By Richard Powers
ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS
So, if you’ve been in a bookstore any time in the past six months, you’ve probably walked past Richard Powers’ ‘The Overstory‘ featured prominently on the Best Sellers rack, or the Notable New Fiction table, or the Staff Recommendations shelf. It’s a Big Deal Book at the moment: it won the 2019 Pulitzer for Fiction, and it’s a novel about people whose lives are touched by…trees. Or something like that, I haven’t read it, but the back cover assures me that it’s a powerful story about the destruction of the natural world.
Which, is it just me, or does that not sound super smug? It sounds like a novel that exists to make NPR listeners feel good about themselves. Like a novel specifically designed to end up on the Staff Recommendations tables in liberal enclaves.
In the interests of full disclosure: I’m not super interested in reading ‘The Overstory‘ – I’m perhaps willing to give it a shot, but before I read a smug-sounding five hundred page novel about trees, I’d like to know whether or not I even like the author.
Richard Powers has written eleven other novels, the most famous of which is ‘Gold Bug Variations‘, which is described on its own back cover this way:
“‘The Goldbug Variations’ is a double love story of two young couples separated by a distance of twenty-five years. Stuart Ressler, a brilliant young molecular biologist, sets out in 1975 to crack the genetic code. His efforts are sidetracked by other, more intractable codes – social, moral, musical, spiritual – and he falls in love with a member of his research team. Years later, another young man and woman team up to investigate a different scientific mystery – why did the eminently promising Ressler suddenly disappear from the world of science? Strand by strand, these two love stories twist about each other in a double helix of desire.”
So I decided to read that first. The subject matter appealed to me (not all the love and desire stuff – I don’t so much go in for that), but all the biology. I am here for biology – it’s what I do for a living. I’m not generally wild about love stories, but I’m super down to read a six hundred page novel about the scientific elucidation of the genetic code. I’m a big nerd and I’m excited.
At least in theory.
In practice, I pretty much hated ‘Gold Bug Variations‘. I really hated it, actually. I hated it the way you hate books that you really, really hate: where every increment you read, every chapter, every paragraph, you hate it more, in a curve which grows exponentially, so that by the time you finish it, you hate it miles, miles more than you thought it was possible to hate, more than is reasonable.
‘Gold Bug Variations‘ was well-reviewed, but I have a sneaking suspicion that critics, some critics at least, don’t know the difference between a good book and a verbose book. Between a book that has something to say and a book that has a lot to say.
‘Gold Bug Variations‘ has a lot to say, or, rather, it says what it has to say at length. Partly, it accomplishes this by saying the same things over and over and over and over. Powers is…exhausting. His prose is bloated and repetitive and smug. He doesn’t say anything once if he can say 10,000 times. He gets carried away with enthusiasm, yes, for his subject matter but also for his own prose gymnastics, his own powers of prose description.
I feel slightly guilty about faulting Powers for this because a) I am also verbose and b) it clearly stems from a deep love of subject matter. I share his love of this subject matter, and I sympathize, but the love isn’t the problem – the problem is that Powers has an undisciplined need to communicate this love to the reader through what I can only describe as verbal force.
“I would tell Todd, spell it out in a five-thousand-volume letter. I would say how I have seen, close up, what Ressler wanted to crack through to. How I have felt it, sustained the chase in myself. How the urge to strip the noise from the cipher is always the desire to say what it means to be able to say anything, to read some part of what is written here, without resort to intermediaries. To get to the generating spark, to follow the score extracted from the split lark. I would tell him, at least, sparing nothing, just what in the impregnable sum of journal articles sent Ressler quietly away, appalled, stunted with wonder.
I would tell him everything I have found. I would lay my notebooks open to him. How the helix is not a description at all, but just the infolded germ of a scaffolding organism whose function is to promote and preserve the art treasure that erects it. How the four-base language is both more and less than plan. How it comprises secret writing in the fullest sense, possessing all the infinite, extendable, constricting possibilities lying hidden in the parts of speech. How there is always a go-between, a sign between signature and nature.” (p. 515)
This is garbage. It’s purple, overlong, self-indulgent, and it borders on incoherent. It’s also what most of the book is like. I bet I have at least as much love and respect for the workings of heredity as as Richard Powers, and I can tell you that wading through hundreds of pages of this drivel was excruciating.
I’m sure I’m over-reacting. Maybe it isn’t fair to have such a strong aversion to someone’s writing style that you can’t even make a reasonable evaluation of their story, or their characters. But this writing is arduous. And it’s hard not to resent it for being so arduous when it feels as though the only problem is that Richard Powers, who is clearly a very imaginative and articulate person, just didn’t have the self-discipline to stop repeating himself.
And it makes it impossible to care about the plot, or about the characters, about the love stories or emotional journeys of anyone involved. By page 100, I was just holding on until the end – this was an endurance trial. This is one of those books that I only finished because I have a rule about finishing books that I start.
In my opinion, this is the greatest sin a writer can commit: letting his own pleasure in his verbiage overwhelm what’s best for the story, or the reader. It is unforgivable, letting your own pride come before the needs of the writing. I cannot forgive this in a writer, and I honestly cannot remember another writer who is this badly afflicted.
It is worth remembering that Powers was a youngish-writer when he wrote ‘Gold Bug Variations‘, and I will never hang a writer on one work. Maybe he’s gotten better, calmer, sparer. Maybe he’s employed an editor since 1991. I’m not damning the man – I’m damning the novel.
But I can tell you this: I will need a lot of convincing before read this man’s damn tree novel.