Saturday, June 21, 2008

Deresiewicz on Powers

Via Wikipedia, a spot-on review of Richard Powers in general and The Echo Maker in particular. Too complimentary if anything, I don't think Powers's prose is as good as Deresiewicz makes it out to be, the would-be-purple passages about cranes are overwritten and just not that impressive. But Deresiewicz makes the obvious point -- which, say, Michael Wood does not -- that the novel's pretty awful as a novel because the characters are tiresome and the plot comes across as a vehicle for Powers's Deep Thoughts.

I also agree with this general diagnosis:

But the extravagant praise that has been heaped on him mainly derives, I think, from our culture's skewed understanding of the nature of fiction, and of knowledge. It's not just that we don't understand the relationship between stories and ideas, it's that there's a particular realm of ideas to which we assign supreme value: science. Much of Powers's early training was in physics and computer science, and the ideas around which he builds his novels are mostly scientific ones. (The chief exception is music, but music, with its quasi-mathematical nature, has always been the art most attractive to the scientific mind, and Powers's treatment of it often focuses, precisely, on its mathematical aspects.) It is telling that Powers is typically praised for his intellect: his "vast intelligence," "intimidating brain," "high-wattage mentality"; his ability to "think in ink." His capacity to elucidate scientific ideas and speculate about their larger meanings is indeed impressive. But intellect and scientific acumen are not synonymous, though our culture seems to thinks so. "It's not rocket science," we say, or, "It's not brain surgery." So a novelist who understands science must be really smart, and a really smart novelist must be a really good one.

No comments: