The Beautiful Strength of Richard Powers

by Weston Cutter

Muscle for muscle, Richard Powers is the best novelist working in America. All sorts of qualifiers that usually play into consideration when sweeping assertions like that are made just drop away when a work of his hits. He's been up for big awards, has been awarded highly esteemed fellowships, has been recognized by his peers and critics as a master of the form. It is, of course, all of it, entirely true, every letter of each word.

And a work of his is about to hit, his first in two years (which ends up being the usual amount of time between pieces of his art appearing). The book is called The Time of Our Singing and I'd love to say so many things here, now. There are so many roads you and I, reader and reviewer, could take, so many "let us go, then's". I could assure you that everyone will buy and then claim to have read this book, that it'll be the big hit of the year, the title easiest on the lips of the bright shining stars of that vast literary world. I could promise that it will keep you safe and comfortable and reassured, that it's a story and book that won't dig into you and open new places within yourself for big, quiet, strange questions to bubble up. I could assure you that it's another book by another genius, making you safe as Just A Reader and Powers untouchable as Genius (and therefore somehow Special) Author, practicing an art that neither you nor I will probably ever be able to, even whimperingly, imitate.

None of those, though. None of that's fair. It's important, so early in this little essay, for you and I to know exactly where we are together. To that end I want to make sure you know just who Richard Powers is. There's a book that he contributed to, a book called Take it From Me, a not unclever book full of advice from people of all stripes and walks of life. Powers offered a page of advice, along with some other greats (Howard Zinn, Katharine Hepburn, George Saunders), and says what, to me, is the truest line ever written (and, for the record, I think there's a good chance of some walloping dose of peace in store for anyone who writes this down and tapes it to their bathroom mirror, if you're lucky enough to have a bathroom and mirror):


Okay, let's, you and me again, really unpack that. Powers is saying nothing about 'happiness' or 'joy' or some Seratonin-reuptake inhibitor enhanced feeling of goodness. Pleasure, straight up, neither good nor bad nor simple. Then, existence. Not life, not loving or hating or any of the myriad human dramas we love to manufacture or lose ourselves in. Just existence, just the act of existing. And then there's moral imperative—there's trouble, right? We're talking huge, white water rafting turbulence, right? How is pleasure in existence, how could it possibly be, a moral issue? Aha, friend. That, exactly at that point, is where all of what Richard Powers writes starts from.

John Leonard has said what I'd like to say next so much better than anyone could ever try for, and so I'm just going to quote him (from his brilliant book Lonesome Rangers, from The New Press, 2002): "Boy, is he smart." Dress it up or down, trick him out with whatever educational luck he may have had, the fact is that simple: he's just ridiculously smart. There's a good chance that if you've read anything about him, you've read some reviewer playing the "Richard Powers destroys the dictate 'write what you know'" card, and it's a cheap but very easy card to play.

Why? Well, that's where The Time of Our Singing comes along, as proof and work of art and amazing world, all in synch.

Here's the road you need to remember, reader, when you make a move toward any of Richard Powers' eight tremendous books. Think of your first kiss. Remember it: where it was, with whom, how it felt, what it felt like immediately after and immediately before, what you thought of, how you thought of things differently after you'd done it, what music played, what route you took to get there, all of it. In fairness, it doesn't have to be a first kiss, but simply some galvanizing experience you've had, some before-after event of your life. Would you be willing to distill the experience down to just the bare, brutal facts? Could you happily define your first kiss, as my American Heritage Third does (admittedly not just first kiss, but kiss in general) "To touch or caress with the lips as an expression of affection, greeting, respect or amorousness"? That's what that was? What about that heady feeling in your guts, that's not in the definition! Amorousness? Does that cover the tingle that even your toes got in on feeling?

Exactly: each element in our lives is part of a huge continuum of events and activities and experiences, and nowhere is that fact more clear than in the novels of Richard Powers. His first, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, wove through the history of photography, love, fate, World War I, and art in general before it finally finished its telling. His second and grandest book (and perhaps the greatest American novel of the past twenty years, certainly way up on the list if only for it's perfect ending), Gold Bug Variations, was a double love story that carried in its fraternal twin narrative the history of the hunt for the structure of DNA, a general waltz through the second half of the 20th century's technological advances, art history, to say nothing of the Poe story and Bach piece that the book's title comes from. There are more examples but you'd be better served just heading to your local independent bookstore and getting copies of each.

All that said, let's really get into the work at hand. Ready? Stop me if you've heard this one: A German Jewish scientist immigrant, having fled Nazi Germany, working on theoretical physics at Columbia, weds a beautiful woman who, among all the other incidentals that define her, has two striking characteristics: she's phenomenally gifted, musically, and she's black. He is white, but is also musically proficient. Their love begins in 1939, as in before the Civil Rights movement, as in when it was even less acceptable than it is today for most people to handle seeing a black human and white human in love with each other. What do they do, this David and Delia Strom duo, with this overwhelming love for each other? They have children. Of course.

They have Jonah, boy with the golden voice, a fair skinned first child. They have Joey, darker than his brother and with a voice just less beautiful than his brother’s to consign him to piano his whole life. They have Ruth, baby girl who can read music before she can read English, also with the darkest skin, also eventually left behind by her trailblazing brothers, left to navigate the scary terrain of heritage, in all its meanings in this novel, alone. Connection, in case it wasn't clear: the gigantic territory of race and music, specifically the subtleties and nuances that came the minute America was declared a melting pot (and therefore leaving open for debate just what constitutes purity and lineage), are the elements of the three Strom children's lives they'll be forced to reckon with.

David Strom's specialty of study is time. I'd love to be more clear on that, but the science, to me anyway, is so perfectly confounding (multiple nows, relativity, infinite infinities) that I'd serve clarity better by leaving it alone. Regardless, time is everywhere profoundly effecting this novel. Three times the reader, by the end, will go Washington Mall, each time in a different time, a different context, and with different meaning to be unpacked on each visit. Joey, the middle child and narrator of the novel, has a sense of time that can either confound (if fought against) or illuminate, in ways (of course) I've never witnessed so successfully, his struggle, and therefore the reader's struggle, to understand all the Big Questions that any beautiful novel has to wrestle with.

Spanning sixty years, the last sixty American years specifically, it's almost inconceivable to grasp the magnitude of just how much things have changed. When Delia and David Strom met, blacks were still called negros, were still kept segregated, and made Florida's beurocratically Draconian voting procedures seem red-bloodedly just. That entire culture, that the three Strom children were born into, didn't exist in a popular realm, by which I mean within the white realm. Think of that, imagine it, if you can. Then imagine living through the upheaval that ensued for the next half-century. How would you find a bottom line in all of it, a middle ground or, at least, some point from which to see just what's happened?

Threaded within the story of the country's brutal birth into our contemporary notions of race and equality, there's music. Something that most of us would so quickly say is simple, about joy or, at very least, entertainment, is as rife with political undertones as any aspect of life. How could Marian Anderson, that Easter day in 1939, sing songs written by white men who lived their comfortable lives through the subjugated labor and strife of anyone with Anderson's color skin?

As it applies to the Strom children in the novel, how do people seen as second-rate citizens experience and share the euphoria of music if it's political, if it's racist, if it's part of the culture that works to keep them disenfranchised? What are all the hidden costs of engaging in that scary dance, along that very steep and confusing cliff?

Both of these issues are what Powers, through 638 pages, wrestles with. As always, Singing is like that meal your parents made that, while it tasted good, had mostly vegetables and good stuff within—sorry, that's a sloppy way of saying that every aspect of your head, and especially your heart, is engaged, strengthened, and fortified by each sentence Powers writes.

And my lord, I know I've harped on this already, but please, please, pick up the book when it comes out and read a line. Read a page. Get a little nervous, it's natural: you're starting to see just how consumed you could be with a novel, with art. Set everything you must aside and read it. And for the record: you can set nearly everything aside. Powers' generosity knows even less of a limit than his fire working erudition, and you'll feel less worked, less marathoned-out when you finish this work as you'll simply feel embraced, understood: like you've been told the story you never even could have known you needed so terribly to hear.

Copyright 2002 by Weston Cutter. All rights reserved.