[7 December 2009]
Is there any new ground to cover in the literary avant-garde, or has every form of postmodern experimentation been attempted by now? Wasn’t there an entire book written without the letter “e”? In 1939? A book full of blank pages? How can one break free of the confines of the short story or the novel or the play and create something original? Are these the questions Padgett Powell asked himself before writing The Interrogative Mood: A Novel?, a book in which every sentence takes the form of a question?
Whew. Writing a paragraph made up entirely of questions is tiring. But reading a 176-page barrage of inane, non-sequitur questions is downright exhausting. The book’s subtitle asks us to read Powell’s fifth book as a work of fiction, though nothing in the text suggests that this work is a novel or that the “asker” of these questions is a fictional creation and not Powell himself. Pages upon pages of questions on any number of topics, high and low, are addressed directly to the reader.
Are we supposed to infer plot through the order of his non-sequiturs? Characterization through the words he chooses to use when forming sentences? If this is a novel, in some Dada sense of the word, it looks awfully similar to a list.
Powell, an author perhaps best known for his National Book Award-nominated novel Edisto, teaches in the University of Florida’s MFA creative writing program. His stories have appeared in the New Yorker, Harper’s, the Paris Review, Esquire, and anthologies such as Best American Short Stories. But this flirtation with the experimental reads more like an exercise from a creative writing course (Assignment: Write under some limiting constraints) than the polished work of a professional.
It would be quite possible to merely dismiss The Interrogative Mood: A Novel? as a quirky diversion, a book to keep oneself occupied for 30 minutes on the subway ride to work. But frustration lies in the fact that the literary establishment seems to treat this book and its author as anything but a simple amusement. Saul Bellow tells us on the front book jacket flap that Powell sits at the top of his list of “the best American writers of the younger generation”.
Literary wunderkind Jonathan Safran Foer occupies the back cover: “This book will sear the unlucky volumes shelved on either side of it. How it doesn’t, itself, combust in flames is a mystery to me.” Combust in flames? Perhaps all those question marks rubbing together at the turn of every page produce a stick-on-stick effect.
Granted, a book full of questions is not, in itself, a particularly terrible idea. In fact, Powell follows in the grand traditions of Rene Descartes and Plato, men who sought revelation through questioning. The Interrogative Mood: A Novel? could have been a worthy contemporary answer to these classics. When I started reading this book, I wrote down a list of the “big questions” I expected Powell to address, albeit hopefully in a more creative way: What is the meaning of justice? What causes normal people to do bad things? What happens when we die? What is the meaning of life?
But Powell is more concerned with cheekiness than he is about revelation. He seems to repeatedly pat himself on the back for the randomness of his choices. The author shows a predilection for questions about viscous liquids, bird species, pet-owners, coniferous trees, handguns, velvet, milkmen, tree bark, model trains, jawbreakers, nakedness, and the elegance of foxes. If this list sounds slapdash and random, it should. Because it is.
Many of Powell’s questions are standard retreads of folksy musings from the likes of Ogden Nash or Andy Rooney or even a 1980s stand-up comic (“Is it correct to say an orange is eponymous? Why is a banana yellow and not banana?”). Other questions amount to silly wordplay (“If a tornado is a torrent of wind, is a hurricane a horrent of wind?”). Sometimes Powell simply asks us if we are aware of the definitions of weird words and phrases (“politochnaceous impulses,” “transudate,” “porphyrogenitu,” or “bogolusian”) or if we can identify subtleties in nature (“Do you know the difference when they are on the wing between a gull and a tern?” “Can you tell a heron from an egret at long range?” “Is there a difference between a bobcat and a lynx?”).
Other times, we are asked to indulge Powell in a campfire game of would-you-rather (Die in a plane crash or a car crash? Get beaten with a board or a chain? Have no eyelids or shoot yourself?). Perhaps the most insufferable form of questions are the faux-philosophical, those meant to evoke something—an emotion? a thought?—through their maddening simplicity. “Are bluebirds perfect?” he asks. This, and similar questions, are never as illuminating or poetic as Powell seems to think they are.
Nonetheless, there are insightful moments hidden in this book somewhere, but they get lost among the gimmickry. Powell is obviously thoughtful, with a sensitive eye towards the subtleties of human existence and the ironies of modern society. You cannot help but smirk, for example, when he asks: “Would a catastrophic global war be required to restore us to simple living?” or “If you could have a famous writer, dead or alive, write an obituary for you… what writer would you choose?” or “At what age would you say your character was set—that is, when do you think you were you?” He is on to something. The best of his questions are the ideal fodder for a perfect little five-minute cocktail party conversation. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the majority of questions that clog these pages.
Powell never ruminates on the “serious” issues—anything mildly thought-provoking would be enough, really—for longer than a sentence or two before returning to the silly and the frivolous. We bounce from radishes to vegetarian veterinarians to boiled kittens (don’t ask) without stopping for a second to consider our own answers. The book amounts to a rapid fire interrogation that only succeeds in switching our brain from image to unrelated image, like a remote control flipping through channels.
Alas, Powell is more concerned with gulls and terns than he is with life and death.
A final question: who cares?