I’m one of those people who has fallen off the Richard Powers bus. When I first read him I had a very favorable impression, but the more I’ve read him the more that impression has been scraped away–and the more I’ve questioned my original readings of Powers.
There’s no doubt that the man can come up with some remarkably clever premises for his novels, and at times he shows a strong facility for structure, but he just doesn’t have the heart of a writer in him.
The fiction of Richard Powers sometimes resembles a dying satyr—above the waist is a mind full of serious thought, philosophical reflection, deep exploration of music and science; below, a pair of spindly legs strain to support the great weight of the ambitious brain. . . . The intellectual stakes are high, but, unfortunately, the novelistic means are limited.
I haven’t read the new Powers novel, and I don’t intend to, as Wood declares it “his most schematic and coarse.” (Incidentally, I did read the story of his anthologized in the latest Pushcart, and I find it hard to believe that that story would have made it in if it didn’t have the Powers name attached.) I’ve worked my way through a good deal of his collected works, and at this point I can’t believe that Powers is going to suddenly learn how to write good fiction.
I don’t always see eye to eye with Wood, but this nails it:
Powers is an ambitious novelist, but he is also ambitious for clarity, and is never afraid to spell things out. And here it is: on the one hand, high-level ratiocination, and, on the other, the “low-level” system of rutting and coupling. His mating plots tend toward the banal, and are written in a prose that is at once showy and anxiously explanatory (“decided to pull an Aschenbach”). So his novels lead double lives, in which the sophistication of his ideas is constantly overwhelming the rather primitive stylistic and narrative machinery; the reader has to learn to switch voltages, like a busy international traveller. What falls in the gap is any subtlety of insight into actual human beings.
I agree. The more Powers I’ve read the more I’ve realized that he goes to pains to make everything extremely clear, to the point that his work is very over-written. This often combines with a tendency to phrase things in a quasi-oblique/quasi-scientific manner that just ends up sounding adolescent. With his ability to link concepts and come up with original ideas, Powers could probably be a strong essayist, but he’s not a novelist.
On the other hand, for a writer who works with a very scientific bent but manages to hew that into literature, I direct you to Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, which I am currently enjoying.