Wednesday Book Club: Plowing the Dark

Wednesday, 25 June 2008 — 6:03am | Book Club, Literature

This week’s selection: Plowing the Dark (2000) by Richard Powers.

In brief: Like a mural of epic ambition, the breadth of the novel’s ingenuity only reveals itself once appreciated in its entirety. The journey, which connects virtual reality research to the global social upheaval of the late 1980s, is a tandem of madness and reward. As a commentary on representational art and how it may shape reality, there is little that can equal the richness of Powers’ composition—but the sensory definition of the prose is so overwhelming, it is easy to drown before ever reaching the conclusion.

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on Plowing the Dark, keep reading below.)

There are books that are like paintings. There are books that are like music. Most books fall somewhere in between.

I’m stealing this observation from Northrop Frye, whose Anatomy of Criticism is essential reading for anyone interested in Western literary theory. One of the passages from Frye that has always stayed with me is his treatment of the trinity of melos, lexis and opsis, which I paraphrase crudely here because I don’t have it in front of me. Words are a functional fulcrum of sorts: they have the power to impel the forward motion along the time dimension that we associate with the rhythm of music, and the capacity to fill the spatial stasis that we associate with the pattern of painting. But crucially, we also speak of the pattern of music and the rhythm of painting. And so there you are: music, books, paintings. (They align, in one permutation or another, to the trivium of the liberal arts: logic, grammar, and rhetoric. But that’s another story.)

Plowing the Dark is unquestionably a painting.

What is it about? It’s not easy to say: the book is brittle, and refuses to break down gently. It would be fair to call it a meditation on our user interface with reality, but that wouldn’t mean anything to anyone who hasn’t read it yet.

There are two major narratives running in parallel. One involves a poet-programmer who invites an old college acquaintance, a commercial artist, to populate the contents of a total immersion environment (to wit: five walls, hallucinatory projections, and a whole lot of processing power) called the Cavern. Those of you familiar with Plato’s allegory of the cave should be nodding your heads. The other narrative, delivered entirely in the second person, concerns an Iranian-American English teacher held hostage somewhere in Lebanon (to wit: more walls, hallucinatory projections, and the Qu’ran), where he searches for escape in memories and books. The metaphoric connections between the two threads are clear from the start, and much of the novel’s narrative impulse comes from the desire to see if they ever meet in a fashion that is more concrete. Without giving too much away: they do, and boy, does Powers ever pull it off.

The virtual reality narrative is the less engaging of the two: the characters are literally swamped in their own creations, leaving the story heavy in description and light in decision. Most of the action amounts to a lot of talking and thinking about representation—in art, in the simulation of weather patterns and petroleum prices, and in all its forms—and the space it leaves for invention. The talking and thinking is very good, mind you: there is an insight to be found in almost any paragraph selected at random, and there is something quaint about how Powers, writing in 2000, recalls the boom and bust of the VR craze with the benefit of hindsight. But put together, the sensory data is almost too much to handle at once.

The Lebanese hostage story fares much better, thanks to its palpable tension of conflict and fear. This is curious, because the captive protagonist is so powerless. Deprived of agency, there’s not much he can do; things happen to him, but he is in no position to affect the world in return. Or is he? The point, it appears, is that one’s power over the perceptual universe can never be taken away—but you need to feed it with books.

What I like best about Richard Powers as an author is how well he draws on his extensive scientific and technological literacy to expand his symbolic vocabulary. He never falls into the trap of regarding technology as fundamentally antithetical to the creative human spirit; to the contrary, he enriches the range of his diction with the lexicon that we normally think of as technical jargon. There are passages that take the routine pointing and clicking of using Photoshop and Illustrator (unnamed, but obviously evoked) and turn them into sparkling magic shows.

I’ll freely admit that Powers’ appeal to me is also personal. I said as much after I read Galatea 2.2. Powers left Physics for English Literature; like his other works, Plowing the Dark draws on this autobiographical moment of crisis, transplanting it onto a protagonist who abandons engineering for William Butler Yeats. Later, the same character finds in source code what he couldn’t in poetry: results that actually matter and effect change. In many ways, Powers’ books are novels for the xkcd set; to read them is to feel as if you took one of Randall Munroe’s comics and flooded its minimalist vacuum with a supersaturated river of words.

Of the three Powers novels I have read (the other two being Galatea 2.2 and The Time of Our Singing), Plowing the Dark is the most overtly poetic. This is a generous way of saying that it is also the least accessible. The prose is marvelous to behold, but the growth of the characters and plot is incremental; not until the end does it break out of its glacial stasis. In contrast, a book like The Time of Our Singing exudes a dynamic sense of progress and change with every step forward. If you have never read Powers, I would without hesitation recommend starting with one of the others instead.


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2 rejoinders to “Wednesday Book Club: Plowing the Dark

  1. I loved Galatea 2.2 and recently acquired Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance and The Gold Bug Variations, though I have yet to read them.

    Powers isn’t my favorite author, but I think it would be fair to say he’s one of the most extraordinary authors I’ve ever read—extraordinary in the sense of superlative, without any associated good-bad binary. The man’s writing just exudes a literary grandness that you’ll either hate or love. In my case, love.

    Wednesday, 25 June 2008 at 7:30am

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