Book #21: Plowing the Dark

Yeah, so you may have noticed a dearth of posts forthcoming on the site lately. Choosing the next book after Everyman took a lot longer than I expected - I probably read the first 20 pages of at least five books (two of which will most likely be read sooner rather than later) and still could not settle on something that felt right. I was picking a lot of 250-300 page books in an effort to pad the numbers a bit, but nothing was working for me, and I felt the heavy gaze of Jason's "Currently Reading" list resting on my very soul.

Which somewhat (but not completely) explains my decision to move away from light, thin volumes and instead turn to Plowing the Dark by Richard Powers. In the constant back-and-froth that is our reading friendship, there are two authors that Jason has consistently since the day I met him tried to impart onto me. One being William T. Vollmann and the other being Powers. For the longest Powers was something I enjoyed in theory - the plot summaries and themes he tackles always sound interesting, and he's considered one of the bright points of modern American Literature. Throw in numerous awards (including a MacArthur Fellowship and the National Book Award for his most recent The Echo Maker) and you have all the makings of perfect Chris-bait. None of which mattered after trudging my way through Operation: Wandering Soul, an allegory about the role of children in a crumbling future had the dual pleasure of crushing my spirit and turning me off to Powers for years. Relentless pressure from Jason (who also didn't care for O:WS) to give him a second chance turned me to Galatea 2.2. Short in pages but huge in scope, it's about scientists who create a machine that can pass a college English Literature exam. Despite the easy one-line synopsis it was a bold, dense work that admittedly had me wanting to reassess my view of Powers.

All of which brings me to Plowing the Dark, Powers' 2001 parallel novel of virtual realities: the ones we create using machines and the ones we create in our own minds. And, in a word: AMAZING. Powers uses language that is at once both challenging and ultimately rewarding . You can't breeze through it, but you don't really want to, either. Every paragraph contains a lyrical beauty and a sense of intellect that washes over you as "genius" without drowning you. It's not that Powers is showing off how talented he is here, it's that he can't help it. The novel uses two distinct storylines: one concerns a disenfranchised artist named Adie Klarpol who is lured into working on something called the Cavern, a high-tech virtual environment where anything imagined can be created; the other concerns an unnamed American teacher in in Beirut who is captured by terrorists and held captive in a bare, blank cell. Both stories deal with the worlds we create for ourselves, and serve to underline Powers' themes of the relationship between science and the soul.

Multiple narrative styles, elegant language (even when talking about mathematical formulas) and a wonderful sense that the novel knows exactly what it is and what it wants to accomplish make Plowing the Dark a fantastic re-entry back into Richard Powers, and I can now count myself as someone eagerly looking forward to his next novel.