Oct 07, 2009, 08:22AM

Richard Powers is Un-American

The novelist's new Generosity: An Enhancement lacks the spirited, contradictory pluck of the brilliant A New Literary History of America.

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For solidarity purposes, I will admit here to paying a combined $0 for these books; they were free from the publishers upon request, as is the right of any reviewer. Furthermore, if anyone wants my review copy of Generosity, it will be given, free of charge, to the first person who asks for it by emailing john@splicetoday.com.

There may be no more quintessentially American thing to do than wonder rhetorically about the multifaceted essence of American character. Tocqueville called the country "the triumph of an idea," which is both rightfully inspiring and an entirely accurate explanation for why ideological battles still rage over the definition and ownership of the very word "American." Are we fundamentally conservative or liberal? Is there a specific American aesthetic or philosophy? What are the key works in our literature, music, and art? In all cases, the answers are endlessly variable and almost beside the point; it's the very need for so many questions that speaks to our national identity crisis. "Every effort to define Americanism to a single pattern," wrote Henry Steele Commager, "to constrain it to a single formula, is disloyalty to everything that is valid in Americanism." The business of America is understanding itself.

The value of A New Literary History of America (Belknap Harvard, $49.95), published last month, is therefore partly dependent on sheer girth. This staggering compendium of over 200 essays is indeed a celebration of voices, where "literary" is meant to be as catholic a description as possible. Arranged chronologically, each four- to five-page essay finds a different writer engaging a specific development of American culture—from Citizen Kane, Anne Broadstreet's poetry, and the founding Alcoholics Anonymous to American Gothic and "Song to Woody"—but the brilliance of ANLHA is its relatively modest aims. There's no proselytizing or politicking, no attempted canon-renewal or equivalent academic score settling. (If anything, the book is fairly conservative, the most glaringly outré entry being Ann Marlowe's on Linda Lovelace.) "This book," write editors Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors in the introduction, "is a reexamination of the American experience as seen through a literary glass, where what is at issue is speech, in many forms." I blanch at the rolling-out of yet another interdisciplinary paean to the unknowable American identity, which is why this 1100-page monolith is ultimately such a welcome surprise. Marcus and Sollors contend that the history of America is the history of individual voices struggling to be heard amongst one another, and their book is an accordingly sprawling, Babel-worthy assemblage of opinions, texts, and interpretations.

And yet, as is only appropriate, ANLHA raises its own set of unanswered questions: Who's the audience for this multi-pound, $50 hardcover? What are the intended reading conditions for a giant book of mini-essays? It's a reference book, almost by default, but who would read it for reference? Most of the contents, like Ted Widmer's piece on Democracy in America, read like well-researched but general introductions to the works in question; specifically in its book-related essays, ANLHA often feels like a compilation of Penguin Classics intros. Which is likely why the soul of the book seems most visible in the non-canonical entries—W.T. Lhamon summarizing the evolution of "Jump Jim Crow," for instance, or Philip Nel making the case for The Cat in the Hat as perhaps the most ubiquitous and influential literary character of the 20th century. These are informative, readable essays on forgotten or taken-for-granted aspects of American pop culture, and their placement among essays on Thoreau, Whitman, The Great Gatsby, and Philip Roth speaks to the editors' conception of American literary history:
No tradition has ever ruled; no form has ever been fixed; American history, literary, social, political, religious, cultural, and technological, has been a matter of what one could make of it, and of how one got across what he or she meant to say to his or her fellow citizens, as they no less than the speaker struggled to define themselves as individuals, and as part of a whole.

Questioning the utility of A New Literary History of America seems unwarranted, since its very existence is a kind of self-fulfillment. Perusing it piecemeal, I wondered who would read it, and yet there I was, enjoying it greatly. The book's contents are so vast that it creates its own kind of community, and one opens it, scans the contents or selects an essay at random, and does feel amazed at just how many people have either taken up the task of defining America or who have contributed to that definition through artistic, political, personal, and collective works. By virtue of continuing this discussion and grappling once more with the sheer cultural magnitude of the country, the editors and publishers of ANLHA have simply continued the most essential American project of all.

Still, if a certain messiness or sprawl is inherent in any honest conception of the American character, ANLHA's most eyebrow-raising inclusion is, to my mind, the contemporary novelist Richard Powers, whose 2003 book The Time of Our Singing is written about by Marcus himself, and whose own essay about the Robert Gould Shaw monument makes him the only person to serve as both author and subject in the entire compilation. Powers' credentials—10 thematically ambitious novels over the last quarter-century, a National Book Award and a handful of other accolades, critical adoration to go with his very respectable sales—are perhaps legitimate justification for his status here, though his most recent book, Generosity: An Enhancement, out last week, illuminates the many flaws that mar even his best work. He's an odd choice for Marcus and Sollors' project; for of all the (economically and critically) top-tier novelists working, Powers has offered some of the least communal-feeling reading experiences I've had. His books, while often thought-provoking, too often have a sealed, mechanical quality that, when compared with A New Literary History of America's comprehensive sprawl, seems almost un-American.

Powers is essentially a science fiction writer, in the most achingly highbrow use of the term: his novels typically involve two-tiered plots where scientific thinkers clash with humanities-inclined types, and the interpersonal drama between them reveals the failings in both mindsets. When this works, as in Galatea 2.2 (1995), about a character named Richard Powers who tries to teach an artificial intelligence source about the great works of literary history, Powers' novels can be intellectually invigorating as well as legitimately enthralling. The Echo Maker (2006), Powers' last book, was a more austere, naturalistic story about a Nebraska man's memory-destroying car accident and the Oliver Sacks-like popular scientist who tries to heal him, and its plangent tone mostly hid the more essential problems in the novelist's writing: Powers' romantic/personal plotlines can seem maudlin (particularly in Operation Wandering Soul, set in a children's sick ward), and his dialogue can feel forced and derivative. In between occasional bits of inspired language (of a foreign character's difficulty with English, Galatea 2.2's narrator says she hadn't yet learned to "plough through tough dough") and his uniquely impressive thematic reach, Powers has never quite escaped a certain middlebrow-dom, and his books' impeccable tidiness seems at odds with his conception of the world. For all the universe's apparent complications, one never feels that a Powers novel is about to spin out of control.

In Generosity, Powers has once more returned to the relatively lighthearted campus setting of Galatea 2.2, but his style's shortcomings are more glaring than ever. In the book's initial introduction of him, protagonist Russell Stone is actually one of Powers' more lifelike creations. He's an unfulfilled writer with a short history of creative nonfiction publications in his past, and now teaches one semester-long class at a middling Chicago arts college. His students are a mixed bag of conscientiously "modern" types, a descriptive trope that Powers indulges too frequently and always superficially: there's an ex-meth-head, a jaded and tattooed young bohemian woman, a few nerdy and tech-obsessed men, and they all speak in catch phrases: "I'll try anything once. Twice if it's nice," or "More people probably want you dead than alive." But then Algeria-born Thassadit Amzwar enters, an irrepressibly joyful woman despite her tragic, war-torn past. Since few characters in this novel feel particularly convincing as people, Thassadit overwhelms the scene from sheer hyperactivity.

Generosity's first half unrolls so breathlessly that the second can't help but get bogged down in residual thematic matters. About halfway through, Thassadit becomes the much-publicized victim of a local crime, and once the press descends upon her, you can almost feel Powers lurching into essay-mode. An eminent scientist, Thomas Kurton, thinks that Thassadit proves his belief in the existence of a happiness gene, which instigates a number of ongoing conversations about the morality of advertising such a discovery.

The same shortcomings in Powers' writing—the painfully "hip" speech, the broad, backstory-dependent characterizations—are all still here, and his thematic material don't even offer their expected amazement. Despite all the eventual travels undertaken by his characters, and despite an increasingly anxious tone, Generosity's basic theses are all fairly unchallenging: Powers seems to think that happiness is ultimately unquantifiable, that "creative nonfiction" is an essentially contradictory, and that authorship is a quality both of written work and life itself. He also attempts a little self-reflexive authorial games, inserting narrative gestures like, "All I want is for my friends to survive the story intact. All the story wants is to wreck anything solid in them. No one would write a word, if they remembered how much fiction eventually comes true." This is old stuff, at least as old as Don Quixote, but Powers clearly finds it profound; he ends the novel on a metaphysical note, leaving us to question who wrote it and why.

The dual-presence of Powers, a gifted thinker and intermittently edifying fiction writer, in A New Literary History of America, seems like too much credit given to him, particularly when Marcus mentions how his books often suffer from "an audacity of symbolism that at first the reader can hardly take as anything other than manipulation." But that's the risk a project like ANLHA runs, and the book is wide-ranging enough to forgive a few instances of over-generousness. Greil Marcus seems to think that Richard Powers' ability to mix ideas and examine history is distinctly "American" enough to warrant special mention, whereas I feel his novels can feel simultaneously over-thought and under-edited. The greatness of A New Literary History is its implication that both arguments could, and should, be given their due.

A New Literary History of America, edited by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors. Harvard Belknap Press, 1,095pp., $49.95.

Generosity: An Enhancement, by Richard Powers. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 293pp., $25.


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