Friday, November 19, 2010

Short-a-Day: Richard Powers's "To the Measures Fall"

Originally published in The New Yorker, Oct. 18, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 86.

"Your recent change, of course, has crushed your father. He long hoped that you would follow through on that Kennedy-inspired dream of community service. You, who might have become a first-rate social worker. You, who might have done good things for the species, or at least for the old neighborhood. But life will be books for you, from here on. Nothing has ever felt more preordained."

This is a gimmick story, and that's a shame, because it's got a strong, muscular heart, one that reminds me of similar all-in-one stories from, say, Jonathan Safran Foer. Powers takes a firm hand with the second person, almost jokingly at times--"You are, by the way, female"--but uses it well, to convey the experience of reading, or more specifically, the sensations from reading.

The fictional book and author (Elton Wentworth's "To the Measures Fall") are irrelevant, beyond the initially satirical digs that Powers gets at criticism and book jacket flaps through them; what matters is how our protagonist's relationship with the book changes over forty years, how she continually finds new things to take out of it. And it's interesting, too, to see this book make the journey with her, especially in light of how ephemeral and frail this book--an object to supposedly make the author immortal--actually is! ("You watch the Amazon ratings for 'To the Measures Fall' drop steadily, from a high of four and a half stars to a low somewhat below that of a defective woodchipper.")

The problematic part is that Powers ends every paragraph with a bolded question to the reader--hypothetical/existential ones, but ones whose answers he ignores, or rather, gives himself in the subsequent sections. David Foster Wallace has trod this territory so well ("Octet" springs to mind) that this particular convention never lands, and, in fact, detracts from the overall theme. And that's a shame, because there are some terrific highlights--emotions and vibes that resonate with me as a reader (or, better still, as a person):

"You're not yet sure that it's great literature. But the thing took you underwater and held you there for the better part of thirteen hours and, two days later, you're still winded. Its single, history-slapped village is a whole world, whose heft and weight and strange sinuous tangle of syntax stands for nothing but itself."

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