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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.


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