While Richard Powers’ novels hold a sometimes interesting and informative young sci-tech appeal, the novels’ limits of the social and political, not to mention the intimate personal, are stark. In “Brain Drain: The Scientific Fictions of Richard Powers,” James Wood dissects the limits of character and philosophy or theme in the novels in some ways that make sense. Still, it’s a review by penlight. Why the small scope? Because of the small conception. For example, Wood binds himself with this misrepresentation: “The traditional domain of the novel—eros, marriage, the question of children, the irreducible particulars of domestic life…” These elements may comprise the traditional domain of the domestic novel but not the traditional domain of the novel, far from it, let alone imaginative fiction writ large. Don Quixote? Robinson Crusoe? Les Miserables? Has the domestic novel come to mean the “traditional” novel? If so, a pity. Such a misrepresentation squashes both life and the novel, leaving a critic able to do little more than belabor the most evident limits in Powers’ fiction, while distorting or overlooking greater underlying problems.
The full human condition that novels can render and reshape so well and so powerfully extends far beyond the domestic, not to mention beyond the “hushed lab of science and mind” to the ever more broad social and political. Novels find themselves in full bloom in the overlap and fusion of the profound public and the profound private, that is in the flux of the individual and the many powerful human groupings of life. The domestic is only one of those groupings, and in many great novels (let alone in life) far from the most driving, dynamic, or potent force. Domestic fiction can best be seen as a special case, not the inherent or most vital domain of the novel past or present (never mind any greater type of imaginative fiction). The larger weaknesses of Powers’ fiction, as with much establishment fiction, are rooted in the poorly engaged public realities, which undercut many crucial aspects of novels, including character, theme, and philosophy. In “Brain Drain,” the Anglo-American “best critic” is criticizing Powers for not crafting his domestic “scientific fiction” well enough, without demonstrating that the work would not remain largely “shut-in” in its hushed labs even if he did. The hushed lab, or novel as academic petri dish, cliched or not, is a problem that goes unaddressed. Were Powers to overcome the cliches and the plastic, the novels might be more satisfying but would be still confined by their “lab” nature and domesticity, would they not?
The most illuminating experience that could impact James Woods’ criticism, and establishment critics in general, might be if these authors attempted to write revolutionary stories or novels. For they would be forced to expand the scope of their understanding of both fiction and life in ways that might reveal the enshadowed delimited nature of the human that they currently bring to their work. As others have noted, these establishment writers likely aren’t censoring their views (much). They held them previous to hire or they would not have been hired in the first place. If they wish to expand their work into questions of fiction that are far more vital and central to both writers and the public, or if they even wish to be alert to the larger import of what they are writing, they are going to have to challenge the limits of their employment, but first they’ll need to challenge the limits of their own views and capacities.
Otherwise, you get what you get, ranging from gross ideological distortions and reactionary assertions to the more-or-less careful sometimes acute but penlight views of contemporary novels and life, filling not only established magazines and newspapers but now the micro internet startups.
In the New Yorker, and company, and in its internet imitators and competitors one finds more “milkily bland” “bet hedging” work, both criticism and fiction, than one would ever want to imagine. It’s the overwhelming staple. Most of the industry and its spawn nurture fiction doctored with quirks and diversions, or the sensational, to cover the inferior nature of the product.
If “Richard Powers’s novels are thus unwitting, even anxious confessions of their own inability to animate his characters…circling around their lack, animals not quite willing to shun their own dead,” what are the reviews by James Wood and the lit establishment, both paper and online? Wood and the establishment circle around establishment fictions’ major vacuums and distortions, unwilling to speak, or unable to see what is most dead about it. And unwilling or unable to see or address, let alone create, much of what is most alive.
It’s not that Wood’s review of Powers’ work is wildly off. It’s that one learns precious little about Powers fiction that cannot be gathered at a glance, or that isn’t summarized in this brief quote from Wikipedia:
Reviewer William Deresiewicz has written critically of Powers’s oeuvre; in his review of The Echo Maker, published in The Nation, he writes ofThe Gold Bug Variations that “what’s missing from the novel is, well, a novel. The characters are idealized, the love stories mawkish and clichéd, the emotions meant to ground the scientific speculations in lived experience announced rather than established. The thinnest of devices are introduced to allow Powers to suspend the plot for dozens of pages at a stretch.” But Deresiewicz also noted that his “is hardly the standard view of Powers’s work. Over the past two decades, Powers has established himself as one of our most praised as well as one of our most prolific writers of fiction.”
The interesting and meaningful question is not, What are the novelistic weaknesses? which Wood explores, they are so evident, but, Why is such work promoted and praised by the establishment, and to what extent is it meaningful to the culture and society? To begin answering those questions would be to soon call much establishment fiction and criticism into serious question.
Wood goes in the other direction, back to an establishmentarian embrace, pointing to ostensibly related models for some of Powers’ interests in fiction with severe deficiencies of their own. Wood ends his review with a very unfavorable comparison of Powers to Dreiser, Hardy, and Houellebecq, tired references all, that hardly shed much light on Powers’ main chasms as novelist, let alone on the state of the novel in general, references that drown thought in dubious conventional baggage, references to works with great shortcomings of their own that provide no dynamic sense of what fiction might well achieve in more liberatory and conscious realms. Readers and writers who follow the lead of Wood et al into the establishment wilderness find themselves puttering about in the status quo present, or reverting further back, rather than overcoming it. There is no hint of forward movement in fiction in “Brain Drain,” only a tracing and retreading of the old insufficient.