The isle is full of noises

Tuesday, 26 December 2006 — 3:31pm | Literature

Happy Christmas, everyone.

In the lingo of collegiate debating, which is apparently going to be relevant to me later this week, “burning the turf” is (to tilt a paraphrase in order to make a point) what you call it when someone on your side of the house, who precedes you in the speaking order, opens and closes the book on the subject and leaves those after him with nothing substantial to say. It’s a localized formulation of the paralysing encumbrance that weighs upon the shoulders of any sufficiently literate (aspiring) artist: if every frontier you wish to explore has already been traversed, where do you go?

You’ll notice how by this logic, it follows that most artists who shed the “aspiring” label are not sufficiently literate. I’ve always thought this obvious, myself: art in any medium – music, film, words, or what have you – could only be so plentifully derivative if the little worker bees exploited by the media factory showed a considerable lack of self-restraint, propelled by the favourable trade winds of market forces or the groundless praise of layman peers who never read a stanza of real poetry in their lives.

I spend a considerable proportion of my uptime Not Writing a Novel. Industrious as I am, I sometimes commit to a sitting of several hours where all I do is not write. I am a practised notwriter. And from experience, the best way to go about developing a fruitful career in the arts of not writing is to read voraciously, and read well.

If you ever wondered what a Nicholas Tam novel might look like, given n discrete units of time-talent-practice and m monkeys on typewriters greater than sufficiently large N and M, I suggest you read Richard Powers.

I’ve only read two of his novels (The Time of Our Singing and, as of last night, Galatea 2.2), but I think I can already posit with confidence that Richard Powers burned my turf.

I discovered, from observing my classmates in my first semester as a full-time student of English literature, that for a lot of readers, the primary rubric by which a story is measured is, in the first instance, a personal one. Did it elicit your sympathy? Could you identify with the characters? Did you care what happened next, or in the nonlinear case, what was left to be revealed? These are not sophisticated questions by any means, but immediate, and fiercely emotional.

This is not how I evaluate literature; at least, not consciously, and not primarily. Its natural consequence is the constriction of one’s reading habits to a whittled selection of authors, genres, styles and socio-historial milieux, and I find that to be intellectually limiting. I ask instead: Is this a story well told? Is it thematically coherent? Is the language eloquent and conducive to the delivery of ideas? Do the ideas themselves matter?

And there, we complete the circuit and return to the domain of personal taste: do the ideas themselves matter to me?

It should go without saying that I am almost predisposed to adore a book like Galatea 2.2, which demonstrates not only exemplary craftsmanship in covering the gamut from heartbreak to laughter, but tackles big questions with admirable finesse. Problems like the limits of artificial intelligence. The line we draw between the merely operational and the truly conscious. How to read and why we read. The consequent anxieties of the complete overhaul of English literary education in recent decades, which the University of Alberta undertook in force just before my arrival in the relevant department. The instrumental futility of poetry. The inadequacy of language as an independent cloud of signifiers unbound from material reality. The conceded irrelevance of literature in a practical world in practical crisis. Love. Loss. Shakespeare.

That’s thematic material, of course, specific to one novel alone and not necessarily endemic to the author. But consider this: what is the most significant barrier to reading? It’s language. In literature, it’s figurative language. You can’t understand a metaphor if you don’t speak the language of that metaphor and are unable to trace its analogues and connectives.

Richard Powers, more than any other author I’ve ever had the pleasure to read, speaks my language. He manipulates the symbol set of science, mathematics, music and literature in order to grapple with concerns that are relevant to everyone. What it means to be human, and all that jazz.

More to the point, he does it extremely well, with a lucidity that explains why I found Galatea 2.2 immensely more pleasurable than a similar book, Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, which got mired in its symbols. To find an author whose wavelength is in such fine coherence with what I want in literature is downright intimidating.

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