In the fifth century B.C., the Greek philosopher Empedocles wrote, “Come now, hearken to my words; learning will enlarge your mind…. I shall tell of a two-fold process.” The two-fold process of Empedocles is the mind-enlarging weave of ideas that run through the novels of Richard Powers: the struggle between Love and Strife, of Aphrodite versus Thanatos, of remembering and forgetting, of music and science. Powers writes his two-fold vibrations with intense lyricism, fierce intelligence, and the improvisational pacing of a free jazz combo: masters of their instruments, the riffing interplay of sentences is always challenging the reader to keep up, pay attention, read more to fill in the gaps in learning the novels expose.
In The Gold Bug Variations (1991) the two-fold vibration consists of a double helix of love stories set twenty-five years apart. These twined stories are the strands of a code, and stranded stories in as much as the characters abandon themselves to memory and grief. One love story is between a hot-shot molecular biologist unraveling the “four-note” DNA code (Poe’s “Tale of the Goldbug,” a story about a code) and a married woman; the other between an art historian who rediscovers the molecular biologist, long since having quit science, working as a computer programmer (or “coder", as such professionals are sometimes called) and a librarian (who works with the encoding of knowledge) who helps the historian unravel the biologist’s mysterious life story. The theme that twines the two stories together is the simple aria of Bach’s four-note Goldberg Variations as played by the young Glenn Gould, the pianist who also did a disappearing act. In The Gold Bug Variations, Powers translates music into science, and history into the living breath of the present. He writes, “Translation, hunger for porting over, is not about bringing Shakespeare into Bantu. It is about bringing Bantu into Shakespeare. To show what else, other than homegrown sentences, a language might be able to say.”
With Galatea 2.2 (1995), Powers grows more intense (an amazing feat after the fire that fuels his first three novels, culminating in the masterpiece of The Gold Bug Variations), and more philosophical. “Galatea” refers to the statue that came to life in the Pygmalion legend; in the novel, the coming-to-being takes place in a computer named Helen. The novel opens up a vast terrain of speculation about the nature of consciousness. Can a machine really be trained in the “Great Books” to the extent that it can outwit a student on a literature test? There is, of course, a none-too-subtle grief-filled joke here (as all humor, as some philosophers theorize, is based on pain): do students, do we, actually read enough any more to hold a candle to even a rudimentary artificially intelligent machine? The two-fold process emerges through flashbacks in which the protagonist of the novel, a character named Richard Powers who has been appointed Humanist-in-Residence at the Center for the Study of Advanced Science, recalls, reconstructs and tries to redeem his dashed love affair with a woman known only as C. Where The Gold Bug Variations is uplifting and joyous, even as—or because of—its grief and desire, Galatea 2.2 is so burningly introspective that it nearly drowns in a pool of its own tears.
Plowing the Dark (2001), Powers’ seventh novel, is his most difficult. Difficult, not because of the subject matter, but because of the way the subjects are presented. We get two empty white rooms: canvasses of desire. In one room, somewhere near Seattle, artists and scientists again meet (as in so much of Powers’ work), this time to create a virtual world so real it passes a kind of Turing Test (Alan Turing was a computer scientist of the mid-twentieth century who posed a test: a computer can be deemed “human” if, in a blind conversation with it, a “real” human cannot tell that the interlocutor is a machine). The brilliant imagination Powers brings to this white room is stunning: the reality is not the quotidian one we see walking down the sidewalk or driving on the freeway, but the reality of dreams. Rendering Van Gogh’s room at Arles, for instance, is the obsession of the novel’s artist-protagonist. Meanwhile, there’s another white room, this one in some unnamed Mediterranean country where an English teacher is held prisoner by terrorists. Blindfolded, isolated, the teacher’s mind wanders, to say the least, through virtual terrains of horror and hope. The book is a masterpiece—one of several in Powers’ oeuvre—because of the author’s ability to plumb the depths of despair and desire that are the propellants of human imagination.
Powers’ latest novel, The Time of Our Singing (2003) is a hopeful song of love against all odds. The odds are only long, though, because we never look for the events portrayed in the novel to happen. At a civil rights march in Washington DC, a black woman singer from Philadelphia meets a white physicist from Germany. They fall in love with a look and a grace note: we shall overcome. The odds are long and subject to Heisenbergian uncertainty: although Powers’ novel is deeply historical and precisely geographical, these two young lovers could be any place at any time in which the deck is stacked against them. The book has been mistaken for a literal portrayal of certain events in particular places, but the history here is a cloud chamber of interacting particles highlighting the possibility of love.
The brilliant and daring thing about The Time of Our Singing is that it reduces everything to music. But since music is irreducible—every physical, every performed note resonates with some other—this is no reduction. That is precisely the same contradiction as with time: both feel everywhere and sourceless (the deaf can dance because floorboards sing; time flies, as we say, when we’re having fun, drags when we’re not), but our reasoning ability can’t quite get a handle on either time or music because our story-telling minds insist on a source. As Powers writes, “With each step that he pulls away from me, Jonah’s clock slows down. But if his clock slows, it only makes him more impatient. Jonah races and slows; Da dawdles and speeds up. He’s still talking, as if we can follow him. ‘Light, you see, always flies around you at the same speed whether you run toward it or away. So some measure must shrink, to make that speed stand still. This means you cannot say when a thing happens without saying where, in what frame of motion.’”
Music is to time as race is to human: it’s all about motion and perspective. As Nicholas of Cusa wrote six hundred years ago, “we apprehend motion only relative to something motionless.” Cusa was arguing against the Ptolemaic concept of the geocentric fixity of the Earth. Powers argues against the fixity of race, and in favor of the fluid motion of changing perspectives: “Past and future both lay folded up in the misleading lead of the present. All three are just different cuts through the same deep map. Was and will be: All are fixed, discernible coordinates on the plane that holds all moving nows.” Powers’ argument isn’t the dread relativism of post-modernism, but an advanced ethics based on quantum mechanics. Joseph, the backup-piano playing second son (to his older brother’s lieder-singing lead) says of his physicist father: “Da liked to say you can send a message ‘down into time.’ But you can’t send one back up. He never explained to me how you could send any message, in any direction, and expect it to reach its mark. For even if the message arrives intact, everything it speaks about will have already changed.”
Because the center will not hold, at least not for long, The Time of Our Singing is a study in entropy, in the slow demise of narrative universes. But it is also a study in the cyclic nature of the universe: death and regeneration and the “dual time” of the physicist father’s scientific studies. Oldest son Jonah, “whose voice could make heads of state repent,” is on a collision course with fame: he becomes a world-class singer of lieder, the art songs of the nineteenth century. And crash he does, only to recover and regenerate himself as the leader of a group of “early music” (i.e., medieval) in which no voice takes the lead but all harmonize to transport both listeners and singers into the sublime. Joseph, the middle child and the narrator, is also on a collision course: he’s Jonah’s accompanist until he, too, abandons their duet for jazz and teaching. The youngest child, Ruth, despairs of her parents’ naďve hope to raise their three children “beyond race,” and joins a radical Black liberation group.
In the end, the “color” of music—the timbre of instruments, the emotional weight of intervals—is entwined with the laws of physics—laws much more forgiving then those of humans. Therein lies the gift of Powers’ imagination, an imagination that suffuses and translates his gifts to us: the power to transcend the grinding wheels of human injustice, the ability (as literally portrayed in Plowing the Dark) to think “outside the box.” “We will overcome,” shout the works of Richard Powers: not through conversion by proselytizing, but through the energy of example.