By Padgett Powell
All Posts Contain Spoilers
Some ideas sound better than they are. I think we’ve all encountered this: some concepts, full of promise, fail in execution.
And some ideas are exactly the opposite: terrible sounding, but weirdly great in reality. Sometimes, a premise which promises to be awful when described turns out to be persuasive in practice.
‘The Interrogative Mood‘ is a ‘novel’ composed entirely of questions.
And I do not mean that it is a novel with a plot which is expressed entirely in questions: Why did Jane choose today to go to the store? If she had not, would she have ever seen Dick again? And why, today, did she find him so oddly attractive?
‘The Interrogative Mood‘ is a “novel” only in so far as it imparts no factual information to the reader, and makes no argument. It is, in fact, 164 pages of disjointed and unanswered questions. It sounds like a terrible ordeal, but it is so much fun to read.
I am, in practice if not in principle, very much against novels which experiment with form. I understand that artists must extend the boundaries of the possible, but I’m something of a traditionalist where literature is concerned. I would not have picked up ‘The Interrogative Mood‘ for the world if it had not been for the recommendation of Nick Hornby, Traditional Novelist, who spoke highly enough of it in ‘Ten Years in the Tub‘ (a great source of book recommendations, by the way) that I decided to try it.
I loved it.
It was a crazy fun read. I read it all the way through, as though it were a traditional novel, but, really, one needn’t. The questions are strange and funny and serious. Some are mundane and some are simple and some are specific and some are convoluted. Some are obvious and unmemorable, but some are laugh-out-loud funny and many, to borrow a regrettable and hackneyed expression, will make you think.
Some are odd, precise and beguiling:
“Do you quite credit that there are burrowing owls?” (p. 13)
Some are wise:
“Is it fair to say that the world comprises those who are politicians, those who are movie stars, those who get by, and criminals?” (p. 157)
Some are really just little vignette’s of the quirky way Padgett Powell’s mind works:
“If Jimi Hendrix walked into your room and said, ‘Sit tight there, popo, I shall play you one’ and affected to get out his guitar, what would you do? Would you say, ‘Wait, Jimi. You’re dead lo these forty years,’ or ‘Wait, Jimi, let me call up a friend or two – not a big party, mind you, but this is a special thing for me and I want to share it with others if it’s okay with you – is that all right?’ or ‘God, no, Mr. Hendrix, that shit would split my head open right now,’ or ‘Lay some weed on me before you rip it, bro,’ or ‘Okay, Jimi, but if the police come, please do not call them goofballs please’? (p. 160)
The questions are arranged, seemingly without order or reason, into paragraphs, and some of these flights of questions are so charming that they should really be taken as whole:
“Provided you were given assurances that you would not be harmed by the products of either, would you rather spend time with a terrorist or with a manufacturer of breakfast cereal? What in your view is the ideal complexion for a cow? Is there a natural law that draws a plastic bag to an infant similar to the law that draws a tornado to a mobile home? Do you understand exactly what is meant by custard? Would it be better if things were better, and worse if things were worse, or better if things were worse and worse if things were better?” (p. 6)
The questions make no over-arching point. They tell no story. ‘The Interrogative Mood’ really is just a long string of queries, but its effect is engaging and unlike anything I’ve ever encountered before. It’s like the most interesting, varied personality test you’ve ever taken, but without answers, where the responses, highly personal and often significant, are unscored and unscorable and will never be known to anyone but you.
Perhaps what makes ‘The Interrogative Mood‘ so beguiling is that a question doesn’t have the same effect as its equivalent in statement form. Questions make us complicit in their reasoning and conclusions. They don’t set us up as recipients of wisdom; rather, they invite us to derive it with the questioner. And so a novel made up entirely of questions can shape your thoughts in a way that a plot can only paint pictures for you. It elicits a totally different kind of engagement, and when, as in ‘The Interrogative Mood’, the questions are creative and off-the-wall, so varied and well-mixed, the effect is sparkling.
Sparkling, and often surprisingly emotionally compelling:
“Do you trust or mistrust people who say “Candy is too sweet for me?” (p. 121)
“Do you regard yourself as redeemed, redeemable, or irretrievably lost?” (p. 101)
‘What today would make you cry?” (p. 126)
If you are like me, you have spent a great deal of time thinking about yourself over the years; however, I, for one, have never thought about myself in these particular ways. These questions invite me to think about myself, or about the world, along new lines, sometimes specific, sometimes general, sometimes both.
And just because the invitation to thought takes the form of questions does not mean that you cannot be guided along to conclusions. Powell makes what I came to think of as micro-arguments, a series of questions which end with your consideration of a conclusion, stated in question form. Take this paragraph, for example:
“Are you curious to know what I’ll do with the answers you’ve given me? Do you think I can make some sort of meaningful “profile” of you? Could you, or someone, do you think, make such a profile of me from the questions I’ve asked you? If we had these profiles, could we not relax and let them do the work of living for us and take our true selves on a long vacation? Isn’t it the case that certain people are already on to this trick of posting their profiles on duty while simultaneously living private underground lives? Can you recognize these profile soldiers by a certain, dismissive calm, a kind of gentle smile about them when others are getting petty? Is it in fact the character of the profile-facade person not that which is called wise? And is the person who is congruent with his daily self and who has no remote self not regarded as shallow?” (p. 70)
That is a great question! Many of them are great questions, which means that ‘The Interrogative Mood‘ ends up being more interesting and more thought-provoking than most novels, which is bananas because it has no plot, and no characters (except ‘You’ and ‘I’, technically). I can’t believe I’m recommending it, this book which is just questions, but I am. It was more fun than it had any right to be, and I loved every page.