Books January 2003

Going to Extremes

Richard Powers is getting bigger and more ponderous. Nicholson Baker is getting smaller and more evanescent. Decision: Baker

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.

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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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