Mining the Backlist

I’m one of those folks whose first introduction to Richard Powers was Galatea 2.2, which I suppose is the place that a lot of people start with him. Like White Noise is the place to start reading DeLillo, and The Crying of Lot 49 is the place to start reading Pynchon. Some might argue that the drawing criterion is the relative brevity of these entry texts, but I think there’s something more to it than just brevity — it’s the entire project in miniature. Once you’ve read COL49, you know something about what Pynchon’s up to that makes it possible to take on Gravity’s Rainbow. Similarly DeLillo: reading White Noise makes a later reading of Underworld possible.

So with Powers. But there’s this added hitch with Galatea, in that the novel purports to recount his publishing history up to that point, following a character named “Richard S. Powers” through his remembrances of the composition of his earlier novels. Does starting with Galatea inevitably ruin — or maybe that’s too harsh a word; maybe I just mean “color” — the reading of the previous texts?

I guess I was always afraid that it would, because I first read Galatea about four or five years ago, and never read any other Powers. Which is strange for me, as I tend to go on author-binges when I read something I love, and I loved Galatea.

So over the last month, I’ve begun making up for lost time, reading the Powers oeuvre in chronological sequence. I’ve finished Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, which, as an example of a first novel, so intimidated me that I may never make another stab at the form. Also Prisoner’s Dilemma (which, while deeply moving, I’m relieved to say is my least favorite so far) and The Gold Bug Variations. About which I feel unqualified to say anything except wow.

I’m now on Operation Wandering Soul, the completion of which will take me back up to my starting point. Do I re-read Galatea then? I began this reading of the Powers backlist with a certain kind of “knowledge” about what these novels were up to — but now, with the novels themselves under my belt, will my sense of that prior “knowledge” change? Would that change further readings of the earlier books?

You gotta love a novel sequence with its own built-in recursive loop.

4 responses to “Mining the Backlist”

  1. If you really liked Galatea, I suggest you NOT go back to it for awhile, unless you’re going to write about it right away. You run the risk of liking it a little bit less, is my guess.

    I loved Galatea too: having read it after Goldbug (my intro to Powers, and as good a window into some of his concerns as Galatea, I think) I found the later book more mature, less self-indulgent (I got a bit tired of all the quotations in Goldbug–it felt like he’d been saving them up since high school and was determined to get them all in).

    However, reading Gold. first made Gala. seem narrower, less ambitious and sweeping. I sympathize with his irritation with postcolonial theory–Lord knows I do–but it scaled back the scope of the book somehow: I too mourn for the canon, but how many people outside academia do? I was glad he dropped Goldbug’s female p.o.v., which wasn’t particularly convincing, in my opinion, but the faintly patronizing nature of the representations of the girlfriend and the star student still suggest room for improvement.

    That said, Galatea made me cry real tears. Come back, Helen!

  2. Good point. Finished Wandering Soul this morning, and once I’d talked myself out of hanging by the neck from my balcony rail, I decided that, whatever the flaws of Jan in Gold Bug and Linda in Wandering Soul, they’re still preferable to C. and A.

    But I wonder how much of that patronization is a self-patronization, because the novel’s pretty hard on “Richard Powers,” too…

  3. Do you think he was hard on C. and A.? I thought he was putting so much effort into being hard on Richard Powers–bending over backwards showing how unfair Richard was to C. and A. and their abilities–that he ended up sort of idealizing and sentimentalizing aspects of the women in an attempt to mask how annoying he found them.

    But it’s been something like five years since I read it; if you tell me I am wrong, I happily believe you. Neither Gold or Gala made me want to hurl myself from a bridge, though–is Wandering Soul wildly different?

  4. I don’t think you’re wrong, at all. As my memory serves (and you can see here evidence of its questionable reliability), Powers-the-novelist is very hard on Powers-the-character for his treatment of both A. and C., without ever giving the sense that Powers-the-character is aware of that treatment — and that the sentimentalizing of the lost love and the objectifying of the graduate student are part and parcel of that treatment. As is the “poor me, I’ve behaved so badly” motif of Powers-the-character’s memory of his behaviors toward them. So the novel seems to me to treat Powers himself as an unreliable narrator, who cannot be trusted, and about the women least of all.

    Or maybe that’s just wishful thinking. I think the novel’s end (Galatea’s totally romanticized death, and Powers’ sudden inspiration to write once again) strongly suggests that, whatever Powers (and I’m not sure whether I mean the character or the novelist) may have learned in the novel’s course, it didn’t exactly take.

    As to Wandering Soul, lemme just say that this is one dark book. Deeply depressing, and with sadly little possible in the way of redeeming lessons learned. But, I think, perhaps the most honest of his stuff that I’ve read so far, and at moments the most beautiful.

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