Books January 2003

Going to Extremes

Richard Powers is getting bigger and more ponderous. Nicholson Baker is getting smaller and more evanescent. Decision: Baker
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Richard Powers and Nicholson Baker—exact contemporaries (b. 1957), each with an aura of eccentric genius—can be seen by now as the long and the short, the portentous yin and the whimsical yang, of American literary fiction. Every new Powers volume tends to put on weight and weightiness (more pages, more pronouncement), while Baker's books remain so tiny in scale and theme that they threaten to disappear altogether. Both men have just published novels, and there's a certain giddiness to be experienced from reading the two books together, whipsawed far from any golden mean.

Powers is a creature of internal dichotomies, too. His novels often contain double, alternating narratives: the two young researcher lovers tracing the two older geneticist lovers in The Gold Bug Variations (1991); the corporation's history juxtaposed against the product-liability plaintiff's in Gain (1998); the Seattle techies' building of a virtual-reality room while the Beirut hostage survives within four bare walls in Plowing the Dark (2000). The contrasts are sometimes illuminating, but the schematics can be so deliberate that form becomes function, or just collapses from its own exertions. Plowing the Dark fades out into nothing; both plots give up on themselves, and the novel ends with two dying falls.

At least since The Gold Bug Variations, Powers has been trying, in his own words, "to get those two inimicals, the head and the heart, going at the same time." He accomplished that beautifully in Galatea 2.2 (1995), the story of a computer so zealously programmed with imaginative literature that it develops emotions and suffers a broken heart. Since Galatea, Powers has been cerebrating more than he's been feeling, but with his latest book, as if in wild overcompensation, he has led with his heart and entirely lost his head.

In The Time of Our Singing, Powers constructs a huge chronicle of the Strom family: David, a Jewish-refugee physicist from Hitler's Germany; Delia, the vocally talented daughter of an African-American doctor from Philadelphia; and their three interracial offspring, Jonah, Joseph, and Ruth. The parents meet at Marian Anderson's outdoor recital in Washington, in the spring of 1939—an event described with such stiff lyricism that the pages seem like a museum diorama.

David and Delia become estranged from her father, Dr. Daley, when they try to raise their children "beyond race," inside their own tight, musical family. "Singing," Powers writes, "they were no one's outcasts." Powers has always favored archly precocious dialogue, and the Stroms' gnomic exchanges sound as if they're coming from some miscegenated version of the Glass family. On the advice of David's fellow physicist Albert Einstein, Jonah and Joseph are sent to Boylston Academy, in Boston. There, and later at Juilliard, despite others' bigotry and incomprehension, Jonah develops into a gifted concert singer of classical music, and Joseph into his more modestly talented accompanist.

Alas, what Jonah and Joseph really develop into is a boxed set of lamentations, the soundtrack for an entirely predictable indictment of race hatred in America. In addition to any successes they have, they must also be slighted, roughed up, thwarted, disowned, loved insincerely, and exiled. This is their real experience; any happiness is too transitory and inauthentic to rate much focus. Forgetting his observation in The Gold Bug Variations about character creation ("I looked for a postulate, completely missing the empiricist's point"), Powers plays his people like thematic violins. He is unable to maintain any real tonal difference between Joseph, who does most of the narration, and a disembodied third person that takes over whenever the story cuts back to its earliest events. Both voices are offered as fundamentally reliable. Joseph's anguished perspectives —he is by turns obedient, self-loathing, quietly resentful, and grandiosely guilty—ought to be indications of his limitations and individuality. But everything he says carries Powers's clear endorsement; he is the messenger of whatever obvious point there is to be made. "Violence accompanied us, nightly, on our hotel televisions," he says. "I stared at the collective hallucination, knowing I was somehow the author of it." He might as well be the author, period. We never believe in him because Powers doesn't either. He's a public-service announcement, not a person.

Jonah, with his panic spells and comic bravado, is the more interesting and attractive of the brothers, but that just makes him the riper for victimization, choice material for "the disaster this country had made of everything human." His sister, Ruth, who in the late 1960s joins the Black Panthers, forsakes her father in a symbolic enactment of the broken alliance between African-Americans and American Jews. Her anger is so shrill and unyielding that Powers himself seems afraid of her, and happy for us to believe her theory that Delia's death, in a mid-1950s furnace explosion at the family's Upper West Side apartment, was no accident. The literal truth doesn't matter against the supposedly larger one. As Jonah says to Joseph, in a burst of Sharptonian civics,

You don't need to know if someone burned her alive. All you need to know is whether someone wanted to ... You don't know, you can't know, and you're never going to know. That's what being black in this country means.

Historical novels usually work best when their characters are participants in a single big public event; they're unlikely to work at all when those characters are prodded along from one historical high spot to another. In The Time of Our Singing the Stroms become tokens on a game board: the novelist moves them three spaces ahead to the Watts riot (Jonah is making his first record in L.A. in 1965); two more to the 1968 Columbia disturbances (David Strom, on the physics faculty, is available to be clubbed by the cops); and another four toward Giuliani time: Ruth's Panther husband, Robert Rider, like Amadou Diallo, is shot by the police while extracting a wallet, not a gun, from his pocket. Early on, in depicting the real-life murder of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, in 1955, Powers deliberately withholds the boy's name for a few pages, wanting the reader to mistake the atrocity for something that's happening to Jonah, also fourteen, who we know has just developed a crush on a white girl. Parallels and resonance become a game of gotcha.

The author plods on like some harried social-studies teacher trying to get it all covered before the Regents exam. Germany invades Poland during David Strom's guess-who's-coming-to-dinner evening at the Daleys', in 1939; Sputnik flies overhead with the punctuality of a swallow on its way to Capistrano. Occasionally, to keep fact and fiction perfectly aligned, Powers resorts to making lists.

Che Guevara and George Lincoln Rockwell both died violent deaths. Jonah and I lived our days between flower children and nurse slayers, decolonization and defoliants, Twiggy and Tiny Tim, Hair and The Naked Ape.

But maybe such telling is better than some of what we are shown: An "avant-garde" fifties musical group calling themselves the Serial Killers? Young factory women fantasizing, in 1969, about Prince Rainier?

Powers's politics have been respectably leftish for many years (the anti-corporatism of Gain, the anti-globalization of Plowing the Dark), but the view of America in The Time of Our Singing never rises above the puerile and sloganeering. All the novel's blinkered repetitions and canards about "this caste-crazed country" turn the American dilemma into something not tragic, or soluble, but dull. Violence is "the country's supreme art form"; all progress in matters of race is either nonexistent or insincere. Here is the setup for the Tuskegee airmen: "Nazi transcendence—the last flare-up of white culture's world order—forces the country into a general housecleaning." Subsequent integration of the armed forces goes unmentioned. Readers will be interested to learn that in 1967 "people were constantly getting arrested for making speeches, holding rallies, printing pamphlets," and will be left curious to see an actual list of "the Hanoi neighborhoods Johnson had been targeting" that year.

Powers usually bursts with such virtuosity that he can't stop piling simile upon simile, turning every paragraph into a long program of triple axels and double salchows. In Plowing the Dark he writes, "Ste-ven Spie-gel. The four syllables spread out over so long an astonishment that they lost themselves, like the word 'Asia' on a good-sized globe." This is a small piece of perfection, even if the description ends up being more important than the described. There's still a bit of such pleasurable excess in The Time of Our Singing ("His rounded forehead crested a little, in the planning stage of balding's evacuation"), but in this new novel Theme so harshly tells Writing to shove over that practiced readers of Powers, asked to do a blind test of any ten pages, would guess two dozen other names before hazarding "Richard Powers" as the possible author.

This time out he showcases not only reams of rhetoric (though twice we're reminded that it's harder to sing softly than loudly) but also a kind of automatic junk writing: "For some months, our life had looked increasingly unreal. Now I lost all sense of what real was supposed to look like." The book makes room, often, for the meaningless multiplication of profundity by sentimentality.

When is the zero of change, the spot in time when time begins? Not the big bang, or even the little one. Not when you learn to count your first tune. Not that first now that twists back on itself. All moments start from the one when you see how they all must end.

This last quotation has something to do, perhaps, with the poetic brand of theoretical physics practiced by the children's "Da," whose dying message for his implacable daughter is "There's another wavelength everyplace you point your telescope." Guess whether, despite all, Ruth eventually grasps his meaning.

How this 640-page book can be at once so massive and so reductive is perhaps itself a physics problem best left to David Strom. The novel's biggest potential point is this: "Each of us is alien to every other. Race does nothing but make the fact visible." And yet Powers is interested in nothing but the race of his characters. If they themselves have never had a moment free from being conscious of it, I would say that's less because of their murderous country than because Powers spends the book as their oppressor, squeezing them down into a single dimension. He is sure to be both scorned and applauded for his Styron-like trespass over the color line of subject matter. But once across it he has chosen only to "pass"—which is to say, he has decided to be something other than himself.

In contrast, after a two-novel sex bender (Vox and The Fermata, the former famously bought by Monica Lewinsky for Bill Clinton) and a seemingly contrite foray into the mind of a good-hearted nine-year-old girl (The Everlasting Story of Nory), Nicholson Baker has returned, in A Box of Matches, to his first and best-known literary identity—the miniaturist who publishes entire novels about giving a baby her bottle (Room Temperature) or buying a pair of shoelaces during lunch hour (The Mezzanine). "We don't want the sum of pain or dissatisfaction to be increased by a writer's printed passage through the world," Baker wrote in U and I, his obsessed-fan meditation on John Updike, and in his new novel—a collection of early-morning musings by a forty-four-year-old father of two and editor of medical textbooks—he's creating as little disturbance as possible. Powers may forever be wanting to accomplish something, provoking the reader's short-term "pain or dissatisfaction" as a means of changing the world, but Baker wants only to cherish the small moments of life here on Spaceship Earth. A Box of Matches is, I suspect, the only novel ever to carry jacket copy describing it as "the record of an untumultuous month" in the life of its main character.

This is not really a novel at all but a precise gathering of wool (and, at a couple of points, actual navel lint), in which Emmett, the narrator hero, gets up on thirty-two mornings, before his wife and kids, to make himself a pot of coffee and to build a fire. "I pushed open the drawer of the matchbox," he says, "feeling both sides of the inner sliding tray when it emerged to be sure that I wouldn't open it upside down and allow the matches to tumble plinkingly out, and I singled out one match and rolled its square shank between my fingers." The perspective is microscopic, the attitude companionable ("Good morning, it's 5:25 a.m., boys and girls"), the pace contentedly glacial. Emmett muses on the family's pet duck, the dishwasher's retractable tray, the skills required for peeing in the dark, the way to clean spilled root beer off a briefcase. He says he once thought about collecting different paper-towel designs—such as "the sampler-inspired patterns and the alternating pepper grinders and carrots"—until he decided he didn't have "the acquisitive methodicalness that you need to create a really great paper-towel collection."

All this ought to be unbearably cloying and claustrophobic, but after watching Powers deny his characters the smallest of life's pleasures for 300,000 words, watching Emmett savor his for a mere 40,000 feels like a walk through Big Sky country. Baker avoids preciousness, or at least redeems it, by bravura writing of the sort Powers seems to have forsworn at political re-education camp. Baker's gift is to notice things ("that abrupt way that people have when they're trying to conserve warmth") and to make metaphor of all he sees: the frozen disks of ice removed from the duck's winter water bowl look "like corneas—the layer of half-dissolved duck food frozen at the upturned bottom is the iris." The Updike to which Baker has always come closest is the writer of tricky light verse.

If Emmett is too gee-whizzy and self-delighting ("oh sweet life," "Oh, I am happy being up like this"), he also contains undercurrents of panic and violence: he tells us, for instance, that he used to entertain suicidal thoughts as a sleep inducement. Our suspicion of his self-suppression—where on earth has all the sex in Baker disappeared to?—gives his insistent appreciation of the little things a certain repulsiveness; the reader keeps wondering if Emmett will turn out to be the man in One Hour Photo. That his life remains "untumultuous" is a mark of imaginative restraint and, in our present state of literary storytelling, perhaps bravery, too. Anchored to his cherished particulars and sentimentality ("We as a family exist to be nice to the duck"), he has little to offer in the way of argument, though some pleading for historical preservation echoes Baker's own nonfiction crusades against the destruction of library card catalogues and newsprint.

Baker's fingerings and sniffings of the tame visible world have a tony ancestry in Montaigne and Burton—but also in a less distinguished pair of modern-day Andys: weird Kaufman and oh-wow Warhol. The narrator of A Box of Matches worries about his "creative torpor," and I'd have to say I'm worried about Baker's, too. But it's less troubling to see him treading water in this little book than it is to see Richard Powers, his even more gifted contemporary, drowning in a pool of good intentions.

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Thomas Mallon’s books include the novels Two Moons and Aurora 7, as well as Rockets and Rodeos, a collection of essays.

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