Wednesday, March 07, 2007

"What could be simpler?"

"Nothing deserved wonder so much as our capacity to feel it."

I've been bowled over.

The book:
The Gold Bug Variations, by Richard Powers.

The plot:

Of further interest:
Richard Powers as part of a panel discussion on the cultural gap between literature and science.

My initial impressions:

The impact:
I am in awe not only of this book and the ideas expressed therein, but of the effect of it's had on me. I love books, I do, but I'm always skeptical of people who readily proclaim favourites, or top 10s — so many books, and so many good ones, how can one choose? Today's favourites, for many, are often forgotten tomorrow. I understand the relative, and embrace it, but only insofar as it's an indicator of the definite. I want certainty. If I say "favourite," I mean forever; I won't say anything if I think I might be wrong.

I roll my eyes at people saying they did not want a book to end. But suddenly, for the first time, I know this feeling; I deliberately dragged out the reading of the Variations because I did not want it to end. I roll my eyes at people saying they hesitate to read more of an author because they fear it cannot live up to the precedent of a beloved book. But suddenly, for the first time, I know this feeling too; for all its accolades, I cannot imagine The Echo Maker affecting me so profoundly.

(This was book 2 of my (6 600+-page books in 6 months) Chunkster Challenge.)

A note on the style:
I found the cadence of the wording odd at first. The omission of articles, definite and indefinite. Which reminds me of science writing. So often those articles are redundant — they're understood and obvious. Doing away with them has the weird effect of being both more concise and precise and more ambiguous at the same time.

An example and point:
"For a brief moment, he achieved a synthesis between scientist's certainty in underlying particulars and the cleric's awe at the unmappable whole."

Curiously, Glenn Gould is never named by name, but there's no question as to the identity of the pianist whose recording of The Goldberg Variations permeates this book. Curious because there's a big deal made of naming things, classification — the arbitrariness of it, but the rightness of it, the impossibility of it, but the necessity of it. Where all meaning begins.

"A flat-out fascination with the threat, soberly maintaining that the only thing to do when the world begins to end is to stand aside and paint it. Uncover it. Name it."

There's something — something I can't quite articulate — being said about art here — painting (which figures in the book), literature (by extrapolation), but especially music. It's beyond science, beyond knowing, yet it's key to one's ability to know anything else. Indeed, art and love, those inarticulate things, the only things to really mean anything.

The trick to it:
Zooming in close on the trees, scratching the bark under a microscope, drilling deep inside; and zooming out quick for the forest, a macroscopic blur of colour and movement from far overhead. Seeing both views at the same time. It's something I think I do well in work and in life.

In a minute, he recovered. "The trick to listening," he said, lifting me by the hand, "is to hear the pieces speaking to one another. To treat each one as part of an enormous anatomy still carrying the traces of everything that ever worked, seemed beautiful awhile, became too obvious, and had to be replaced. Music can only mean anything through other music. You have to be able to hear in Stockhausen that homage to the second Viennese school, in Schonberg the rearrangement of sweet Uncle Claude. And every new sleeper that Glass welds together gives new breath to that rococo clockmaker Haydn, as if only now, in 1980, can we at last hear what pleasing the Esterhazys is all about."

Some lessons:
"There are really only two careers that might be of any help. One can either be a surgeon or a musician." Which merits a discussion that leaves me tongue-tied.

"...he is struck by how much repetitive maintenance it takes just to exist. Existence is the cycle extraordinaire; everything tangent, constantly spinning just to stay in place." The everyday we try so hard to rise above is our purpose in life, the whole fucking point.

"One cannot step into the same theme twice."

A puzzle:
In sitting down to write this I thumbed through my copy for asterisked passages. Right at the front is something I meant to come back to.


I assumed it was a coded epigraph, but it seems it's a dedication, "which, according to Powers, remains unsolved but can be broken using a codex found in the final third of the book." Perhaps I'll crack it before I die. Perhaps it's meant for me.

The effect in toto:
I'll spend weeks to come listening to Bach like I've never listened to him before, and slipping in and out of infinite regress, resampling Godel, Escher, Bach. I will read Poe's The Gold Bug.

The Gold Bug Variations moves me the way Wings of Desire moves me (a favourite film). (I don't mean to draw nonexistent parallels here; the only obvious similarities are in their effect on me.)

(Hmm. Todd as an angel? A muse and a catalyst, outside of time. Who finally falls to earth.)

Variations on a theme, my theme.

He sits wedged in the inseam between wall and floor, listening, thinking that he can hear distant song straining the contour of a variation beyond the variation. He's lost it; accumulated stress pushes him into the realm of imaginary acoustics. But the trace is real, waving the air molecules however faintly. Then he figures it: the pianist singing, caught on record, humming his insufficient heart out. Transcribing the notes from printed page to keypress is not enough. Some ineffable ideal is trapped in the sequence, some further Platonic aria trail beyond the literal fingers to express. Sound that can only approximated, petitioned by this compulsory, angelic, off-key, parallel attempt at running articulation, the thirty-third Goldberg.

There's a thematic resonance: a contemplation of the human experience. How characters refer to each other: in Variations, "Friend"; in Wings, "Compañero." How we assign meaning to meaninglessness. How I hear these works speaking to each other. How we are pure potential.

When the child was a child,
It threw a stick like a lance against a tree,
And it quivers there still today.

The sense of interconnectedness. The awe.

For years, for ever, I was skeptical, but I'm coming round: maybe, in the end, just maybe, love really does conquer all. (What could be simpler?)

Nous sommes embarqués...


calliemiller said...

What a wonderful, wonderful review of such a divine writer. I LOVE when people fall in love with Powers. He really is...quite masterful at everything so much current fiction is simply not.

It was so wonderful to read your post that I want to re-read Gold Bug Variations again. This was one of the first books that made me realize the power of writing -- I remember thinking "If a book can make me feel like this...what must it be like to write a book that makes people feel like this?"

Wow. Thank you for the reminder.

Stefanie said...

Wow, I've heard the book was good but I think yours is the best endorsement for it ever. You make me want to run out to the bookstore and buy it and start reading it NOW.