Gold Bug Variations

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.

Richard Powers

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.

The Obelisk Gate

The Broken Earth: Book Two

By N. K. Jemisin

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

So, now I’ve had some time to think.

Sometimes, when you’re flying through a book, you don’t stop to think about why you’re loving it so much. This is especially true with plotty books – you don’t need to think about why it’s working, you can just lie back and enjoy the ride.

But it’s a worthwhile exercise, once you pause for breath. And I had a busy week at work, and so was forced to spend time NOT reading ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ trilogy, and so I thought about it.

I want to be clear: this pause was not voluntary. I need to work to eat; otherwise, I would have chewed all the way through the series without washing or sleeping. But, like I said, it was a busy week, so I only just now finished ‘The Obelisk Gate‘, the second book in ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ series.

And I know that ‘The Obelisk Gate‘ is technically a separate book, but the entire series really reads like one book, one story, and I am only taking the time to stop and write about this installment for the sake of personal discipline. So, for coherence, I will probably refer to the trilogy as a single work, which it clearly is.

And I’ve been thinking a lot about why the trilogy is so good. And…

I don’t know.

The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ trilogy is about a world that is ending. And I suspect that, like all stories that are about the world ending, it is really about the evil which people do, which comes out of us naturally, inevitably, like breath. About the primitive, tribal cruelties that we perpetrate, in all times, all places, when we are frightened.

There’s a question I wonder sometimes: do you have to understand a novel to love it?

There are two ways to say what a novel is about. Let’s take an easy one: what is ‘The Scarlet Letter’ about? Well, technically, it’s about a woman being punished for adultery through sartorial intervention.

But, obviously, that’s not what it’s really about about. ‘The Scarlet Letter’ is about sin, and guilt, and hypocrisy. It’s about how God is all-knowing and all-loving and we are not, and so when man’s law tries to approximate God’s law, the discrepancy will necessarily result in injustice. It’s about humility.

See what I mean? There’s about, and then there’s about about.

I know what ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ trilogy is about. Jemisin is a clear, effective writer, much more than most science fiction or fantasy writers. Even when she is describing things which are actually beyond description, she is never hard to follow or understand. She’s really good.

But I am not at all sure that I know what this trilogy is about about.

On the most superficial level, ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ trilogy is an allegory about racism and xenophobia and otherness. It’s about human cruelty, and about whether we are capable of preserving our humanity, our ability to be kind to the other, when we are desperate, or in danger, or facing extinction. And the fact that this allegory is obvious a) doesn’t mean that it isn’t a valuable metaphor (it isn’t as though we’ve solved this problem, so, by all means, let’s keep working it through in prose) and b) doesn’t mean that it’s all that’s going on in these novels.

I also suspect that it is about about climate change. Bear with me: the premise of ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ trilogy, tectonically-speaking, is that humans, at the acme of their civilization, committed an act which so permanently destabilized the earth’s crust that it threatens the survival of everything on it. This is understood by all living human inhabitants of the earth as its revenge, that the earth is essentially, permanently, hostile to human life. That seems pretty clear to me.

But the problem with explicating allegory is that it makes the work seem preachy, or academic, or pedantic, and that is emphatically not the case here. In fact, the lack of pedantry is partly why I’m having trouble discerning the allegory.

So, am I allowed to love a story without understanding the allegory?

Obviously, the answer is yes – I can enjoy it any way I want. I can even enjoy it while totally misunderstanding the allegory. But (and honestly, this may be wrong) I think that understanding the allegory makes the experience of the books richer. And I know that this makes me sound like a complete nerd, but I am a complete nerd, and I really do enjoy a book more when I understand not only the story, but also the other stories which the story is referencing, the moral questions it is obliquely pondering, the historical events which it is recapitulating. They make me appreciate the story more, the skill of its writing, the depth of its thought.

And when you know, or suspect, that a story has these extra layers, and you aren’t quite getting them, it’s disorienting, like when you fall asleep in the middle of a movie and miss a whole bunch of plot. You might technically understand the ending, but can you say that you really understood the movie?

Not really, and so I don’t feel like I can say that I understand ‘The Obelisk Gate‘, and it’s making me feel very insecure, because I really, really like it. I want to understand it, and so I’ve been thinking about it.

N. K. Jemisin

One of the most salient threads which runs through the first two novels of ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ is that our fundamental selves are revealed through our treatment of our children. This is true on the level of the society as well as on the level of the individual. Children are a major, major part of ‘The Broken Earth’ books – love for them, grief for the loss of them, rage at the people who hurt them.

And cruelty to children winds through the books. There is an idea which pervades the entire trilogy (so far) that, in health, children are loved and cherished, protected and cared for. It is only in sickness that we allow them to be tortured or mutilated, abandoned or killed.

Earth has become a sick place, and the question which Jemisin is asking is, is it possible to be a healthy person in a sick place? Can you bring children into a sick world, raise them in a sick society, love them healthily when you cannot truly keep them safe? When the society in which they will grow up might abuse or murder them, use them or break them? When the very earth on which they walk might drive them and every one they love to extinction at any moment?

What does parental love even mean in that context? Parents love their children, ideally. Parents will do anything, risk anything, for their health and happiness – what does that mean in a world where health and happiness are impossible? What happens to love in a world like that?

It curdles, turns inward into rage, becomes destructive, deadens. Twists and becomes murderous in its turn. Even love becomes impossible, in a sick world.

Now that I think about it, this is kind of what ‘1984’ is also about. Actually, this is exactly what ‘1984’ is about: the idea that in a totalitarian society, even love, even private, romantic love, is impossible, because there is no private space for a human heart to have something normal and good, like love.

And, in ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ trilogy, that’s true of parents, too: on a hostile earth, where we are threatened at every turn, where constant fear and danger have made us base and mean and vicious, we can’t even love our children. Because loving children is hopeful, and hope requires a future, and in a world with no future there’s no way to love them – it’s too painful.

I know that I’m not making ‘The Obelisk Gate‘ sound fun – I’m probably making it sound like the world’s bleakest book about parenting. It is fun, in a bleak, scary way. It’s one of the most absorbing books I’ve read in years, and, as I mentioned last time, I honestly just resent the time I have to spend here, writing about it, instead of thinking about it. It’s so, so good.