Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Connections, Hyperlinks, and Neural Pathways in the Forest

After two unsuccessful efforts to plow through what I considered a bog of style and plot, I was able finally to get through Richard Powers' stunning, provocative novel, The Gold Bug Variations, my curiosity driven forward by the outrageous pun in the title, and its protagonist's goal of cracking the most secret of all codes, the genetic code.

I was glad to succeeded because it honed my appetite for Powers' most recent novel, The Echo Maker, a challenge and a pleasure to read, an even greater challenge and pleasure to review. (See the review here, if you're interested.)

Always one to probe deeply into the permutations of what it means and what it feels like to be alive, Powers this time has delved into the very basis of our individual and collective awareness, The Self, arranging a set of circumstances that allow us to, as Robert Burns put it, "see ourselves as others see us." Powers as well exploits that bedrock of individuality, that I-ness of consciousness, starting with a young protagonist who is injured in an accident, placed in an induced coma against the possibility of his brain becoming fevered, then observed. The protagonist exhibits the Capgras Syndrome in which the victim tends to suspect that those closest to him, friends, and family, are impostors. Okay, here we go. What is the self? What are the rules for defining the definition? And after a few chapters, even physician, heal thyself.

My enthusiasm for the novel--which won The National Book Award, led me to overstep lines; I foisted copies of the book on any number of friends, including a man who has spent a few weeks here and there over the years on The New York Times best-seller list, J. A. "Jerry" Freedman.

Cut to the past Saturday when Jerry arrived at break time during my Saturday writers' workshop to leave off a copy of the latest Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, in which he has a story, and to return a loaned copy of The Echo Maker. "You win," Jerry said. "Only a writer with chops like his could bring this off and be convincing about it. I don't like to use the word genius, but what else are you going to call him? I'm off to order all his other books."

Jerry goes after writers the way the late jazz great, Roy Eldridge, went around looking for trumpet players, to play with and against. In short, Jerry had been in a cutting contest with Richard Powers and was wanting more.

Okay, so on the window sill directly over my Tempur-Pedic pillow and what passes for a bed below it is--you guessed it, a stack of Powers' other books. When we are not completely self-absorbed into our own work, we're hungry for experiences that take us into the literary equivalent of trading eights, going with and against writers whose craft and reach argue us up to a performance we can live with for a time.

Some years back, I fell under the wheels of another writer, Muriel Spark, a remarkable talent who produced provocative work right up to her recent death. She left wheel marks on my writer's psyche from the get-go, but of her extensive work, Memento Mori stands as the most insightful and daring. Spark is quite a bit more metaphoric than Powers; in The Mandlebaum Gate, for instance, she uses that very gate which divides the city of Jerusalem into two areas as a symbol for the soul, and in arguably her most popular, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, she uses an ensemble cast of characters to represent various Jungian archetypes.

This is not to say Powers uses no metaphor or, indeed, irony as Spark does; but when he puts a slide under the microscope, he names the organism.

As The Echo Maker investigates the constituent parts of Self, Memento Mori investigates the responses of Self to the ever-present aspect of death, hovering over the lightning-in-a-bottle we call life. As the novel begins, a group of elderly friends begin receiving phone calls in which the caller admonishes, "Remember, you must die." Some of them have called the police, who join in on attempts to identify the caller. Thus does Spark do what Powers has more recently done, turn the narrative into a classic mystery, which is always a mystery of identity. Each novel, presented as a mystery, draws the reader's attention away from the greater issue at stake. Each writer is skillful enough that the attention cannot help but be led back to uncomfortable questions that splatter like insects on the windshield of awareness. Who are we? What steps have we taken to discover answers? What steps are we taking to avoid inevitabilities?

Spark, recently dead at eighty-eight, and Powers, still as unrelenting in his stalking of our sensitivities as the ghost of Hamlet's father, provide artistic renditions of our condition, guidelines for examination and for those two great dramatic rewards, surprise and discovery.

Very much in the current flickering of the public eye are the realities of Elizabeth Edwards and Tony Snow. Already the schoolyard bullies have begun to circle around each, wanting not only to get a ringside seat at the fight but to shout opinions, suggestions of strategy. As the wry and insightful political cartoonist, Pat Oliphant, has pointed out, the Final Four have nothing to do with UCLA, Ohio State, Georgetown, and defending champion Florida (Go, Bruins!). His Final Four are Dick Cheney, the kid, Al Gonzalez, and The Iraqi War. My own candidates are Cancer, the Environment, Extremism, and Health Care.

Elizabeth Edwards and Tony Snow have been handed the challenges of awareness of a more-or-less finite time. Each has some time left to do or not. So far, Elizabeth has spoken forth. For all I disagree with Tony Snow's politics, I suspect his choice will be to engage.

I speak of these public figures from the bleachers, but nevertheless with a valid ticket of entry. I'm just about a week short of my forty-month anniversary from the surgery that removed what was rated a IIIa tumor. From this perspective, the numbers look good, but numbers only reflect trends. You can live on trends, but they don't stop reality from kicking in, if reality were of a mind.

More so than any other species, we humans seem to have been hard wired for the tendency to self-pity. We also have choices. The greatest gift is the choice to engage in the work, whatever that work is. If we are lucky, we will never get all our work done, there will always be too much of it. The other choice is to opt for no work and for self-pity, which is a ticket to another set of bleachers in another stadium, where the game is always rained out and the hot dogs have lost their taste.

Muriel Spark. Richard Powers. Read the instructions.

1 comment:

R.L. Bourges said...
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