That Richard Powers may be the smartest novelist writing today is a conclusion reached by nearly every reviewer of his past half-dozen novels. Typically described as brainy and brilliant, his books do live up to their reputation, leaving slightly awed readers wincing after prolonged exposure to the sheer candlepower of his intelligence. Undaunted by the arcana of artificial intelligence, molecular genetics, or medieval history, Powers builds intricately jointed fictions out of these subjects while conveying both his enthusiasm and mastery. For instance, the meditations on language that filled Galatea 2.2, the story of a novelist and a cognitive neurologist who collaborate on a thinking machine, elegantly smoothed out into lay comprehensibility the spiky ideation of neurolinguistics.
Yet Powers hardly dumbs down; all the knotty contradictions of these heady topics remain in force; and, as if to honor their inherent difficulty, he packs individual sentences with an almost propulsive density, their epigrammatic sparkle masking capsule-size philosophies. Yes, Richard Powers may be the most knowledgeable scribbler on the block, but with his seventh novel, Plowing the Dark, which takes on the extra-credit assignments of virtual reality, the nature of imagination, and the mathematical basis of the natural world, we might begin to wonder if such incandescent smarts are such a good thing for a novelist.
The novel’s bifurcated structure brings this question to the fore. There are two braided narratives, set contemporaneously in the late 1980s; one tracks a group of computer techies as they construct something called the Cavern (Computer Assisted Virtual Environment) at a Microsoft-like company in Seattle. They are trying to fill an empty projection room with a plush, walk-around reality derived from the Hagia Sophia cathedral in Istanbul. Set in counterpoint to their quest is the effort of Taimur Martin, an American English teacher who has been kidnapped by Islamic fundamentalists in Beirut, to fill the room where he’s held captive for five years, with what reality he can muster from between his own ears. In each room, the dark must be plowed and a mark made on the tabula rasa.
The virtual-reality strand, which centers on artist Adie Klarpol’s hope of redeeming her failed career as a painter through computer technology, is related largely through the improbably witty dialogue of the computer scientists; it is chock-full of references to fuzzy math and fractal tendrils: “Plane curves are the fastest, easiest artifacts in the world to implement. And you can make trillions of them with just a few iterated expressions.” On the other hand, a direct-address narrator speaking in the present tense pipes the long travail of Martin’s captivity to us with a piercing and tactile immediacy: “You force your taped knees against the lid of the box. With what strength remains, you manage to crack the seam. A gush of fresh air knifes into you. You shove your nose into the stream. It tastes like God in your nostrils.”
As Martin’s struggle and our desire to see him freed grows ever more intense, the jargon-slinging banter of the boys and girls in their laboratory thins out to tinny background noise. The invidious comparison between the two stories is made even keener by Powers’s choice to focus more on Martin in the book’s second half. By then, it’s hard not to resent being whiplashed out of his mind’s luxuriant turmoil to sample the airy cogitations in Seattle. It’s as if Powers, in creating this two-legged beast, has intentionally hobbled one limb so as to emphasize the strength of the other. Certainly, the virtual-reality sections feature plenty of Powers’s judo-deft prose—”Life is a double-blind, controlled placebo experiment,” one character jibes. “Has middle age taught you nothing?” But too much of this world is rendered in techie tough-talk—”Kaladjian screwed down the calculation of the Euler angles so tightly they began to scream.” Try as he might, Powers can’t make staring glassy-eyed at a computer feel like bobsledding down Everest.
When he turns to the hostage in Beirut, Powers doesn’t need to strain for sensational effect—he simply tells a good story. In hope of recovering from a failed love affair with Gwen, Martin, who’s half-Iranian, goes to Beirut to forget. When he is kidnapped and held blindfolded in an utterly barren room, the irony—that all he can do is remember—is no less poignant for being obvious. Martin quickly discovers “Where the body is chained, the brain travels.” He meticulously reconstructs a Dickens novel, the streets of Chicago, his mother’s history as a religious Muslim, and his painful arguments with Gwen. In his desolate circumstances, these imaginings take on a physical, inhabitable reality: “Your cell is your nave. A ship, a dinghy adrift on the currents of wrecked empire. You lie back in the stern, shackled to your radiator, this room’s rudder. Open seas leach you.” When he begs for a book, maybe Dickens’s Great Expectations, from his captors, they give him instead a pulp paperback, Great Escapes. Still, he devours it: “Every verb phrase puts on the full freedom of human movement. The slightest clichés, the worst throwaway inanities pitch you into whole preserves of wilderness whose existence you’ve forgotten.” So palpable is the world spawned from symbols on those pages that the illusion begets another: “When you come to bed that evening, you turn to tell her, You’ll never believe what I read today.”
Martin’s imaginative feats are set, perhaps too neatly, against the labored machinations of the programmers who must roll out reams of computations in order to make a leaf look real. Adie’s apprenticeship includes a session at the computer where she watches as famous canvases are digitally re-created, mixed and matched; she and her teacher try on “painters like teens trying on jeans at a factory outlet.” Awestruck, Adie chants her newfound revelation, “Math does all this.” But we never quite share the force of her insight. Later, in the virtual-reality room, a brooding Armenian mathematician shows her a “mosaic of polygons,” and her body grows “large, galactic, her head wrapped in a cloud of stars.” However nicely turned out this patch of psychedelia, it fails to, as Keats said, prove it on our pulse.
It may be that “reality is basically computational,” but it is Powers’s punishingly vivid habitations of Martin’s tortured body, as well as his fluid enactment of the prisoner’s agile consciousness, that he convinces us of the fundamentally symbolic underpinnings of the real. He does this by igniting within a reader, by use of marks on a page, some portion of his fictional prisoner’s claustrophobia and ragged hope. Consequently, his achievement in one half of this novel undercuts all the chatter about virtual reality that dominates the other. Deploying his high-wattage mentality, Powers demonstrates his intimate grasp of science as the irresistible prime mover in our lives. Still, the two tales he hoped would serve as thematic glosses for one another end up dueling for our attention. Storytelling, unencrusted with gems of intellection, featuring only a narrator you identify with, one whose fate is in jeopardy, handily trumps the Reality and Imagination seminar.
In Plowing the Dark, it is the prisoner’s cell, not the science lab, where Powers inventive energies burn up the air with emotional heat.