OK, so a Nebraskan meatpacker wakes up after a car accident and thinks his sister and dog are impostors (The Echo Maker). Or: A free-flowing computer network is taught to understand literature, only to reject the world (Galatea 2.2). Or: In a back-and-forth narrative spanning 40 years, two pairs of lovers are metaphorically entangled with the two base pairs of human DNA (The Gold Bug Variations).
Well, it's a known fact: Your average book reader, humanities-taught, is wowed by science. Cowed, even. You can blame science's increasingly obscure subspecialties and opaque diction, the sheer weirdness of Schrödinger and Heisenberg, or maybe just your itchy bout of chicken pox when your class learned about fractions. A literary novelist like Richard Powers—comfortable in science's convoluted idiom and author of nine novels including the three described above—is likely to be greeted by the lettered world as a sort of magician, a doer of foreign and impossible things. It is unexpected that someone steeped in Bach and Proust and Pynchon would also know his way around hippocampi and amygdalae, not to mention the alien languages of computer programming. Hence the L.A. Times calling him as "one of the smartest novelists now writing."
What's most interesting about Powers, however, is not that he is bright, which many people are, nor that he goes to the library and reads up on computer science or neurology before writing a book. It's that Powers can often bridge what T.S. Eliot called "dissociation of sensibility," the gap between feeling an emotion and thinking an idea. Increasingly, Powers' books aren't merely novels of ideas à la the wretched Griffin and Sabine books, nor standard sci-fi explorations of the what-if and gee-whiz, but rather actual syntheses of character and formal theme, real-deal meditations that don't leave their characters out of the whirlwind.
And while his style can at times be awkward—in The Echo Maker, his newest, he unironically refers to sandhill cranes by their scientific name, Grus canadensis—what Powers can do as well as anyone writing today is manage plot, weave together more strands of character and idea than Balzac or George Eliot, and drive the reader forward into a symphonic crescendo wherein all themes finally implicate each other.
It is this talent, more than anything—a talent for bringing everything back to itself—that leads one to believe that any lecture he has to offer this Thursday, March 6, will also find its relevance.
Richard Powers speaks at the Portland Art Museum, Fields Ballroom, 1219 SW Park Ave., 226-0973. 7:30 pm Thursday, March 6. $15.