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  • An interview with Richard Powers
  • Stephen J. Burn (bio)

When I traveled to meet Richard Powers for the first time, on a gray London afternoon in February 2004, I discovered a sign hung on the door of his hotel room that warned "LEAVE ME ALONE." Inside the room, the acclaimed American novelist was discussing server authentication with a computer specialist who was clearly struggling to keep up with the speed of Powers's thought. My preconceptions about this technologically adept, apparently reclusive writer seemed to be receiving early confirmation. But as we walked around London that afternoon, the reputation that Powers has for reclusiveness dropped away as he revealed himself to be a generous and outgoing conversationalist. At the same time, my supposition that Powers is immensely gifted was strengthened as he simultaneously discussed developments in fiction and read the cityscape—talking about William Gaddis, or interdisciplinarity, as he pointed out submerged traces of Christopher Wren's architectural signature.

But any reader who has encountered one of Powers's deeply nuanced and intellectually rich novels will not need to be told that the Illinois-born writer is unusually talented. Over the twenty-three years since his first novel, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance (1985), was published, Powers has steadily constructed a body of fiction that has established him as among the most significant of contemporary American authors. His nine novels are distinguished by their intricate architecture, intertwining of multiple narrative forms, and sophisticated synthesis of diverse fields of knowledge. [End Page 163]

Critics and reviewers have often praised the breadth and depth of Powers's intellectual interests—which can run from molecular biology to obscure Flemish painting within the space of a few pages in a single novel—but the global range of his knowledge is matched by his concern for the planet. Powers's work is motivated by an ecological vision that tries to probe the glistening veneer of contemporary media reality—its hyped technologies, its enthralled consumerism—to reach the axis of interconnected life that lies beneath. To do this, Powers's fiction views the world from a long perspective, alert to evolutionary scales of time and informed by the nonlinear interactions of natural systems—in other words (as Powers, paraphrasing Edward Lorenz's pioneering work on weather systems, writes in Prisoner's Dilemma [1988]), the way that "a butterfly flapping its wings in Peking propagates an unpredictable chain reaction of air currents, ultimately altering tomorrow's weather in Duluth." Nothing takes place in isolation in Powers's work. Small events can have large consequences, as environment and individual reciprocally shape and direct each other.

Powers's ecological vision does not, however, stand free of his work's formal qualities. His books are arranged to stress homologies between form and content, so that what Powers calls, in The Gold Bug Variations (1991), "the complex web of interdependent nature" becomes the model for his fiction. Just as ecological thinkers reacted against a naive reductionist focus on the part rather than the whole, so Powers's novels become interdependent systems where, rather than focusing on one kind of exposition, different discourses work together to create aesthetic effects. This means that rather than privileging the realist prejudice that showing is, for some reason, inherently superior to telling, Powers's books are constructed out of mixed modes, synthesizing essayistic narration, self-referring commentary, and even poetry alongside relatively traditional stretches of mimetic narrative. These multiple modes act to create a kind of perspectivism, historicizing and contextualizing action and underlining the fact that "[t]he world," as Powers told one interviewer, "isn't simply taking place at eye-level view, there's lots going on above us and below us" (Salon 1998). In practical terms, this means, for example, that in The Gold Bug Variations, Powers contextualizes the paired stories of an old scientist's decline and a young couple's [End Page 164] mating dance, with specialized essays on the biological processes that underwrite and dictate the great themes of the novel, love and death. By contrast, Powers's sixth novel, Gain (1998), represents the photographic negative of Gold Bug's concentration on the molecular foundations of life. If...


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pp. 163-179
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