In a letter of 1852, when he was working on Madame Bovary, Flaubert told his mistress Louise Colet that what he really wanted to write, what he saw as ‘the future of Art’, was ‘a book about nothing’, ‘a book without external attachments, supporting itself by the internal force of its style’. From the start of his career, the American novelist Padgett Powell seems to have had a similar ideal, compelling his readers’ attention not through character, narrative or ideas (or not predominantly through them), but through the lyrical drift of his sentences, their purchase on fleeting impressions and moods. He shares with Flaubert the view that in spite of ‘external attachments’ a novel is constructed out of style, and that style is an emanation of the author’s personality. But his pursuit of that Flaubertian ideal has taken a course that is entirely his own.
Even in his early work, Powell was willing to sacrifice strict intelligibility for a line or two of beautiful strangeness. Edisto (1984), his first and until now his best-known novel (it was a finalist for the National Book Award and received praise from Saul Bellow and Walker Percy), exposes small-town racism and adult absurdity through the voice of its precocious 12-year-old narrator, Simons Manigault. Simons is the only son of a literary lady who wants him to become a writer (hence the elaborate diction and distended vocabulary – she’s had him reading Faulkner), and his narrative is presented as an ‘assignment’ he is writing for her. Near the beginning of the novel, he describes falling from a moving bus:
got on the school bus, as usual, and fell out of it racing down the road, as not usual … sucked out into a fancy bit of tumbling on the macadam, spidering and rolling up the gentle massive cradling roots of an oak tree that has probably stopped many more cars with much less compassion. My tree just said whoa. You must see the miraculous thing it is to have avoided death by a perfect execution of cartwheels, rolling over a two-lane highway and partway up a tree, to clump down then with only two cracked ribs and no more for medicine than Empirin. The codeine kind not the old-lady kind.
This passage is fairly typical of Powell’s early fiction in its combination of the vividly daft (‘spidering’, ‘My tree just said whoa’) and the lyrically precise (those ‘gentle massive cradling roots’); in its expression of character as voice (the childish boasting and mythologising of the event: ‘over a two-lane highway and partway up a tree’, ‘the codeine kind not the old-lady kind’); in its cartoonish comic energy. The two novels that followed, A Woman Named Drown (1987) and Edisto Revisited (1996), were similar exercises in lurid realism, characterised by the magniloquent voices of their first-person narrative.
His next, Mrs Hollingsworth’s Men (2000), can be seen as a first attempt at stripping away familiar elements of the form. Mrs Hollingsworth sits down to write her grocery list, but finds herself writing instead a narrative sentence – ‘A mule runs through Durham, on fire.’ That sentence develops into a story featuring various figures from Mrs Hollingsworth’s life and imagination, including her estranged husband and daughters, two small-time crooks called Oswald and Bundy, a pervert called Rape and a hologram of the Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest. Cutting between this novel-within-a-novel (which is referred to throughout the book as a grocery list) and Mrs Hollingsworth’s writing of it, the narrative exists on so many planes that it eludes easy synopsis:
If Mrs Hollingsworth were to go to the store with this list, she was aware, it would not feed anyone in whatever combination she assembled the ingredients on it. There was not a satisfying meal to be made of it. There was in some rarefied sense a meal to the second or third power, perhaps what you could call a meal prime, which would satisfy only a hungry fool. That, she decided, was who, other than herself, she was shopping for. There was a hungry fool in the world with whom she had something in common, and maybe for whom she had something.
On her lawn outside were some boys cheering the O.J. Simpson verdict, skateboards aloft like swords.
She wrote herself a note, as one does sometimes on a shopping list, a kind of rider reminder to the main reminder that is the list itself:
How have you come to be a black-hearted woman with your come-and-go eyes? You is a storm of bad ideas. You will never be allowed to speak on National Public Radio. You enjoyed Flaubert when you were a girl, that is true. How have you become Céline? I love you anyway.
The transplanted features of a realist novel are still recognisable here – that detail of the boys with their ‘skateboards aloft like swords’, for example – but the tendency is towards the free association and creepy lyricism of Mrs Hollingsworth’s letter to herself. The novel contains passages of stunning peculiarity, but few people wanted to read it.
The new book completes Powell’s metamorphosis from realist to experimentalist. Glaringly so, in that every sentence in it is a question. As I read, I didn’t pause to reflect on my answers to many of them: they come too fast for that, and after the first few pages it begins to seem beside the point. You just let them rain down on you. Sometimes the questions follow one another in rough sequence for a paragraph or two (one riff sustained over several sentences has to do with the wisdom of apologising, in the early days of a relationship, for failures yet to come); more often, the questions are arranged in no discernible order. Some are philosophical or grandly probing: ‘Does integrity lie in failure?’ ‘Out of all the times in your life you have wept, can you select a time that you most wish you had not wept?’ Some relate to matters of personal opinion or memory: ‘Is it your impression that people who worked in animation in the 1930s did more drugs than people who work in it today?’ Some are blandly inquisitive about the reader’s lifestyle and habits, and could be found on a survey or application form: ‘Is there diabetes in your family?’ ‘What is your favourite fabric?’ Many are funny or just plain strange (though perhaps the distinction between funniness and strangeness in a book such as this is less than watertight): ‘If you were part of a couple living in a three-storey wooden Victorian house with a bad paint job outside and a shabby interior, to the extent that some of your rooms were lit by bare lightbulbs on swinging cords effecting heavy glare on the beadboard walls, wouldn’t you consider it an appropriate diversion for the two of you to play Norman Bates and his mother at least sometimes?’ And many of them strike a note of melancholy or nostalgia: ‘Wasn’t the world better when the term “haberdasher” was current? For that matter, when butter churns were in use? How did we go so wrong? Wasn’t there a day on earth when not every soul was possessed of his or her own petty political and personal-identity agenda? Do you still do candles for your birthday?’ Some of the questions, then, may be straightforwardly answered, but many don’t really allow for articulated response: they urge reflection, invite imaginative excursions or set up covert statements, permitting simply agreement or dissent. This is not (for the most part) what could be described as rhetorical questioning; it is questioning as display, as elucidation of attitude and voice. (Asked in an interview with the online paper the Faster Times about the book’s narrator, Powell responded: ‘Dude, c’est moi.’)
That Powell can sustain the barrage without becoming repetitive or dull is testament to his skill as a stylist and to the restlessness of his mind. The trick resides partly in the distribution of attitudes, the constant surprises and twists, and partly has to do with the vitality of the language. The narrator revels in his own idiosyncratic points of view: ‘Would it be reasonable to ask someone if he or she has a favourite musical note?’ ‘Do you appreciate that an oyster has, among its other organs, a heart?’
It’s much harder to be specious or reductive when asking a question than when making a statement, and perhaps the most unusual quality of Powell’s book is its air of absolute honesty – or at least, its refusal to risk dishonesty. Even the simplest declarative sentence (‘the cat sat’) implies a bundle of certainties, and can therefore ring false. Questions, on the other hand, can duck every kind of schema, and escape even the possibility of repudiation, cloaked as they are in uncertainty (a question, in this sense, is the opposite of an aphorism).
But however postmodern and abstract and otherwise avant-garde, the novel can’t quite wrest itself free from external attachments. A selective list of its preoccupations might include: the dissipation of the modern world and the possibility (or impossibility) of attaining happiness in it; how, most valuably, to spend a life; the extent to which a country property would be devalued if the cartoonist Robert Crumb were to move into the vicinity; and the provenance of urban legends. These subjects, though only transiently present, are neither insubstantial nor incidental to the book’s success. And behind each of them lurks the character of the narrator: always a ghostly figure, it’s true, but one about whom we gather much peripheral knowledge, especially at those moments when he asks whether we share his views on a given subject. ‘Do you love buffalo as much as I? May I tell you that I love buffalo and do not think you could love them as much as I love them?’ As the novel progresses, a sadness grows around this character, with his infinite curiosity and his demented dedication to a monologue that strains hopelessly towards dialogue. At one point, he wonders: ‘Is there anything you’d like to ask me?’ But of course, the form doesn’t allow for that. Despite its humour, the prevailing mood of The Interrogative Mood is loneliness.
That the book can be regarded as a novel at all – and not simply as a miscellany – is partly to do with its disclosure of an individual perspective (a subject, in another sense of the word). And the whole thing is motivated, if Powell is to be believed, by a quite conventional impulse: the desire to reflect on and respond to the conditions of the modern world. That’s another thing questions can do: they can take the place of answers. Asked on Radio 4’s Today programme when he first had the idea for the book, Powell explained that he had for several years been teaching creative writing at the University of Florida:
I was the director of the programme. An email might come like this, copied to all my colleagues: ‘Is it time for our esteemed director to have a chat with the provost about the autonomy of the programme?’ ‘Are we remembering what was promised us last spring by the dean, at lunch?’ ‘Are we going to allow history to repeat itself again?’ And so forth. And I decided that I wanted to develop an answer to these emails, and I started writing them: I sat down one morning and wrote the opening several paragraphs of this book.