than mere quotation. Why is Powers using this carol? It appears at least one other time in the book. What is he trying to say? I don't know much about carols, nor am I well-versed in Christian literature or imagery. But, at risk of being obvious, I'll take a stab at it.

In the carol, the "Rose" is obviously Jesus Christ. Or, given the reference to Isaiah's messianic prophecy, the Messiah, or Saviour, more generally. In the passage, I think the line means that here, in this singing, where the family realizes with a shock how much they care about each other, they perhaps see that it might be a way out of their standard evasion, it might save them. They might just be able to drop the act and get to the point. But it is as elusive as understanding. Singing is where they see past all their jokey facades to their intimate connections, where they realize that they matter to each other more than they might have been able to say. But when the song ends and they part ways, they're back where they were.

But I think there's more to the allusion than that. Ed Hobson learned something about the world, something about America, that ruined his youthful idealism, left him adrift in the world, unable to find the purpose for a small individual like himself in the vast billions and in the huge historical currents that happen without most of us being aware of the changes. His illness has a dark source, connected to one of these hidden histories, and he knows it. In a world that may already be lost (a variant on one of his favorite phrases: in many ways this book is a meditation on loneliness, and its opposite), he resorts to trivia, silly movies, fantasy, in order to survive, or so it appears. Alternating with the present-day narrative is a counter-narrative, Eddie Sr.'s "Hobstown" project, involving Walt Disney and a fictional scheme to free some of the Japanese Americans interned during World War II, in which Eddie imagines a world where history is redeemed. Where people realize that the way out of the elaborate Prisoner's Dilemma of the title is in fact not mutual mistrust, that self-interest is not in the self's interest, that they must hope against hope that the other party, the Other, will recognize this too. This might just save humanity. The rose he has in mind.


AC said...


I really want to read Powers. Is this one a good place to start?

Richard said...

Well, it worked for me!

Actually, I've had great success recommending Galatea 2.2. I think either would be a good place to start.