The astonishing power of Richard Powers

How a conversation with the legendary writer inspired me to reconsider technology, culture, family, everything

Published February 9, 2014 4:00PM (EST)

Richard Powers     (W.W. Norton)
Richard Powers (W.W. Norton)

In tones both ominous and beautiful, like the singing of medieval monks, the last line of an email sent to me by the novelist Richard Powers echoes through my head as I drive from Berkeley, Calif., to his home in Stanford.

"I look forward to hearing from you and to meeting you, as well as to meeting your father's son!"

Yes, I am my father's son, about to interview a writer that my father championed, a writer who later tells me he believes he owes his National Book Award to an essay my father wrote about him in the New York Review of Books, an essay that, Powers says, "put me on the map."

So I am intimidated. If there is one thing that links my father and Richard Powers, besides their mutual critical regard and friendship, it is the challenging and dazzling quality of their prose. I've spent my writer's life riffing; they have constructed symphonies, complex structures designed not just to last, but to recapitulate and elucidate all the torment and brilliance of the cultures that surround them, all the "heft and weight and bruise of the world," as Powers later puts it.

Such has been true of all of Powers' great works, including his breakthrough novel "Galatea 2.2," a tale of artificial intelligence and romance that beat "Her" to the punch by almost 20 years; his masterpiece, "The Time of Our Singing," an epic saga of race and relativity; his virtual reality dazzler, "Plowing the Dark"; and his National Book Award winner, "The Echo Maker." It is certainly true of "Orfeo," a novel that plunges into typically deep waters: life after 9/11, technology's restless reshaping of culture, the metastasizing surveillance state, and most of all, the history, meaning and direction of music. Powers doesn't write ditties. (He doesn't, I come to learn, even much like to listen to ditties.) This is, of course, why my father adored him. Powers hunts big game.

From "The Novels of Richard Powers," by my father, John Leonard:

How to get from this abandonment, these abductions and displacements, the atomic desert, the cancer ward, the internment camp, the children's hospital, corporate greed, and machine dreams, to Arles and Eden, base harmonies and pentimento, sanctuary and the meaning of the code -- this is the brilliant project of Richard Powers. Everybody else just talks about alienation, estrangement, and the unbearable lightness of being. He actually does something about them. And what he does isn't to take a hike or a powder or a rain check or a pharmaceutical, not even a God pill. He will use everything we know from our higher brain functions about mind and body and art and longing, to find patterns and close distances. That we are around in the first place to contemplate our abandonment is pure luck and odd chance, no thanks to divine madness, and all the more reason to cherish every minute, mote, and note of it -- the banned image, the forbidden fruit, the stolen fire, the random neuron.

A father's son reads that passage, and quails. What's left to say? Mozart is dead, and I'm whistling a low-fidelity Macklemore sample. My fingers tap out a desperate beat on the steering wheel.

* * *

Richard Powers greets me at the door of a low-slung ranch-style house right in the middle of the Stanford campus. He and his wife, Jane, have only been here since October, after Powers accepted an endowed chair: "The Phil and Penny Knight Professor of Creative Writing." It's a big trade, the Midwest for Silicon Valley, but it seems an appropriate move for a writer who taught himself how to code in the 1970s, and who wrote a book, "The Gold Bug Variations," in which the mysteries of DNA explain the mysteries of the narrative. (My father called Gold Bug a "detective story deep enough to swallow Pynchon's 'Rainbow,' Nabokov's 'Pale Fire' and DeLillo's 'Underworld.'" Three novels, incidentally, he required me to read.)

The house is sparely furnished, but Powers is warm and friendly. He asks about my stepmother. He gives the appearance of someone who weighs every word, but his laugh is quick and embracing.

I have something that I think will tickle his fancy. I have a brought a copy of "Lonesome Rangers: Homeless Minds, Promised Lands, Fugitive Cultures," a collection of my father's criticism in which the 8,000-word "The Novels of Richard Powers" essay is reprinted. I wonder if Powers realizes that the phrase "lonesome rangers" first appears in the Powers essay. The choice of those words for the title strikes me as a sweet grace note to Powers' welcoming email, a sign that the connection between the two writers was deeper than I previously knew. I show him where I underlined the words.

I tell Powers that I had the oddest experience reading "Orfeo." As I underlined noteworthy sentences and dog-eared pages, I recalled that the copies of Powers' novels I read in the past had often been hand-me-downs from my father, pre-publication galleys marked up with my father's notes and dog-ears. Making my own notes, I could feel my father's ghost hovering. Surely he too would have written an exclamation point next to the line, "How music blurred the line between prophecy and recall." Surely he too would have dog-eared the entire section retelling the story of how the French composer Messiaen wrote "Quartet for the End of Time," his elegy for civilization's fall, while a prisoner in a German POW camp during WWII.

But then I started underlining my father's words about Powers in "Lonesome Rangers." ("Boy, is he smart.") Commentary on commentary, layer within layers; it was like some crazy family-size version of the Talmud. A self-referential structure elaborating upon its own themes, like one of the pieces of music that "Orfeo's" protagonist, Peter Els, a retired music professor and longtime avant-garde composer, is obsessed with.

I figure this is the right place to begin with a writer as clever as Powers. I tell him that the very process of note-taking has reminded me of the convoluted, intricate structures that are characteristic of all of Powers' novels.

"Orfeo," for example, boasts three simultaneous narratives. There is the protagonist in the present, on the run from Homeland Security agents who think he is a bioterrorist. There is the protagonist journeying through his past, dredging up all his life choices and wrong turns, a journey that, Powers later tells me, is meant to recapitulate "a history of compositional music in the 20th century." And there's a narrative from the future, via tweets that Els writes near the end of his own story that are then interpolated throughout the novel, cryptic notes that only start to make sense once the action is all but finished.

So here's what I want to know: Is "Orfeo" a musical composition? Does the narrative structure reflect the music that clamors on every page?

Richard Powers nods.

"For me, that's always the goal," he says. "To try to get some kind of coherence between form and content. Once I knew that this was Peter Els' story, an Orpheus reworking, and that this guy saw the world and heard the world in terms of these symmetrical and complex and mathematical structures, then I did want to get some kind of congruency, to shape the book so it felt like a meta-fictional representation of the kinds of compositions he was writing.

"In particular," he continues, "the structure in which there is a figure ground into play between the story that unfolds over the course of a few days and the story of a lifetime -- there is a contrapuntal motion between the two in which the back story rises up and works its way into the present and you don't actually understand what you are reading in the present until the end.

"If I had to say what is the musical shape of the book -- what is the musical form that's being parodied? I'd say it is kind of a progressive ritornello. There's that constant return of the initial A material, that's being intercut with the changing, in this case progressing, interlude. It's not exactly theme and variations; you're coming back to a sort of unchanging material that's changing by virtue of the fact that the interlude material is catching up to it, and reconfiguring what you think you're looking at."

"Contrapuntal" is a word I understand. But I make a note to look up the word "ritornello." It is, Wikipedia later tells me, music characterized by a "reinviting passage." It dates back to the Baroque era and was popular with Bach, Vivaldi and Handel. Bach's "Brandenburg Concertos" are perhaps the most famous examples of the form.

Two weeks after the interview, while writing this piece, seeking my own contrapuntal rhythm between Powers in the present and my father in the past, I shake my head and smile. My father adored "The Brandenburg Concertos." It was imprinted on me from the earliest age; the first piece of classical music I included as part of my own musical collection. It is as familiar to me as the melody to "I Should Have Known Better." So what's so hard to understand? Why be intimidated, by either the past or the present?

* * *

I am supposed to talk to Powers about the surveillance state. This is the year of Edward Snowden, after all, I write about technology and politics, and a major theme of "Orfeo" is the (obviously justified) paranoia of the protagonist, Peter Els, who believes that government authorities will track his whereabouts through his phone and ATM card. The post-9/11 culture of fear, which embraces the new potentialities of technology as passionately as any teenager fiddles with a smartphone, is crucial to "Orfeo."

But we never get to the terror and the NSA, because we can't stop talking about the music. Shostakovich and Mahler, Beyoncé and McCoy Tyner, Radiohead and Steve Reich. We jump from a discussion of the influence of the piano's invention on classical music to contemplating what Spotify means for kids today. We divert ourselves into so many sidetracks that, as Powers at one point ruefully notes, "we have so many open parentheses" in our conversation that we're in danger of  losing our way.

Which, in a sense, is one way of analogizing what happened to serious music in the 20th century, a mystery that is one of Peter Els' primary preoccupations.

"Orfeo" pulls off an extraordinary feat. It binds into one comprehensible narrative the entire modern history of music, with special attention and consideration given to the "smash-up moment" -- that crisis when avant-garde composers pushed so far into undiscovered territory that they lost almost their entire audience. Powers' mission is to make sense of what so many of us, listening with furrowed brows, just don't get. He makes the inaccessible comprehensible, so much so that I found myself constantly reaching for my laptop to call up from YouTube the music that Peter Els was obsessing over, to listen with ears newly receptive after the blandishments of Powers' prose.

"Orfeo" is about a man grappling with a major aesthetic crisis. As one of the conductors of the cultural locomotive that chugged straight into that smash-up moment, Peter Els has a lot to account for. But he could be no other way.

"This is the crisis of his life," explains Powers. "He wants music that is both transgressive -- novel and revolutionary, even subversive and dangerous -- but he wants it to connect to this long ongoing tradition. One in which there is a narrative, there is a forward motion, there is a meaningful story that can be apprehended and decoded. He wants that thing that the ear can't hear yet. "

Technology, if not a villain here, is at least an enabler. "Orfeo," says Powers, is "a reflection of the crisis in all kinds of artistic production that we arrive at once we have a permanent means of recording and transmitting."

At first I don't understand what he's getting at. I ask Powers about a scene early in the novel, when Els is jogging behind a woman at a park, watching her play with her MP3 player.

A thousand and one nights of continuous hits, all inside a metal matchbox ... A player filled with her private reserve, and still the random shuffle produced dozens of songs in a row that had to be killed ... A server farm on the far side of the planet was piping down one hundred million tracks of recorded music into her blood pressure cuff, and none suited. The job of taste was to thin the insane torrent of human creativity down to manageable levels. But the job of appetite was never to be happy with taste. How many tunes did anyone need? One more. The next new one.

How many tunes does anyone need? I hear a tinge of high-culture snobbery and I won't accept it. I challenge Powers: Isn't this profusion qualitatively better than the scarcity we suffered through when we were teenagers, with our options to hear new music restricted to a couple of radio stations and the nearest mall's record store? My teenage self is insanely envious of my son's contemporary instant access, to, well, everything.

Powers pounces. "And what does he listen to?" he asks.

I tell him, proudly, that my son is in a constant state of discovery, and start to veer the conversation into a discussion of Austrian techno-swing. And at first, Powers continues to nod.

"I think that's the best aspect of this new universal ubiquitousness," he says. "Kids are in a state of permanent eclectic voyage, free to cross any lines."


And then he unloads.

"Suppose you were born in 1962 and you are coming into your own and music starts to become essential to you," says Powers. "You are right on the tail end of that sort of folk rock thing, but you are aware historically of how these guys were revolting in a way against the previous generation. And because of the nature of the distribution mechanisms that you talk about, where it's two radio stations and one record store, there's a saturation effect for whatever is in vogue and there has to be a countervailing cultural move just to refresh our ears. And that's the start of punk.

"So you can see these revolutions and counter-revolutions and you can see a historical motion to popular music and it's thrilling and you want to know what happens next. The state that you just described of permanent wonderful eclectic ubiquitous interchangeable availability -- there's no sense of historical thrust."

Now, I'm starting to get it. Universal ubiquity has blown up the narrative.

"When all music is available to everybody all the time," says Powers, "first of all, there can be no sense of something radically new and, second, you may never have the capacity to focus and concentrate yourself, a process which requires really filtering out a lot of noise in order to see the urgency of any particular utterance."

Cue the sound of a phonograph needle scratching disastrously across vinyl. Powers and I are roughly the same generation -- he's six years older -- but hearing him articulate this critique provokes a déjà vu moment, a flashback to a diatribe my father delivered not long before he died on the implicit superficiality of our emergent wired culture. My father was convinced that our mashed-up, sample-everything, all- culture-high-and-low-simultaneously-available zeitgeist,  was an ADHD-enabling disaster, devastatingly undermining our ability to reach deeper and think harder.

But that's my culture. My, uh, generation. That's where I live, right now, in the middle of constant distraction, endlessly interrupted by tweets and Facebook chimes and texts from friends and family, infatuated with the latest riff, too impatient to sit through the hard stuff. Is this why I haven't written any symphonies? Because I'm too busy sharing another YouTube video?

* * *

In the myth of Orpheus, "the father of songs" fails to rescue his lost wife, Eurydice, from Hades because he looks back to check on her before the two of them safely reach the "upper world." In "Orfeo" the bulk of the novel is devoted to one long look back, as Peter Els revisits all his wrong choices and fateful turns, his abandonment of his marriage, his falling out with his best friend, his musical career suicide.

One mark of a great storyteller is the ability to lead the reader to reflect upon his or her own choices as a grand narrative unfolds. With my father's ghost looking over my shoulder, I found that Peter Els' journey forced me down into my own nether regions, my own broken marriage, my own career inadequacies, my own paths not taken.

While reading my father's essay "The Novels of Richard Powers," I realized a strange thing. I didn't recall ever having read it before. This seemed unlikely -- and unseemly. How could I have been such an unfilial child, not to have read one of my father's most carefully crafted works of criticism concerning a writer that thrilled both of us -- a writer whose new releases we anticipated as eagerly as the 1960s greeted new Beatles albums? There was a reason why I read my father's marked-up copies. I was too eager to wait for the actual publication date!

Upon further reflection, I realized that my father's Powers essay was published at a moment when a malignant sinkhole seemed intent on swallowing up my life. My marriage was collapsing. My plans to write a second book had foundered. I had moved, more or less against my will, from writing about technology to an editing position.

And in my moment of weakness, I no longer had the fortitude to resist the jealousy and sense of self-doubt inspired by my father's relationship with Powers.

To choose willingly to become a writer when your father is one of the best writers you know is a dicey proposition to start with, especially if you are a competitive person. When my father turned 30, he was the youngest editor in chief in the history of the New York Times Book Review. When I turned 30, I was writing freelance movie reviews for the San Francisco Bay Guardian.

But I figured out the Internet and computers before my father did, and I made the new emerging digital culture my own. And because of this, I initially considered Powers to be in my bailiwick. We were the same generation, after all. We were glomming on to the transformative impact of digital technology at the same time, surfing on the same tsunami.

But I never ended up writing about him, because my father swooped in and made him his own. I wasn't competitive enough to try to match my words about Powers against my father's. Embarrassingly, by the time my father was concentrating his full talents on Powers' oeuvre, I couldn't even muster the wherewithal to read him. And so I ceded the field. I lost my appetite for the hard stuff. I let intimidation get the best of me.

In retrospect, it seems pretty dumb.

I find myself explaining all this to Richard Powers, a psychotherapeutic tactic that I don't normally employ when conducting interviews. I open up my copy of "Lonesome Rangers" and find a page I had dog-eared the previous day. I read him a section I have underlined, one in which my father cites his relationship to me as one reason why he felt qualified to fling himself against Powers' dauntingness.

Now although I ran away from organic chemistry in college as if it were conscription, my brother was a math major, my son is the technology editor of the online magazine, and my son's mother is a neuroanatomist who once explained the synaptic cleft to me. So I'm a little less freaked by hard science than many of my peers ... Like the character who calls himself "Richard Powers" in Galatea 2.2, I try for the gist and take the rest on faith. Still, Gold Bug hurt my head. The question is, why shouldn't a novel hurt a head that needs it?"

All too often, we stray from those urgent utterances because we don't want our heads to hurt. And we do ourselves a disservice. My head ached after first reading that paragraph. I owed my father's ghost an apology. My stubborn sense of self-eclipse had deprived me of hearing a shout-out, a sweet whistle of recognition -- hey look, my son gets technology, so that gives me the credit to bang my head on it, too. A little joke, but one I would have appreciated.

Intimidation is a sucker's game. My swirl of remembrance put me in a receptive mood to read and reread a call to creative arms in "Orfeo"; a passage in which Els is thinking to himself while contemplating the budding genius of one of his students.

Let no one persuade you of a single thing. Study your hunger and how to feed it. Trust in whatever sounds twist your viscera. Write in the cadences of first love, of second chances, of air raids, of outrage, of the hideous and the hilarious, of headlong acceptance or curt refusal. Make the bitter music of bumdom, the sad shanties of landlessness, cool at the equator and fluid at the pole. Set the sounds that angels make after an all-night orgy. Whatever lengthens the day, whatever gets you through the night. Make the music that you need, for need will be over, soon enough. Let your progressions predict time's end and recollect the dead as if they're all still here. Because they are.

Oh yes, yes they are. I tell Powers that after reading "Orfeo" and then reading my father writing about Powers I have come to the conclusion that I have no choice but to go meta, as Powers does so often in his own novels. I will use Powers to write about my relationship with my father -- and music, and aesthetic crises!

He is delighted. "That is fantastic," he says. "Phenomenal. That makes me very happy."

Richard, Jane and I go out to dinner in Palo Alto. The digital recorder is turned off. We toast my father. We talk about "the Internet." I do my best to defend the utility and promise of social media in the face of intrigued skepticism. And I think, how my father would have loved this conversation. How he would have loved "Orfeo." How he would have gotten a kick out of the idea that more than a decade after he'd written his critical appreciation of Powers and half a decade after his death, his words were spurring my creative juices.

So this is where we end. On my way back up the peninsula to Berkeley, I'm tapping a new, happier cadence on the steering wheel. A tune I can't wait to start putting into words. It's the music that I need.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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