Richard Powers is a novelist of ideas--cerebral, if you will. That label can serve as a mixed blessing. For some readers, the phrase "novelist of ideas" is a turn-on. For other readers, it is the opposite--and makes his novels sound too much like work and too little like pleasure.
Jim Neilson, a scholar of Powers's books, has wondered about Powers's "curious place in contemporary letters." Powers has won literary awards and grants (including a MacArthur Fellowship "genius" grant in 1989), he teaches creative writing at the University of Illinois, and he has been praised lavishly by reviewers "for a body of work as challenging, inventive, and morally serious as any novelist of his generation" (The Review of Contemporary Fiction , Fall 1998). Yet a list of the 20 most important American novelists under age 40 compiled last decade omitted Powers. Even John Updike, novelist, critic, and voracious reader extraordinaire, admitted that Powers's first four books had escaped his attention.
Yes, Powers writes like a genius, a certified intellectual who might feel above the fray of popular opinion. Yes, he builds most of his nine novels around grand ideas. As Neilson wrote after Powers's sixth novel, Gain (1998), appeared, the author's "range of topics ... is remarkable: industrial mass production, photographic aesthetics, feminist historicism, commercial and trade journalism, nuclear proliferation, brinksmanship, game theory, the internment of the Japanese, molecular biology, music history and theory, codes and codebreaking, natural selection, computer programming, Renaissance painting, the Children's Crusade, physical disability and disease, the Vietnam War, the environmental and social consequences of global capital, neural nets and artificial intelligence, literary history and theory." Indeed, Powers has touched on almost every topic under the sun. His acclaimed Gold Bug Variations (1991) links computer science, genetic coding, music, and art history in the second half of the twentieth century; Plowing the Dark (2000) features parallel narratives about the construction of virtual reality in a Seattle computer programming laboratory and an American teacher taken hostage in Beirut. In Galatea 2.2 , Powers creates an Artificial Intelligence protagonist named Helen while reinterpreting the Pygmalion myth.
Powers has either studied each of those topics assiduously or learned about them from firsthand experience. He weaves his knowledge into each novel's narrative so seamlessly that he seems to wear his genius lightly: the knowledge appears to come through the brains of his characters. Despite his erudite themes, there is nothing inaccessible about Powers's novels of ideas. He is a first-rate stylist whose characters are never caricatures in service to abstract theory. In fact, many of his characters are unforgettable, flesh-and-blood individuals as finely drawn as those by any contemporary novelist. Take Laura Rowen Bodey of Gain, for example, a resident of the fictional town of Lacewood, Illinois. Home of Clare Soap and Chemical, Lacewood is on the verge of producing ecological disaster; Laura's personal plight speaks to larger themes of environment, corporate greed, and human nature.
Powers is not primarily an environmental writer, but his fiction often addresses environmental ideas and social consciousness. Yet Gain, like every other Powers novel, cannot be neatly categorized into one genre only. It explores how a business begins as one family's dream and grows far larger than even its prescient founder could have imagined. Powers's many-layered portrait of a corporation and the lives it affects neither romanticizes the corporation nor tips into eco-polemic. This depth helps explain why Gain ought to resonate so well with contemporary readers who concede the complexity of the natural world, people included.
Novels that espouse an overt green political agenda do have their place, but it is refreshing to discover a novelist who refrains from oversimplifying issues, shows empathy for all of his characters, writes believable dialogue, and unfolds engaging story lines. As Powers clearly understands, matters of legal and moral liability for environmental damage are complicated. In his fictional world, nobody at Clare forced Laura to buy the cleaning agents and hair sprays in her home. Despising the Clares of the world is easy. But if the despisers never act on their disapproval by supporting homegrown merchants and environmentally sound products, who is really to blame?
Growing Up Powers
BEFORE POWERS CHOSE TO WRITE NOVELS ABOUT BIG IDEAS, he grew up around the world. Born June 18, 1957, in Evanston, Illinois, he was the fourth of five children. Powers's father, a high school principal, accepted a position at an international learning center in Bangkok, Thailand. Powers spent five years in Thailand, between age 11 and 16. He became an accomplished musician--training as a vocalist and a cellist, and later picking up clarinet, saxophone, and guitar.
Returning to the United States, Powers enrolled as a physics major at the University of Illinois but switched to literary studies at a professor's encouragement. With a master's degree in literature, Powers then worked as a computer programmer and data processor after moving to Boston, where the technology skills he had picked up outside the classroom proved more attractive to employers than his literature degrees. Powers, who believes that music is "the mathematics of the central nervous system," later translated his musical and mathematical abilities and...