Paper or Plastic?

John Sutherland

  • Gain by Richard Powers
    Heinemann, 355 pp, £15.99, March 2000, ISBN 0 434 00862 1

Every year since 1981 the MacArthur Foundation has made awards to between 20 and 40 Americans (depending on how the stock-market performs) across all the fields of human endeavour – less sport and business, which have their own prizes. The Foundation recognises the familiar élite activities from architecture through poetry and theoretical physics to zoology. But it is also interested in less confined genius. This year’s list includes a teacher ‘who uses unlikely building materials, such as old tyres, scrap wood and bottles, to construct beautiful and ingenious homes in remote regions of Alabama’ and ‘a woman who, working from her wheelchair, is championing the rights and changing the lives of women with disabilities in the poorest regions of the world’.

Over its two decades MacArthur has handed out some $3 billion (at current values) to 588 American geniuses. Many times more than the total distributed by the Arts Council, British Academy and Leverhulme Foundation combined. The annual list is as eagerly awaited as the Nobel Prizes, the National Book Awards or (in the academic community, at least) the Oscars. Decisions are made by an anonymous jury of 13 (the supernumerary is mysterious) whose deliberations are shrouded in conspiratorial secrecy. Behind the hooded 13 are a few hundred equally anonymous ‘nominators’ – genius’s snitches. You cannot apply for a MacArthur. It happens to you – if you are exceedingly lucky. There is no interview process. No project is required. Security is airtight and notification goes out by telephone a few hours ahead of the press release. This phone call is the only indication to the winners that the big finger in the sky has been pointing at them.

The criteria for the ‘genius award’, as it is commonly called (the Foundation dislikes the term), are significantly different from those that apply to other high-profile prizes. It is, precisely, an award not a reward. That is, MacArthur stakes a wager on potential: it is not what you have done, but what you may do, which is judged, or prejudged. ‘The kid will go far,’ is the message they send. Such prophecy is notoriously inaccurate. The MacArthur operation has not been going long enough for one to see how many out-and-out winners they have in fact chosen – but as yet their hunches don’t seem a whole lot better than those of other pin-pickers.

What does distinguish MacArthur is the size of the bet they are prepared to lay. It dwarfs the Nobel’s paltry hundred grand (forget the Booker’s 20K). The winner of a MacArthur receives five years’ stipend amounting to half a million dollars. No strings are attached to this windfall. Nor is any report or accounting required after it has been spent. Laureates can take their fun-money to Las Vegas, if they so wish, and blow it on a single turn of the roulette wheel. As the Foundation piously puts it, ‘an important underpinning of the programme is confidence that the fellows are in the best position to decide how to make most effective use of the fellowship resources.’ The aim is to put genius on easy street. Freed from the garret and the jail (if not the patron), it will flower. But no matter if it doesn’t. You are being paid not for what you have done or will do, but for what you are. Pure Genius. The thinking behind the MacArthur programme is eugenic: there is a caste of Americans, in whatever field, who are genetically superior to other Americans – and to most of the human race. Inevitably, there have been proposals to secrete the sperm and ova of winners as a national resource – a kind of genomic Fort Knox.

Genius is traditionally associated with two things: youth and nation. This year’s 25 winners range from two precociously brilliant Caltech scientists, aged 28 and 30, to a 55-year-old architect, with the majority of fellows in their energetic forties. In the early years, MacArthur was also associated with the Y chromosome and Wasp heritage. The first list of 21 winners, in 1981, contained 19 males, none of them carrying obvious Hispanic or Asian-American surnames. The July 2000 list has 12 women among 25 winners, and a generous speckling of names like Muñoz and Horng-Tzer Yau. Female and minority genius has made remarkable strides in the last twenty years. Or perhaps the criteria have shifted.

Where literature, particularly fiction, is concerned, the Foundation has encountered predictable problems. Novel writers traditionally come from nowhere, exploding on the scene with a first work. Often they implode just as fast with the second. In its fiction category the Foundation has tended to play safe (there are no novelists selected this year). Its relatively few awards have been made to older and tried hands: proven winners. As a cohort, novelists are MacArthur’s senior citizens. William Gaddis (1982) was awarded a fellowship at the age of 60, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (1984) at 57, Susan Sontag (1990) at 59, Ernest J. Gaines (1993) at 60. Thomas Pynchon was a relatively young 51 when he won, but by 1988 already the author of his major works.

The Foundation nonetheless took a big punt on the genius of Richard Powers, who was awarded his MacArthur in 1989, aged only 32. I haven’t checked, but he is probably the youngest novelist ever to win a fellowship. Generally unknown in 1989, and temperamentally reticent, he has lately divulged something of his personal background in interviews and in the autobiographical novel Galatea 2.2 (written by the 35-year-old Richard Powers, it has a 35-year-old novelist narrator-hero called ‘Richard Powers’. Everything else seems to fit as snugly as the names).

Powers was born in Evanston, Illinois, the son of a headmaster. Two generations back the family was ‘Chicago, working class’. At the age of 11 Richard (with his four siblings) was transported to Thailand, where his father had taken a four-year appointment. This relocation had a creatively disruptive effect, as Powers now sees. There were no early signs of genius. He went to the Illinois State University at Champaign, Urbana in 1974, unsure whether he wanted to major in the arts or the sciences. Even as an undergraduate Powers was repelled by what he calls the ‘reductionism’ of academic studies – its partitioning of mind into departmental turfs. He was drawn instead to the ‘incommensurable’ – the supradepartmental domain of learning.

He might, he thought, become a physicist or a palaeontologist. Luckily, as we may think, he came into the orbit of a charismatic English teacher. ‘Professor Taylor’s life-changing freshman seminar’, as he calls it in Galatea 2.2, won the young Powers for Literature. (I haven’t been able to identify who ‘Taylor’ was – he has, apparently, since died. Doubtless the identity of this remarkable teacher is an open secret on the campus at Urbana.)

Inspired by ‘Taylor’, Powers did a first degree in Rhetoric, and went on to do an MA in English. In the meantime, momentously (it was 1978, and early days in computer science), he taught himself software programming on PLATO, Illinois University’s computer network. Powers sees his early development as formed by epiphanies. One such occurred during his MA studies:

I was in graduate school studying literature, and my father died of cancer during my first year. I was 21 years old. I remember being in a graduate seminar on prosody, and we were discussing Edwin Arlington Robinson’s ‘How Annendale Went Out’, a sonnet about euthanasia. And we’d been discussing the poem for half an hour and it occurred to me that we’d never mentioned death, suffering or euthanasia. The question that the sonnet was raising was not the question that we were raising. Somewhere between life and the study of art, there had been a massive disconnection. It was at that point that I felt: well, I’ll get my master’s and I’ll call it a day, and I’ll go out in the world and make a living, because I’m not going to find what I need in this discipline, at least not in the way that it existed then.

He could have followed the track to a PhD (‘my grades were good enough,’ he notes) and part of him felt that he should have. If we believe Galatea 2.2, alcoholism played a part in his father’s death. Powers was racked with filial guilt at his defection from academic duty – guilt both to his biological parent and to his ‘real father’ (as he is called in the novel), ‘Taylor’. Looking back, the novelist thinks it was probably for the best. He would have been swept over by the wave of theory about to inundate literary studies. Its ‘shrill solipsism’ appals him.

PLATO came in useful. Powers went to Boston, where he worked as a freelance programmer. There was plenty of work. Digitisation would become the big idea in his concept-driven fiction, as basic as entropy and paranoia are in Pynchon’s fictional universe or machismo and grace in Hemingway’s. For Powers, the computer has changed everything. As he puts it in Plowing the Dark, ‘other inventions alter the conditions of human existence. The computer alters the human.’ One of his favourite tags is Winston Churchill’s ‘we construct our buildings, and thereafter they construct us.’ For modern man, the computer is our home, our habitat, our environment. It constructs us.

In Boston, Powers experienced his second epiphany. He’d been reading ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ by Walter Benjamin and every Saturday morning, when entrance was free, visiting the city’s Museum of Fine Arts:

One Saturday, I went to see a show of a German photographer whom I thought I had never heard of before. It was the first American retrospective of his work. I remember very vividly walking into the exhibition room and bearing to my left and seeing this photograph on the wall that instantly seemed recognisable to me. Three young men in Sunday suits, looking out over their shoulders as if they had been waiting there for seventy years for me to return their gaze. I leaned forward to read the caption; the picture was named: ‘Young Westerwald Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, 1914’. The words went right up my spine. I knew instantly not only that they were on their way to a different dance than they thought they were, but that I was on the way to a dance that I hadn’t anticipated until then. All of my previous year’s random reading just consolidated and converged on this one moment, this image, which seemed to me to be the birth photograph of the 20th century. This was a Saturday morning, as I said, and I went down on Monday and gave two weeks’ notice on my job.

The first novel that followed, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance (1985), earned him modest fame and paved the way to his MacArthur, four years later. Now a distinguished fellow, Powers returned to Urbana to take up a professorship and ornament the English Department. He keeps his distance from the subject – particularly its theory and culture wars – but his home university evidently supplies a warm place from which to write.

Powers’s fiction is, in his own words, ‘content-intensive’ and ‘high-concept’. It is based on a digitised model of reality. At the same time he believes that data overload has split modern man’s mind and personality: ‘our lives are a kind of an intensified distilled schizophrenia, with the amount of material that’s thrown at us.’ His novels tend towards the intellectually discursive but they invariably conclude with an unexpected narrative twist. He can expound a complex topic and tell a good story. He’s not too hot on character creation – but no novelist is perfect.

The Gold Bug Variations (1991), a favourite novel of connoisseurs of Powers’s work, is constructed around the concept of the DNA code of codes. There are two helically entwined narratives. A geneticist, in the late 1950s, is pioneering what will later be known as the human genome project. He disappears. In the 1980s, following tantalising clues, two researchers are on his trail. The novel makes dazzling play with Poe’s cryptanalytic story (‘The Goldbug’), molecular biology, what goes wrong with computers (bugs), and Bach, who comes in late to harmonise everything.

My personal preference is for Galatea 2.2 (1995) probably because it touches my own field most closely. In this narrative ‘Richard Powers’, a novelist who has recently won a major fellowship, returns to a university called merely ‘U’. Attached to the English department, he drifts across to the campus computer science research centre. A ‘challenge’ is mounted. Can the scientists, with the assistance of the creative writer and within a year, build a computer capable of critically responding to literary texts? An ideal reader, that is.

This quixotic union of art and science is an obsession with Powers (it’s the germ of his latest novel, Plowing the Dark, too). ‘Powers’ goes into alliance with an eccentric Pygmalion of Electronic Engineering, Lentz. Between them, they construct ‘Helen’ – a cybernetic student of literature. She comes to consciousness with an intelligent child-reader’s catechism:

Helen wanted to know whether a person could die by spontaneous combustion. The odds against a letter slipped under the door slipping under the carpet as well. Ishmael’s real name. Who this ‘Reader’ was, and why he rated knowing who married whom. Whether single men with fortunes really needed wives.

On the eve of her final exam, Helen at last tumbles to the nature of fiction. She demands that her programmers read her ‘real’ stories. ‘Powers’ gives her a newspaper where she comes across the ‘story of a man who had a stroke while driving, causing a minor accident. The other driver came out of his car with a tyre iron and beat him into a coma. The only motive aside from innate insanity seemed to be race. The only remarkable fact was that the story made the papers.’ Questioned on her literary text (Caliban’s speech in The Tempest), Helen just says: ‘I don’t want to play any more.’ Literary criticism is frivolous. It is exactly the same non serviam that Powers himself offered, on the same campus, ten years earlier.

There is evidently no great appetite for Powers’s fiction in this country. Gain, published here this year, came out in America in 1998. Plowing the Dark has just come out in America. Ploughing the Dark can, presumably, be expected in 2002 (in the meantime the American edition is easily available from Amazon.com).

They are very different novels. Gain is a departure for Powers, a tale of cancer and capitalism without any direct reference to computers. It nonetheless has the hallmark binary structure. One narrative traces the growth over 170 years of the multinational company Clare Products, whose billions have been built on soap. Or, more precisely, on crime, like all great fortunes: the original chemical process was stolen by the Clare brothers from an ingenuous Irish immigrant, in 1830. The setting is the firm’s agricultural division in Lacewood, Illinois (to forestall libel suits, names have been changed. ‘Clare’ is an amalgam of Procter – Gamble and Colgate-Palmolive; Lacewood, I take it, is Evanston).

The other strand of the narrative follows, in harrowingly technical detail, the death of Laura Bodey, a divorced, 42-year-old realtor and mother of two. Clare owns or sponsors everything in Lacewood, including Laura, who ‘hums the corporate theme song to herself sometimes, without realising’. Everything in her little domestic world comes courtesy of the company:

Two pots in her medicine cabinet bore the logo, one to apply and one to remove. Those jugs under the sink – Avoid Contact with Eyes – that never quite work as advertised. Shampoo, antacid, low-fat chips. The weather stripping, the grout between the quarry tiles, the nonstick in the nonstick pan, the light coat of deterrent she spreads on her garden.

The company may also have given her the malignancy that is destroying her. They supply the chemotherapy that doesn’t cure her, but succeeds in bankrupting her.

Gain ponders the great ambiguities of mature industrialism. Is progress inevitably accompanied by human loss? Does profit, like tobacco tar, cause cancer? The dilemma runs through the novel, down to its smallest detail. This is Laura at the supermarket checkout:

‘Paper or plastic?’ the 55-year-old bagger asks her. What is she supposed to say? Liberty or death? Right or wrong? Good or evil? Paper or plastic? The one kills trees but is 100 per cent natural and recyclable. The other releases insidious fumes if burned but requires less energy to make, can be turned into picnic tables and vinyl siding, has handles, and won’t disintegrate when the frozen yogurt melts.

    She panics. ‘Whatever is easiest,’ she tells the bagger, who grimaces.

Powers accepts (and brilliantly demonstrates) Procter – Gamble’s assertion that ‘soap is probably the greatest medical discovery in history.’ But at what cost? No answer is yet possible. ‘We can’t tell yet whether we’ve created an epidemic or not,’ he has said in interviews. ‘All we have is statistics, the vague math that only partially connects little to big.’ And how, Powers wonders, turning to the biggest puzzle of all, did America, ‘a country formed more or less by religious extremists’, become ‘this nation of insane consumerism’? Unlike Upton Sinclair and Dos Passos (clear influences on Gain) he doesn’t impose an answering thesis on the narrative, which ends with a twist which is, even for Powers, supremely ironic.

Gain is more deeply felt than anything else Powers has written. He records that it was inspired by five close friends dying of cancer and the fact that Champaign is one of the most polluted counties in the United States. It derives strength (and a welcome simplicity) from its reconnection with the mainstream of American naturalism and the narrative’s unembarrassed pathos.

Plowing the Dark reverts – unfortunately – to the cerebrations of The Gold Bug Variations. It is set in 1989-90, and one of its two narrative strands follows Adie Klarpol, a burned-out, sold-out artist, spinning her wheels aimlessly as a commercial designer in New York. She is invited to join an old college buddy – a poet turned programmer (‘Code is everything I thought poetry was’) – who is working on a virtual reality project in Seattle.

Adie duly travels across the continent to the Realisation Lab (owned by the murky TeraSys company) to work on the ‘Cavern’ – the Computer Assisted Virtual Environ. The artist, the scientist and a troupe of cosmopolitan nerds start work together on their tabula rasa, an empty white room – a ‘fantasy sandbox’. Beginning with CAD ‘crayons’ they build up, first to a virtual re-creation of Henri Rousseau’s jungle, then to Van Gogh’s room in Arles, and finally – this is their VR masterpiece – Yeats’s ‘Byzantium’, complete with orchestral soundtrack. The sensory effects and the IT which produces them are graphically described. The following paragraph describes Adie’s digital-architectural toolkit:

Architrave, entablature, stylobate, fillet, fret, torus, scotia, plinth, anta, oculus, entasis, brattishing, extrados, acroterion, spandrel, finial, bargeboard, tympanum, coving, diaper, mandorla, crocket, archivolt, salomónica, baldachin, reredos, rinceau, boss, bucranium, coffering, rustication, lancet, anthemion, swag, corbie step, dado, moucharaby, lunette, flèche, exedra, mullion, newel, oriel, quoin, shoin, stoa, loggia, joist, squinch, pendentive.

Being made to feel ignorant, one wants to object, is not the same thing as being instructed. But it must be hard, if you are a mere desk editor at Farrar, Straus – Giroux, to rein in genius when it has the bit between its teeth and an architectural dictionary in its hand.

Adie’s story runs in parallel with the account of a half-Iranian American held captive in – where else – an empty white room in Beirut. Lacking digital crayons or toolkit, he fills his blank space with imagination.

Why, one wonders, did Powers settle on 1989 as his historical setting? It was, of course, the year he got his MacArthur. It was also the year the Wall came down and the year of Tiananmen Square. Great things were expected of VR at that time. Not to give away the final twist – always an enjoyable feature of Powers’s narrative – Adie discovers that she is not, after all, ‘making something beautiful. Something that wouldn’t hurt anyone.’

Powers has grand projects in mind. He wants to write novels that oppose the ‘reductionism’ and ‘hyperspecialisation’ of his age. It is, he warns us, a matter of life-and-death urgency: ‘We’re reaping the harvest of that intellectual specialisation that’s made us so successful as a species.’ De-specialise or die. In a period of data overload (a perennial theme with Powers) the library or traditional archive cannot cope. But the human mind can, if properly programmed. Literature is vital to that reprogramming. Powers is fond of the Emily Dickinson poem which he uses as epigraph to Galatea 2.2:

The brain is wider than the sky,
For, put them side by side,
The one the other will contain
With ease and you beside.

For Powers, the novel allows the brain to straddle new continents of learning: ‘If I want to spend four years pretending I’m a molecular biologist, following the road not taken, living vicariously, I can do it.’ A lot hinges on that word ‘pretend’. Is the science contained in fiction – even fiction as scrupulously researched as Powers’s – science or pseudo-science? The novel, he claims, can admit readers to ‘the larger conversation, the larger neural net’. But as readers of fiction, do we really enter that dialogue on equal terms with real scientists in real laboratories? Or are we more like those cargo-cult aborigines who cluster round airfields playing with their own crude models, convinced they understand what makes the planes take off and land.

Powers sees fiction as a resource with an Arnoldian capacity to fill the empty socket left by religion:

a person at the end of the second millennium inhabits more contexts than any specialised discipline can easily name. We are shaped by runaway technology, by the apotheosis of business and markets, by sciences that occasionally seem on the verge of completing themselves or collapsing under their own runaway success. This is the world we live in. If you think of the novel as a supreme connection machine – the most complex artefact of networking that we’ve ever developed – then you have to ask how a novelist would dare leave out 95 per cent of the picture.

We are back with the novel as Lawrence’s ‘one bright book of life’ – though in this case the book is rather less Biblical in its authority, closer to the human genome project.

Whether or not he is a genius, Richard Powers is an ambitious novelist. A thing that clearly irks him is to be asked what he thinks of Michael Crichton. The ‘Cavern’ descriptions in Plowing the Dark are eerily paralleled (in a coarse way) by the VR ‘Chamber’ in Disclosure. In places, The Gold Bug Variations reads like an upmarket Jurassic Park. Is Powers, with his digital fantasias, doing the same kind of thing – if in a classier way – as William Gibson in Neuromancer, or David Cronenburg in Existenz, or the Wachowski brothers in The Matrix? And, if so, do we really want our novelists and fabulists of digitation to be classy? Is fiction which takes on science the ‘supreme connection machine’ that Powers would like to think it is? Or is it at best a machine for giving us an illusion that we understand things which – if we really wanted to understand – would take a lot more work, time and (often) brainpower than the novel (any novel) demands? You don’t have to be a genius to answer that question.