Home: A Conversation with Richard Powers and Tom LeClair

Home: A Conversation with Richard Powers and Tom LeClair

2008-03-09

Scott Hermanson presents a dialogue he conducted with novelists Richard Powers and Tom LeClair, at the University of Cincinnati in 2005. Moderated by Hermanson, the novelists discuss the intricacies of writing about nature, the role of history in the novel, and their fictions’ use of imitative form.

Ben Underwood:

LeClair has extended his notion of prodigious fiction in his essay on recent novels that rewrite canonical texts such as Lolita and Moby Dick among others.

2008-03-09
Ben Underwood:

The Critical Ecologies thread was established by Joseph Tabbi and Cary Wolfe in 1997, revisited by Andrew McMurray in 2006, and persists in the writings of Stephen Dougherty, Rob Swigart, and of course in the
present discussion.

2008-03-09

Richard Powers and Tom LeClair have distinguished themselves as leaders in each of their respective fields. Powers has long been acknowledged as one of America’s best writers, receiving the 2006 National Book Award for his most recent work The Echo Maker. LeClair is held in high esteem as a critic who has championed difficult postmodern writers such as Don DeLillo and William Gaddis along with being an influential voice in establishing Powers’ reputation. He has also written four novels with his most recent work The Liquidators published in the summer of 2006.

Powers and LeClair have a long history together, a woven fabric of mutual admiration. Early on, LeClair recognized that Powers was a novelist of stature. In his review of Powers’ second novel, Prisoner’s Dilemma, he described Powers as “a major American novelist,” directly comparing him to Thomas Pynchon. He wrote one of the first academic articles on Powers’ fiction, “The Prodigious Fiction of Richard Powers, William Vollmann and David Foster Wallace.” And LeClair is one of the coded dedicatees in Powers’ The Gold Bug Variations. Powers has also aided LeClair in his work. LeClair acknowledges his help in his book The Art of Excess, and in the discussion below, he recounts how Powers helped him in writing The Liquidators. They have even been previously linked together in an electronic book review essay when Steffen Hantke connected the two thinkers in a review of Powers’ Plowing the Dark and LeClair’s Well-Founded Fear.

In addition to their critical waltzes, Powers and LeClair share a common interest in the current state of the environment. “Ecology,” as LeClair notes in his first novel Passing Off, derives from the Greek word for “house,” oikos. And in that sense, both these authors are concerned with a variety of housing. They explore a multitude of architectures, the natural world being just one of the environments that house their characters. LeClair is best known for his critical work on what he calls the “systems novel,” a theory he developed in his books In the Loop and The Art of Excess. In these works, he reads such epic novels as DeLillo’s Ratner’s Star, Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and William Gaddis’s JR through their systems, their “orientation to wholes, structural relations and reciprocities, the proportions and scales of information” (Excess viii). In doing so, he articulates how these writers depict the vast structures that govern our lives. Powers’ works are perfectly suited for such a reading as they measure the effects of our political, cultural, geographic, capitalist and ecological systems. That last system, ecology, features heavily in a number of Powers’ novels.

Yet despite their investigations into the complicated ways humans relate to their environment, neither writer seems to be much recognized in green literary circles. More than anything this lack of ecocritical attention results from their respective writing styles and critical focus. Both writers are particularly concerned with literary formalism, giving prominent consideration to textual techniques that enlist the reader in consideration of language as much as the physical world. Such aesthetics are anathema to traditional nature writers and critics who have seen postmodern textual experimentation as dangerously disconnected and symptomatic of our alienation from the natural world. Indeed, the resurgence in nature writing and the relatively new field of ecocriticism has been labeled as a necessary correction to postmodern writing and theory. Sven Birkerts in an essay on the early formation of ecocriticism - ” Only God Can Make a Tree: The Joys and Sorrows of Ecocriticism” - suggested this very idea. Other writers, Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder come to mind, convey a distrust of thinking about nature that isn’t draped in a particular appreciation (or even worship) that arises from deep immersion in nature.

Yet this polarizing of techniques and themes unnecessarily and falsely delimits writing about nature. One need only look at Powers’ The Gold Bug Variations to see the ingenious way the formal structure of the novel supports the thematic concerns with nature and our place in it. The intricate, dual narrative of that novel mimics the double helical structure of DNA, creating a novel that both describes and embodies the wonder of a life built from four simple notes. As a novelist employing techniques associated with postmodern writing, Powers expands the textual arena for writing about nature. For Powers, how we understand nature is often about how we represent nature. His works celebrate the representation even as they attempt to understand the complexity of our ecology.

This pas de deux with reality - a dance that brings the reader closer to nature yet persists in reminding us that the text stands apart as a separate ecology - pervades both writers’ work. Traditional nature writers struggle with the challenges of presenting a more transparent depiction of nature, seeking how best to let a “true” nature be revealed in language. But Powers and LeClair recognize that language will distort nature regardless, and they do not hesitate to explore that distortion. They are fully aware of the tensions between the natural world and the linguistic slipperiness that tries to capture it. This concern can be seen as the central demarcation between what I’ve called econovelists and traditional nature writers. See, “Just Behind the Billboard: The Instability of Prisoner’s Dilemma.” Forthcoming in Intersections: Essays on Richard Powers. Ed. Stephen J. Burn and Peter Dempsey. Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive Press. The econovel revels in the ambiguity of its language, self-aware that the writing inherently disfigures the reality, that the map is not the territory. And this tension and ambiguity have only increased with the explosion of textual experience in the postmodern world. Our homes are now built of images and words. Our ecologies are now wired to bring us a constant stream of textual information: books, papers, magazines, and the omni-prevalent Internet. As Joseph Tabbi described it in his original introduction to the Critical Ecologies thread, “nature, and nature’s fate, is now implicated irrevocably in human-built ecosystems.” The works of Powers and LeClair accurately reflect this new textual ecology, perhaps more so than writers who cling to a nature apart from the hyper-reality of the contemporary world.

As a distinctive literary genre, the novel itself arose out of a desire to capture a new sense of identity in people as well as the paradigm-shifting changes in economics, politics and culture that accompanied the industrial revolution. In the turn of the century culture, the postmodern econovel dramatizes not only the protagonists’ struggle to understand their relationship with their environment - the human ecology - but the econovel also dramatizes the novelist’s struggle to depict this environment. Both are fraught with life-changing significance. We can look to thinkers like Powers and LeClair to guide us to this new home.

Under the auspices of the 2005 Ropes Lecture Series, the University of Cincinnati invited Richard Powers and Tom LeClair to discuss the intersection of literature and the environment. They were joined in this series by Lawrence Buell, David Quammen, Cheryl Glotfelty, and Joy Williams. The conversation below, before an audience of students and faculty, took place the day after Powers’ public lecture. The conversation began as a moderated discussion and finished with questions from the audience.

Scott Hermanson: Both of you are interested in environmental conditions, ecologies, and the ways systems affect individuals. Does devoting such scrutiny to these systems and environments affect your ability to write characters?

Tom LeClair: As authors, we share at least one thing. We are both top-down writers, rather than bottom up. We have ideas, things we want to deal with. Maybe we have forms, something at the upper level and then we have to hunt around for people who embody these ideas. Powers is much better at this, of course, but I think it is something we share. It might be a result of writing novels with big intents. I think its true of a number of writers concerned with environmental issues. I think it’s true, for example, of Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon. He started with a bunch of ideas and then did the research that would fill those out.

Richard Powers: I’m interested as a writer in throwing open what we mean by character. When we think of character, most of us immediately think of personality or temperament; and when we think of the novel, we think of this pleasurable and valuable form that allows us briefly to occupy someone else’s temperament, to inhabit a story that looks a little bit like our own, but isn’t. The novel allows us to travel abroad in the guise of these other personalities and temperaments that are both recognizable and estranging. But character is in fact much smaller and much larger than simply this middle, eye-level gauge. Temperament is just a single, unstable node in a web that fiction can trace all the way down into level as low as brain chemistry and all the way up into levels as complex as geopolitics and global history. For me, the goal of writing has always been to pull apart and to widen that little aperture of narrative identification and connect our sense of character both downwards and upwards - to represent our sense of self as a function of everything else there is.

Hermanson: Rick, this notion of opening up the realm of imagination beyond the human scale, beyond the three-score-and-ten immediacy of our personal time frame seems very central to your novel Gain. Isn’t the Clare Corporation the dark side of this scale, perhaps an unhealthy way of thinking beyond seventy years?

Powers: Gain is an attempt to understand America through the lens of a 170-year-old soap company, loosely based on Procter and Gamble. I was absolutely dumbfounded, in researching the book, to become aware of everything that we take for granted every time we buy even the simplest mass-market consumer commodity. The limited liability corporation has, in the eyes of the law, the status of an individual. This aggregate of 80,000 people has the legal status of an individual, with all the rights and protections guaranteed by the law to individuals. No one who puts forward money as a stockholder in such a company can be sued for any crimes that that company commits. Their liability is limited as investors in the company. In short, we have managed to create a kind of institutional immortality and moral autonomy by aggregation. We’ve created legal individuals that have lived for two centuries, that have personalities all their own, and that absorb and define thousands of people, and yet no one is responsible for its actions. Talk about character!

So I decided to write a book where such an individual–200 years old and made up of tens of thousands people–meets another individual–a 42-year-old divorced woman with two children who begins to suspect that a Clare factory in her home town has caused her cancer. How do that small individual and that large individual negotiate a place where each can understand the other? This was my desire for the book: to create a dialogue between two characters of completely incommensurate sizes. You can read the story of the woman as a traditional novel of empathy or character identification. And the company itself starts out as a family story: two brothers who steal the secret of soapmaking from a poor Irishman and run with it. But after two centuries, no one in the company knows what the company is after, anymore. The purpose of the company is simply to continue itself. Swallow up others. Get bigger. Live longer. So the book presents two aspects of character, two kinds of individuals, two aspects of fiction. Can you as a reader identify equally with these two different stories? Can you see these two stories as part of a whole? Can you use the book as a reflection on your own strange existence, which seems to you to be about self-realization, self-discovery and self-identity, but in fact has been dictated by the existence of these other enormous creatures?

LeClair: When I was writing The Liquidators, and I sent the manuscript to Rick, he was writing Gain at the time. The Liquidators is also about a company that tries to dispose of the leftovers of American commerce. His advice was to historicize. Little did I know that what he meant by historicize was write 200 pages about the origin of the company as he did in Gain. I think it is necessary to historicize, and my own way of doing that was toward the end of the novel to have the main character create something called the Museum of Lead in Middletown, Ohio. Lead works metaphorically for liquid because lead is the most easily liquefiable metal. It also came for me to be a wonderful symbol of historical stupidity. For about 2000 years Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Germans, most people recognized that lead was bad for them and yet they kept using it: to lighten their skin, to darken their hair, to preserve wine, to take baths in. Over and over again, I would find in the historical record that people were being warned but still kept using lead. We liquefied lead and put it in gas and then put it in the atmosphere and then we put it in everything. There’s lead in Antarctica.

I wanted to historicize and get beyond character, but I wasn’t going to go back and create 2000 years of characters. Yet I wanted to do something that Rick was doing in Gain, to show that businesses or scientific explorations or inventions start out looking to be useful and then they punish us and they seep into our lives in ways that we have no idea. I think both Rick and I are interested in really small poisons or toxins. He’s particularly interested in big pictures and forms. I am more in my criticism than my fiction, but I think we do share an interest in how very small amounts of whatever can poison humankind.

Hermanson: When an author focuses on nature, bringing to the foreground the natural, physical world, are the results different from when he or she focuses on human-made products, products of culture? Does fiction see nature differently than it sees everything else?

Powers: Nature is relation. Nature is not something out there. Nature is a vast, interdependent array of unaccountably large sets of agents who are all exploiting and using and reacting to and forming environments for others. How can literature treat this? It’s hard to imagine literature that doesn’t focalize through some human agent. I can think of some examples– animal protagonist books, for example–but even these require anthropomorphized points of view. We seem only to be able to tell stories from the vantage point of people.

Hermanson: Perhaps because animals do not have narrative.

Powers: I think they do, but we can’t know it. An interesting argument comes from Frank Vertosick’s book, The Genius Within: Discovering the Intelligence of Every Living. He considers a bacterium. This thing has been around essentially unchanged for 3 billion years, which is orders of magnitude longer than us. We’ve been at war with given species of bacteria for as long as we’ve had anti-bacterial agents, and those species keeps beating us at the arms race. They must somehow be as intelligent as us, if intelligence means the ability to survive and adapt to environment. So yes, nature is hugely intelligent, vastly more intelligent than our limited consciousness is ever going to know. Fiction, of course, is an instrument of consciousness. Through fiction we can see someone looking at nature, struggling to understand the intelligence that is both larger and smaller than his own. Or slower and faster than his own. I always resort to Mikhail Bakhtin’s idea that every act of depicting is itself a depiction. If we read stories about groups of people struggling with everything that nature might be, we come to see our own narration on nature reflected through theirs.

Can we know nature’s narrative? Nature doesn’t have one. Nature has as many narratives as there are individual instances of life. Part of the vision of The Gold Bug Variations depends on the rearrangement of consciousness brought about by understanding that we share the same genetic code with all the rest of creation. Life succeeds all together or not at all.

Hermanson: In some sense, this gets back to the classic linguistic ideas of signified and signifier: the notion that when one reads the word “tree,” one should not visualize a tree, but rather reflect on all the other times an author has used the word tree.

LeClair: A student of mine was once having a similar problem. I told him, “You can’t put a handful of dirt in your dissertation. All you can put in are the words “dirt” or “trees.” There is a necessity of being very aware of the limitations and the strengths of what you are doing. Ursula LeGuin’s Always Coming Home has pictures of trees. Which are actually closer than the word tree.

Powers: I disagree. I don’t think a visual representation is necessarily closer to a tree than the word tree. I think they are different cognitive mappings, but they are both symbols, both complete mediations.

LeClair: I don’t think they are complete mediations. In an analog depiction you have a representation of scale that you don’t have in digital representation. Lawrence Buell uses the notion of “adequacy”: that the text must be somehow adequate to the world being represented. A lot of nature writers are so in love with nature that they don’t love the language enough to give us that sense of adequacy, to have us see the world really differently and anew. Rick does that in Gold Bug Variations. There is tremendous nature writing in the 15th, central chapter, the fulcrum of that novel. Thoreau does it in Walden. As boring as people might think Walden is, the reason it is boring is because the language is adequate to a world that doesn’t really interest a lot of people. Thoreau talks about extravagance in Walden. “I’m worried that I haven’t been extravagant enough.” I hate nature, so I really need a lot of very good language if it’s going to be represented for me. People who love nature can read and reread and reread nature books that just say “nature, nature, nature, nature” and I can’t fall for that.

Hermanson: The argument about adequacy insists that the language a writer employs must perforce reflect the world. Tom, your version of an adequate way of representing nature tends to reflect back on the linguistic representation of the world, drawing attention to the language. Whereas a more traditional nature writer’s sense of adequacy is a transparency, where language disappears.

LeClair: There isn’t any transparency. What you are seeing in the text is the language. That’s all there is. If the language can be as extravagant as the life it’s depicting, then you’ve got some good writing.

Powers: If the reader of that language–the receiver of those symbols–comes out of that exchange more aware of the insufficiency of the categories he was using to name those things on the way in, then the language has succeeded.

LeClair: That’s what Walden does. For as extravagant and detailed as it is, the message of Walden seems to be very postmodern. Well, this wasn’t quite good enough, wasn’t nearly good enough.

Hermanson: Is there an appreciable difference between what the novelist would do and what the naturalist would do in depicting nature? What does the novelist bring that the naturalist doesn’t if we are talking about the adequacy of language? Or are these false distinctions?

LeClair: In David Quammen’s Song of the Dodo, maybe the language is not particularly unusual, not Thoreauvian. It’s about extinction on islands - island biogeography - and islands are particularly interesting places to study because there is isolation and ecosystemic processes are accelerated - or decelerated. The book seems to be set up like an island chain, an archipelago. It’s a combination of nature writing, interviews with scientists, and Quammen’s own personal travel narratives. The form seems adequate somehow to the subject matter. Some of the language carries two meanings. The title, for example: it’s about the extinction of the dodo. Well who is singing that song? David Quammen, of course. We are all dodos, we humans, for causing the dodo to become extinct and bringing numerous other species to the brink of extinction.

Powers: This is precisely what fiction can do. The novelist knows that our stories about nature are stories about ourselves. He can explicitly focalize the anxieties, the narratives, the hopes, the fears, and the dreams that bind us together in this complicated and terrifying web. A novel can make a human viscerally aware of our estrangement from nature in ways that nonfiction cannot.

We are living at the moment of the absolutely largest crisis ever to face human life. You can stand up in front of people and list the statistics. You can enumerate the ways that we are outstripping our resources and depleting our land and heating the planet. And some people in the audience will be deeply, intellectually disturbed. Some of them might even go home and start thinking and looking things up and modifying their lives as a result of hearing those statistics. But not many. Why not? Because we don’t apprehend the world as forcefully through our high-level, abstract intellectual apparatus as we do through our guts. If instead you were to tell a story about a thirty-five-year-old man and his 30-year-old wife and their two-year-old kid who find out that their house - their entire net worth - is sitting on a toxic waste dump, your audience will instantly start feeling very different questions. They will be much more inclined to entertain the issues, with their own lives at stake. How do you get moonlight into a chamber? How do you turn an abstract big question into a viscerally rearranging little question? Fiction does it through narrative transference, through inviting identification.

LeClair: We think of narrative as linear story following cause and effect sequences. The grand thing about some, few, novels - The Gold Bug Variations is as good an example as I can think of - is that while these narratives are going on there is a miraculously complex form being worked out which in a way balances off the narration. It comes back to what I was saying about Quammen’s work. The form. One of the features, it seems to me, that genetics – and other non-linear science and chaos theory – shows to us, is that there is a return to correspondence, a return of analogy or homology. For about three hundred years now we’ve been really stuck on Newtonian cause and effect. There’s a lot of throwweight. We can send people to distant planets by very carefully analyzing cause and effect. But the old medieval notion of correspondence made amazing connections through similarities. Think of the way people thought of themselves. “I am like a tree. I am like a plant.” They believed that this theory of correspondences and analogies was a way to understand the world. And I think its coming back around. That’s why I’m so much a formalist. That’s why I respect novels that have forms rather than just narratives. Or maybe forms and narratives. Novels where you are pushed through the narrative, but you are also seeing this architecture of similitude.

Powers: I completely agree. I see all the elements of story in the service of this transformation of the reader’s awareness. Fiction is potentially the most powerful way that we have of being someplace and someone else. But is the power of fiction in itself sufficient to save us? Clearly not. Imagine a guy who sells in a week what I sell in a decade, bringing out a book that will be read by millions of people–an incredibly engaging and seductive page-turner with great characters and a powerful plot, the premise of which is that global warming is a political trick. So is narrative going to save us or doom us? The only thing that is going to save us is better reading. Reading that knows when narrative is leading us away from the brink and when narrative is leading us headlong toward it. The future of the world depends upon our skill as readers.

*****

Questions from the Audience:

Audience: Rick, earlier you mentioned that you cannot know nature. Yet there are other cultures and traditions that maintain that they do know nature and in fact, that was ours once upon a time. That was where we came from. Perhaps this is animism or the realm of spirituality, but we had a way of seeing ourselves as relating to a nature that exists, that has some substance, and that is sustainable. What we’ve done in just a couple of hundred years is find a way to wreck the whole thing. It seems to me that your novels recognize this and are looking forward through very rationalist, western patterns of relating to nature toward an understanding of spirituality that matters.

Powers: I would say the animism stories and pantheism stories are still alive inside our postmodern stories. It’s a mistake to think any cultural moment is somehow autonomous or cut loose from its roots. The key is to find in our existing narratives the sickness, the wrong turns, the bankrupt fantasies, and the alienating elements of our own historical moment. We must locate the restoratives and the antidotes that are still there in our discarded anthologies. Bring them back out. Reanimate animism, not in its old form, but in a form that can call to account the historical moment that descended from it.

Hermanson: Does reviving animism run the risk of reviving the transcendental category of nature?

Powers: Well, there are worse risks. I don’t mean that flippantly. There are dangers associated with creating that category. But moving toward that category can be a corrective for the sophistic categories that we are imprisoned in right now. I agree: we do need to know that “nature” is our invention and that that invention has changed continuously from moment to historical moment. But the invention of a transcendental nature is not without use as an antidote to human pillaging.

Audience: What role can fiction play in terms of representing alternatives so people can have hope that there is something instead of a defeatist philosophy?

Powers: If you knew that you were going to die tomorrow, how much would you try to accomplish in your last 24 hours on earth? If you were guaranteed to live for, say another 180 healthy years, how much would you do right now to bring about a better world? In both of those extremes, moral engagement falls away. So by pulling in that time scale a little bit and saying, “Yes you’re dying…but not yet,” fiction leaves open the possibility for engagement and for action and for hope. To keep us from falling into solipsism and disengagement, to keep challenging the reader to move toward a more livable world, fiction has to adjust that slider between telling us we’re doomed and telling us we’re immortal.

What I tried to do with Gain and what Tom struggles with in The Liquidators and Passing On is to learn how to take what Hardy calls a full look at the worst, without lying, but without collapsing in the face of that look. My balance–this midrange that will preserve moral engagement–is going to be different from other readers’. You shoot for what looks like a livable compromise, and you keep working. If we could wrap our heads around the fact that life has evolved from inanimate polypeptides to something that’s put a probe on Titan that’s sending back pictures, we might be more motivated to summon up the collective will to stave off our own extinction. But for that, we need to be taken out of our private, unconnected lives. We need stories that can change the scale of our identification.

LeClair: When confronted with The Liquidators one editor said “You can’t end that way. You’ve got to break down that character and show that this is a crazed idea that he has to create a Museum of Lead. You’ve got to give your reader some hope.” I thought the reader was aware this was crazed. It was a replacement for his liquidator business. Okay maybe it would do some people good if anyone went. But who the hell would go to a Museum of Lead in Middletown, Ohio. This is an utter fucking failure, just like his business. I’ve run into this a lot. The editors want more happy endings, more hope. One of the reasons that novelists are so despairing and give such negative endings is because they are getting such pressure from the business to be cheerier.

Powers: I had a comparable experience in the critical reception of Gain, in particular, Updike’s review in the New Yorker. He liked Galatea 2.2 quite a bit. In Gain, he says, every time the human rises up and articulates itself and expresses some element of hope or beauty, large historical processes come by and crush it. I want to say, “Please, Mr. Updike, that’s a feature, not a bug.”

Audience: The ending of Gain is very ambiguous, with a reading that can be immensely hopeful or one that predicts an inevitable crushing. The hopeful version, however, rings false. The one thing that cannot be pilfered is hope. Hope has to be genuine, but despair we seem to revisit again and again, and it always seems true.

Powers: Hope and despair are not fixed things; they are moving points on a complex and multivariate narrative arc. We cannot fix them in time or write a final equation that solves the relationship between the two. The problem is that stories have to end. Happy endings seem false because we sense that nothing will ever resolve the constant contest of human values, which will go on changing for as long as our conditions change. Despairing endings are, de facto, more open. Again, so much of our narrative sense about the future depends on how far out we project our story. The relationships between hope and despair necessarily change based on whether our narrative arc goes out a decade, a century, or a millennium.

As we understand more about the ecosystem, we realize the extent of the irreversible harm we’ve already done and the amount of harm in the pipeline that we cannot stop. We’ve set in motion a mass extinction that may take us down with it. We are casting about for any kind of program that is both useful and achievable, hopeful and true. We need one that can operate on the order of tens of years - appallingly, perhaps impossibly fast, given the ponderous pace of human politics. But that’s the astonishing thing about human awareness: compared to any other force in geological or evolutionary time, the right story can make things happen almost instantaneously.

Works Cited

Birkerts, Sven. “Only God Can Make a Tree: The Joys and Sorrows of Ecocriticism.” Boston Book Review 3.1 (1996): 6+.

LeClair, Tom. The Art of Excess: Mastery in Contemporary American Fiction. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1991.

—. Passing Off. Sag Harbor, NY: Permanent, 1996.