Because readers can’t make time even for their favorite authors these days, I propose that some kind of graphic be appended to Richard Powers‘ stories and novels. A good designer would be required to nail it down, but the graphic would allow you to see, at a glance, whether a Powers work features thoughtful, full-blooded portraits of human beings or just makes them playthings of a heartless god-author determined to remind us how we’re just cogs in a machine. That way, you could decide quickly whether a Powers work is right for you, depending on how sick at heart you are about humanity. The Echo Maker and Gain could have, say, a heart-shaped sticker, or some slickly Chip Kidd-ish smiley face; Plowing the Dark could have an image of, I don’t know, a DSL router or something.
“To the Measures Fall,” which ran in the October 18 issue of the New Yorker, is a DSL router-ish kind of story, one whose thoughtful conceit doesn’t quite cover up its cynicism. The story is a study of the fickle nature of literary reputations, as told through a woman’s relationship with a mythical novel, Elton Wentworth’s To the Measures Fall, a British World War I saga published in 1948. Scratch that: Though its main character is a woman, the story is written in the second person, to better underscore how we, the reader, are implicated in the rep-making system. Her subjective relationship with fiction is your subjective relationship with fiction.
The story’s protagonist first discovers Wentworth’s novel as a literature student in the 60s, poor enough that she has to decide which novels to keep and which to lose to avoid excess baggage charges. Her calculus back then is whether a book will actually matter in the years to come (“Who knows how long Updike will be read?”), though soon enough she’ll meet Wentworth on his own terms, discovering a charm, depth, and intelligence in To the Measures Fall she missed the first time; “You can’t read,” she discovers, awestruck, in a bone-dry but emotionally resonant sentence that Powers is especially skilled at deploying at the appropriate moment. It is decided: The rest of her life will be dedicated to defending Wentworth’s honor.
Which suffers quite a bit. British critics may love Wentworth, but he’s a nonentity in the United States (“the James Michener of the Midlands”), and by the 90s “scholars of all ranks show how Wentworth was the product of a thousand horrific cultural blindnesses and Eurocentric brutalities.” Powers clearly means to make a statement about how literature transcends all this, rises above the complexity of our outer lives, the merciless pokings of academics, and the bleating of book-club participants who can’t see the value of a book that doesn’t directly reflect their own experience. If only the main character weren’t relegated to a chill everyperson-hood herself, somebody whose life is a familiar assortment of turning points—courtship, marriage, children, divorce, attainment, death. If Wentworth’s novel is meant to illuminate this woman’s existence—our existence—throughout those decades, Powers isn’t especially concerned in showing how. To the Measures Fall is a novel that has a way of sticking around, but what it has to say to the reader who obsesses over it is constantly opaque. By the story’s close she rereads the novel and is filled with “something almost like knowing”—another very Powersian turn of phrase, in this case meant to dramatize the power of fiction. But the line comes off as condescending, as if this lifelong reader really and truly couldn’t read.
Perhaps as an attempt to complicate this, the story’s sections end with boldfaced questions relating to the novel’s value, spoken as if by God, or at least the author of an especially obnoxious reading-group guide. “How much do you offer the junkstore owner for the used book?” “How many [Amazon] aliases do you create to rate the book?” “What percentage of your pleasure has gone out of the book forever?” The questions are meant ironically—discussing the value of a book in quantitative terms is comically beside the point. But the questions come in like horn blasts well after the point is made, and its final appearance is mawkish, mechanized. Every Powers fan has to tolerate a certain degree of that mechanization; if he courts readers’ impatience by arguing that our lives are often diminished by others’ political and business decisions, well, our lives are often diminished by others’ political and business decisions. But Powers is usually generous enough to give his characters the intellectual capacity to consider their own place in the machine. This time Powers lets us know, in bold letters, that somebody else is fully in charge. How much pomo intrusiveness can you abide before it’s clear the author has lost faith in characterization and instead prefers to assert how he’s got our number?