18 April 2008

Turn Some Pages...

More years ago than I care to acknowledge, I was walking through midtown Manhattan on a lunch break from my law job. I edged my way through the crush of the Hasidic diamond row and popped down the two concrete steps into the old Gotham Book Mart ("Wise Men Fish Here"—[alas, no more!]). As was my wont, I browsed through the fiction section where a small silver paperback seemed to leap off the shelf at me. It was Richard Powers's first novel Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance. I can't say quite what made me pick it up (and I might be misremembering its silver color, that edition's long been lent and not returned—you know who you are!), but I did. I'd never heard of Powers, but was intrigued with the first few pages I read standing amid the dusty, crowded stacks. No one there (not even Skip) knew anything about Powers. I spent the entire, non-billable afternoon reading the book behind closed doors at the firm and continued on late into the night. When I emerged a few days later from the text (one simply does not read Powers fast), I knew I had encountered a profound mind. Powers went on to serious acclaim and is now rightly regarded as one of our greatest novelists. I maintained a sort of proprietary feeling over my 'discovery', much the way Pete Townsend and Mick Jagger used to argue over who first discovered the Beatles down in The Cave. This was a mind of the first rate who was doing fiction—there really wasn't a lot of that about.

This week, at a much different point in my life, I got the opportunity to encounter the physical being that houses that remarkable intellect. Mr. Powers gave a reading at Emory University on Wednesday evening and, on Thursday afternoon, offered a colloquium on aspects of "seeing" as a way into the creative (writing) process [more on that in subsequent posts].

He is taller than one expects, lanky, nimble-fingered. Seems to prefer comfort as a prime value in clothing choice as opposed to, say, style or fashion. Wears his ample hair much the way, I suspect, he did in the Seventies—though it may not be as dark now. His voice resounds like that of a trained baritone, though he seems to recognize this and modulates it to fit the room and the conversation. He has the mien of any number of physics grad students I've known. Think a 6'4" or 6'5" Russell Johnson (the Professor on Gilligan's Island). He is engaging and personable and, I emphasize this, listens very intently, even sympathetically. One is impressed also by the impression of emotional depth such a mind generously exudes.

If you've ever read one of his novels (and I highly recommend you read them all—make it a life project) you get a sense of systematicity. They are like schematics of closed circuits: you know that if a problem is posed, it will be solved. He calls this "top down" writing and says that in his later works he's been learning to write as well from the "bottom up", to let the characters introduce surprising movements into the architecture of the work. Something we've alluded to in a previous post as 'improvising'.

Let's try another metaphor: Powers's novels are symphonies. Multiple, complex themes are stated, revisited, analyzed, interwoven, and, eventually, resolved. Big. Wednesday's reading was more like chamber music—and so much to my liking. Mr. Powers read an unpublished short story called "Modulation". He did not read from a work-in-progress because he wanted to give us something with a beginning, middle, and end. Something satisfying. And it was!

One might compare hearing Powers read aloud to hearing Caruso sing "Mi par" live when before you'd only heard it on an old 78: it's all there, just clearer, cleaner, brighter, more riveting. (Or, given the story, listening to Caruso in sound-check perform solfege for 45 minutes—itself a refined pleasure for those in the know.)

Briefly, "Modulation" takes four characters (SATB) who never meet—a freelance Japanese hacker tracker on the hunt for illegal file-sharing sites for the RIAA, a Brazilian journalist in Iraq, Germany and Sao Paulo, a retired Alan Lomax-like professor of ethnomusicology in an I-state, and an urban "chiptune" performance DJ en route to an international conference in Australia—and pinions them at a specific moment in time (though on four continents), tying their lives together around a catastrophic, viral "musical" event. Death and ineffable beauty ensue. As with his novels, the thematic structure of the story is intricate: each of the twelve sections is titled with the solfege syllables of the chromatic scale: do, di, re, ri, mi, fa, fi, sol, si, la, li, ti. The character episodes rotate sequentially (do, mi, and si involve character one (S), etc.) until the end (li, ti) when Powers inverts T and B for a surprising esthetic effect.

The story is densely allusive—everything from obscure world musics to proliferating house genres, from the mythic power musics of Orpheus, et al. to John Cage, from Mozart's "bootleg" transcription of Allegri's Miserere to the U.S. military's non-stop blaring of Van Halen to smoke out Panama's Noriega and its development to a usual Abu Ghraib and Gitmo technique of "enhanced interrogation". The story presumes an up-to-date understanding of technology (tho' one fears with respect to this aspect "Modulation" might have a short shelf-life—but, of course, that's a major theme and problem in all of Powers's work). New, emergent art forms are imagined as are the many forms of degradation of the traditional forms. There are tunes you can't get out of your head ("earworms") and tunes that help you forget earworms ("eraser tunes"). Each character arrives at his/her emotional epiphany/resolution/climax via the arc of music.

The only problem I had with the story has to do with the "ineffable" aspect of the beauty in the resolution. Powers has set himself a Sisyphean task here and he alludes to this issue earlier in the piece when he talks about the inherent difficulties of describing music and sound in language. It is mere description—in Forster's terms, telling not showing. As he was reading, I kept trying to imagine the sounds, the lost chord, the elusive tune that explodes like a deus ex machina across the electronic earth in that climactic moment of the story, and could not. Maybe it was me. Maybe that's what it means to be human—i.e., unable to imagine ineffable beauty. I'll read the story when it comes out in the new Conjunctions and see if it comes through any better. You should, too.

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