Richard Powers is America’s greatest living novelist. So, in literary circles, one is occasionally told, and the judgment gathers force with each new Powers novel. Powers’s first, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance (1985), was such an extravaganza of virtues that its cautious reception, while probably necessary, did meager justice to its author’s promise. Powers’s third novel, The Gold Bug Variations (1991), established him as valedictorian of the class of young brainiac novelists like David Foster Wallace and William T. Vollmann. After Goldbug came Operation Wandering Soul, Galatea 2.2, and Gain, each striking critics such as John Updike, Thomas Mallon, and Michiko Kakutani as singular achievements of emotional intensity, intellectual reach, and prose as beautifully allusive (if, occasionally, florid) as it is poetically precise. Here was a writer who could, seemingly, capture anything in a sentence, from the moral character of Henry Ford (in Farmers) to the agony of cancer (in Gain).
All of which makes one approach Plowing the Dark, Powers’s seventh novel, with some expectation. Its opening chunk of italicized, simile-beset prose causes some unease. (Powers’s novels, it should be said, often suffer awkward beginnings.) As one reads on, the never-explained title grows more and more opaque, and one hopes that Plowing the Dark shares only titular obscurity with Operation Wandering Soul, by far Powers’s least successful novel. Soon, though, familiar Powers elements begin to cohere: the brilliant, disaffected characters; the narrative based upon dueling storylines; and the huge, vaulting themes–in this case, the purpose of art.
The disaffected characters here are Steve Spiegel, an engineer-turned-poet-turned-code writer; Adie Klarpol, a once-promising artist reduced to freelance design; and Taimur Martin, a half-Iranian American fleeing Chicago and a failed love affair to teach English in Beirut, where he is taken hostage by Islamic terrorists. Spiegel and Klarpol’s story is staggered, not always consistently, with Martin’s.
As the novel opens, Spiegel lures Klarpol away from her New York demimonde to the nascent techworld (it is the mid 1980s) of the Pacific Northwest. There, she serves as the resident artist for a start-up called the Realization Lab. Its mandate is to construct a virtual reality antechamber known as "the Cavern," which can morph into a jungle, a dreamscape, or Van Gogh’s "Room at Arles," among other locales. Powers’s celebrated gifts of description never quite manage to convey the Cavern’s actualities, and some of the details (VR glasses in 1987?) seem willful anachronisms. The Cavern’s transfiguration, however, is another matter. Here is a typically dazzling passage on the Cavern’s attempt at a forest:
Try to climb a hill, and you pass right through it. Hedgerows serve as mere suggestions. Approached, their bushes swell in detail, swimming toward the eye until they fill it. Then, with an optical pop, they vanish, freeing the scrawled grazing lands beyond them.
In the Spiegel-Klarpol sections, Powers seems to be suggesting that what will displace the static diversion of literature will be full-scale interactivity, "a life-sized poem that we can live inside." ("Art’s done," Klarpol tells Spiegel.) Considering the dross that today passes for interactive entertainment, one might find such a notion easy to dismiss. But consider this: filmmaking began as little more than an occasion to photograph sneezes and moving trains. Is it too difficult to imagine that, in time, a group of dedicated VR artists might emerge as the inevitable heirs to art’s abdicated throne? We are not anywhere near that point now, of course, and Powers nicely captures the smart, petulant boy-men caught somewhere between artist and programming drone. Of one, Klarpol notes: "How much they knew, these new children. How concentrated their knowledge of every mechanism, except for life."
As Klarpol and Spiegel explore and contribute to the Cavern’s amazements, the real world falls apart around them: the Berlin Wall collapses, the Soviet Union disintegrates, and Tiananmen Square is nightsticked en masse. Soon Klarpol suspects that the Cavern, far from being the portal into a marvelous new renaissance, will serve far uglier masters in the defense industry. Her increasing disillusionment gives rise to the literal and figurative center of Plowing the Dark, a flashback to the painful love affair between Klarpol and an experimental composer named Ted Zimmerman, now dying of MS in Ohio. Their affair began in college, and Powers wisely narrates it from the perspective of Spiegel, who remains enamored with both characters. The resultant set-piece of young love and shifting ambition has more marrowy heart and insight than the whole of most novels.
Plowing the Dark sports as an epigraph Auden’s elegy for Yeats, with its famous aphorism that "poetry makes nothing happen." But Powers elegantly rebuts this throughout the novel, using Yeats’s own "Sailing to Byzantium," that great epic of transfiguration through art. The poem’s opening lines ("That is no country for old men") inspire Spiegel and Klarpol to retrofit the Cavern as an all-healing, all-comforting haven for the dying Zimmerman, whose art has failed him no less cruelly than he has failed his art. Klarpol and Spiegel’s progress is undercut with the hostage Taimur Martin’s lack thereof. The Martin segments are told in the second person. What initially has the tincture of gimmickry quickly becomes a wrenching literary experience. Indeed, to communicate adequately the emotional wallop of Martin’s captivity is probably impossible. Very little actually happens. He is beaten. He begs for books. He thinks about Gwen, his ex (Powers is surpassed only by Tim Parks in his ability to tally the damage of razed love). He reads the Qu’ran, providing Plowing the Dark with some of its most beautiful mediations. He communicates with a Frenchman via an elaborate code through his cell walls. It is agonizing material, able to stand with the best of Solzhenitsyn, and it is further reminder that, for all the vicarious thrills of virtual reality, only the novel can offer one mind such primal link-up with another.
Martin’s story has no formal connection to Klarpol and Spiegel’s. Rather, the connection is hinted at, sometimes coyly (stale chickpeas consist Martin’s prison diet, while Klarpol eats more splendidly prepared chickpeas in a Middle Eastern restaurant), sometimes didactically (Zimmerman’s decline takes place in Lebanon, Ohio, while Martin’s occurs in its less benevolent namesake). The real connection seems that of the human imagination: "Where the body is chained," Martin thinks, "the brain travels."
This brings to mind the novel’s one bothersome constituent. While reading Plowing the Dark, to say nothing of Powers’s other novels, one wonders if his dueling storylines would retain their vigor if forced to stand alone. If Operation Wandering Soul is any indication, Powers is at his weakest when he sets his course to a single narrative star. Is this structural tic an evasive action or an unapologetic embrace of strength? In Plowing the Dark, however, it works at such a strange, dream-like, and metaphorically perfect level that one’s reservations are wholly overturned. Powers does have his detractors, as one might expect of a writer who once dismissed criticism as an irrelevance whose point is "to spare people the inconvenience of reading." His characters are too often fantastically quick and intelligent. (The only truly dumb Powers character is the feckless creationist Annie from Goldbug. But even she, with her garbled metaphors–"I’m hungry enough to eat a house"–gains a meaningful anti-intelligence.) His dialogue sometimes comes off as an ingenious sitcom:
It’s just that I’ve been looking for this one story….
Since you were nine?
Well, seven, if you must know.
Oh. Now. If I knew what the damn thing was called, I wouldn’t still be looking for it after all this time, would I?
His characters, particularly his female characters, as Sven Birkerts once wrote, "carry a whiff of the laboratory." Klarpol sounds and acts quite a bit like Jan O’Deigh, the librarian heroine of Goldbug: mannish, appealing, and a little stock. One of Plowing the Dark’s supporting characters, a technochick named Susan Loque, ranks among Powers’s least inspired. Her bits of "Bingo, babe" dialogue grate. Yet who but Powers could possibly summon up the imaginative perspicacity to term knowledge "civilization’s bad penny"? Who else could drop the curtain on young love with such startling accuracy: "They lost each other to multiple discoveries halfway through their first semester. So life always liked to run the little shill: the immortal cause vanishes, but the short term effects last forever."
Powers, unlike many of his contemporaries, has a thorough understanding of the world beyond books, the breadth of which usually makes for the sort of person who feels for poor, powerless art nothing but contempt. Plowing the Dark is thus able to give seemingly inarguable misgivings to a character like Kaladjian, an Armenian mathematician, who, like Philip Lentz in Galatea 2.2, views science as modern humanity’s sole exporter of meaning. Klarpol, who has "a general hatred for all things the cabled world hoped to become," occupies no less an indelible bulwark, and their clash is staged by Powers with unbearable nuance. It is Powers’s strength as a novelist to force us to question art’s usefulness before providing, with Martin’s freedom, its sorrowful validation. Plowing the Dark is a work of unsettling brilliance, and the small chorus waiting to officially coronate Powers as our greatest living novelist may, at last, have found its fiat.