Monday, October 09, 2006

What Novels are For

I haven't read Richard Powers' new novel, The Echo Maker, yet (it's on order), but I've noticed that the reviews have started coming in. This one in The Nation by William Deresiewicz is a pretty annoying James Wood-style takedown (link via The Written Nerd). Deresiewicz irritates immediately, attempting to take down Powers and his fixation on science:
Richard Powers has a lot of ideas: complex, articulate, deeply informed ideas about artificial intelligence, virtual reality, relativity, genetics, music and much more. But poems, as Mallarmé told Degas, are not made of ideas, and neither are novels. The Echo Maker will tell you a great deal about neuroscience, environmental degradation and the migratory patterns of the sandhill crane, but like Powers's 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.
Nice of him to decide for the rest of us what novels are for. I can only say that I've never found Powers' introduction of scientific ideas or themes off-putting or, as Deresiewicz later puts it, "textbookery". It's never been difficult to understand their relation to the narrative--or, rather, it's always been clear that they have a relation to the narrative, and part of the enjoyment in reading Powers is figuring out what that is.

Anyway, some other offending remarks: About The Time of Our Singing, he writes "Powers constructs an enormous novel to tell us, in part, that white people will never be able to understand or accept black people (so black people should stick to their own culture and their own kind)." Though I disagree with him, I'm not especially bothered by many of Deresiewicz's criticisms of this novel (for example, that he finds Powers to be more sentimentalist than humanist), but this comment is just lunk-headed. About The Gold Bug Variations, Deresiewicz says that it's little more than Powers "treating the novel as a container for scientific ideas". And: "One can't help but feel that Powers is more in love with his ideas than with his story."

I know I shouldn't get too worked up; if he's unable to figure out what Powers' "elaborately constructed concepts have to do with what it means to be alive at a particular time and place, or what it feels like", then that's his loss.


Scraps said...

Reviews written by people fundamentally unsympathetic to an author's approach or subject matter almost always say more about the reviewer, and personally I'm not very interested in any reviewer's limitations. A Powers enthusiast is unlikely to learn whether the new novel succeeds by Powers's standards, and someone unfamiliar with Powers can only see that the reviewer finds the entire Powers enterprise unfulfilling, which is not useful unless you share the prejudices the reviewer espouses as the objective goals of the novel; so who is the review for? People who already agree, who can have a fine and unchallenging time having their disappreciation validated. I can't imagine why a venue like The Nation finds this inert lump of question-begging interesting. I suppose it's supposed to be provocative, but what it provokes isn't thought: it's irritation on the one hand and complacency on the other.

Scraps said...

And I think the idea that poems cannot be made out of ideas would be news to Wallace Stevens.

Richard said...

Ha! Yeah, it's a really pompous review, isn't it? He seems immensely pleased with himself. At least when James Wood does this kind of thing there's a sense of an intelligence grappling with something.