“We’re all driven by hosts of urges, some chaotic and Dionysian, some formal and Apollonian,” Richard Powers said in an interview with The Believer last year. “The need for knowledge is as passionate as any other human obsession. And the wildest of obsessions has its hidden structure.”
Structure is an important idea for Powers, the rare novelist with a truly scientific mind. When he talks about story structure specifically, the levels “from diction on up to meaning,” he creates a metaphor of cells and nuclei, organs and systems. He studied rhetoric, math, and physics in college, and it has stuck with him—his mind caught in the web of the scientific process while his eyes are trained on social and emotional interactions, beautiful images, sounds, and language.
Powers grew up in Illinois and Bangkok, Thailand, where his father served as principal of an international school. As a boy, he was an accomplished musician, playing the cello, guitar, clarinet, and saxophone, and he read voraciously, especially science and biography. He attended the University of Illinois, earning both his undergraduate and graduate degrees. From there he moved to Boston and worked as a computer programmer, a job that proved easier to land and far more lucrative than teaching literature. On Saturday mornings, when admission was free, he would roam through the Museum of Fine Arts, and it was there that he officially launched his writing career. He happened upon Arthur Sander’s 1914 photograph, “Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance,” depicting three young German men walking along a road on the eve of World War I. “All of my previous year’s random reading just consolidated and converged on this one moment, this image,” Powers said, “which seemed to me to be the birth photograph of the twentieth century.” Two days later he gave notice and sat down to write his first book.
Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance explored the idea of looking for and at the self through the lens of history, interweaving the stories of two individuals whose lives intersect thanks, in part, to the Sander photograph. The novel received high praise and, buoyed by the acclaim, Powers moved to Holland to embark upon his second and third novels, Prisoner’s Dilemma and The Gold Bug Variations. In 1992, he was invited to be a writer-in-residence at his alma mater, the University of Illinois, and he has taught there ever since. In 1998, he was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. Along the way, his novels Operation Wandering Soul, Galatea 2.2, Gain, Plowing the Dark, and The Time of Our Singing have garnered wide readership and praise, along with a MacArthur Fellowship (1989), a Lannan Literary Award (1999), a Corrington Award for Literary Excellence, and the Dos Passos Prize for Literature. The Echo Maker, “a haunting novel about memory, identity, and the boundaries of neuroscience,” according to Booklist, won the National Book Award and numerous “Best Book of the Year” awards in 2006. Powers was named one of five “Writers of the Decade” by Esquire magazine in 1999. It would not be surprising to see his name again on the list for the first decade of the new millennium.
Excerpt from The Echo Maker (2006)
“Echolalia,” Dr. Hayes called it. “Perseveration. He’s imitating what he hears.”
Karin would not be dimmed. “If he can say a word, it must mean something, right?”
“Ah! You’re pushing up against questions neurology can’t answer yet.”
Mark’s speech traced the same tight loops his walking did. One afternoon it was “chick, chick, chick, chick,” for most of an hour. It sounded like a symphony to her. Rousing him for a walk, Karin said, “Come on, Mark, let’s tie your shoes.” This launched a barrage of “tie shoes, tissues, die your noose.” He kept it up until she, too, felt brain-damaged. But exhilarated: in the hypnotic repetition, she thought she heard “too tight shoes.” A few loops later, he produced, “Shoofly, don’t tie me.”
The words had to mean something. Even if they weren’t quite thoughts, he flung them with the force of meaning. She was walking him down a crowded hospital corridor when Mark popped out with “Got a lot on our plates right now.”
She threw her arms around him and squeezed him in joy. He knew. He could say. All the reward she needed.
He pulled free and turned away. “You’re turning that dirt into clay.”
She followed his gaze. There in the hall’s hum, she finally heard it. With an animal precision hers had lost, his ears picked up stray pieces of the surrounding conversations and wove them together. Parrots exhibited more native intelligence. She pulled his chest up against her face and began to cry.
“We’ll get through this,” he said, his arms dead at his sides. She pushed him back and examined his face. His eyes said less than nothing.
The Echo Maker (2006)
The Time of Our Singing (2003)
Plowing the Dark (2000)
Galatea 2.2. (1995)
Operation Wandering Soul (1993)
The Gold Bug Variations (1991)
Prisoner’s Dilemma (1988)
Three Farmers On Their Way to a Dance (1985)