- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 9, 2003

THE TIME OF OUR SINGING
By Richard Powers
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28, 640 pages
REVIEWED BY VINCENT D. BALITAS


If there is any reader of this review who knows of an author who in the last 18 years has produced a series of novels of such daunting intricacy, verbal dazzle and thought-provoking brilliance as Richard Powers has, please let me know. Although some readers might suggest, say, David Forster Wallace or Jonathan Franzan, it seems obvious that with the publication of his eighth novel, "The Time of Our Singing," Mr. Powers has confirmed his place as the premier writer of his generation, a position he has held since the appearance of his incredible debut novel, "Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance" (1985).
He followed this tour de force with a succession of fictions that reveal a sophisticated though still questioning understanding of human history, and of the ideas that not only oil the machine but also are the machine itself. He is, in the very best sense of the term, a novelist of ideas.
Back in the early heady days of postmodern fiction, a serious reader's library would contain not only late modernists like Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Eudora Welty, James Baldwin, and others, but also the challenging new work from the likes of Thomas Pynchon, Robert Coover, Don DeLillo, John Barth, Ishmael Reed, Paul West, and the sadly underrated Joseph McElroy. The difficult, often infuriating William Gaddis and William Gass were ever-present; Angela Carter, B.S. Johnson, and Philip K. Dick were absolutely necessary.
We returned now and then to Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Woolf, Lowery, and the father of them all, James Joyce, as to old friends with shared memories, but we turned to the younger writers for exciting reads, for new ways to tell all those old stories.
Too much acclaimed fiction of the past 25 years or so neglected the play of ideas for a sentimentality worthy of greeting cards, sacrificed the union of art and craft to sound like the rushed products of a creative writing course, and bowed to the solipsistic drivel of popular culture to give us fictions full of shallow, whiny characters at odds with parents, lovers, and themselves. Minimalism sought to correct the perceived excesses of those fat novels that took so much time and effort to read.
In fact, we went from big, thick, rare porterhouse (or yellowtail tuna) steaks to a few dried out, scrawny, tasteless chickens. Fortunately, there are still writers, including many mentioned above, who want their readers to exert themselves, to use dictionaries and reference books, to work to unfold plot, to study characters, to confront, goodness gracious, ideas. Richard Powers is one of those very important and very necessary writers who, with wit and style and a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge, gives us the ever-changing pictures of what it means to be human.
What has Richard Powers done to warrant his reputation as a major novelist? Certainly, his first seven novels are strong evocations of the ways human experience defines public person and private self.
There is no doubt but that he has tackled some very serious events and issues from World War I and photography in his first novel, to family dysfunctionalism and the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II ("Prisoner's Dilemma, 1988, in which Walt Disney and the political witch hunts of Joe McCarthy era make appearances), to genetic coding and J.S. Bach's polyphony ("Operation Wandering Soul," 1993, in which the Pied Piper, the Children's Crusade, the evacuation of children from London during the Blitz, and more operate as symbols to focus the reader's attention on the various horrors we have inflicted on our children, to artificial intelligence and love ("Galatea 2.2," 1995), to capitalism,industrial pollution, and cancer ("Gain," 1998), and to virtual reality and terrorism ("Plowing the Dark," 2000).
Reducing these amazingly conceived and brilliantly executed novels to a few words does them more than a disservice. I strongly urge patient readers to seek out these demanding novels, read them in the order of their publication, and become addicted to what Mr. Powers is capable of doing.
Although his many strengths more than compensate for his weaknesses, some good readers may find his style at times quite overbearing. He does have a tendency to be one of those maximalists who gets carried away. Mr. Powers is often excessive in his pursuit of inclusiveness. (We could recall the words of the great William Blake: "The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.") Consider the following from the Pied Piper section of "Operation Wandering Soul":
"On the day of the promised purge, the piper requests that all the bells in town tear off an absurdly long peal. Colliding carillons of all colors and creeds bang away blithely on teeth-freezing, diabolical sevenths, a first, tentative, pioneering rat-beak peeks cautiously from out its cellar bunker. Others follow the lead, appearing from between wattle holes and out of drainpipes, curious to learn how long that leading-tone agony can persist before resolving to tonic. When the bells break off abruptly without resolution, the exposed rodents reel as if his over the head with an unlicensed glockenspiel mallet."
How you react to these sentences, whether you find dross or gold, will tell you a bit about how you would like one of his novels. One thing, however, is obvious: Mr. Powers is a true wordsmith. Trained both in science and the liberal arts, he is a very intelligent writer. We should take with a grain of salt what a character in his first novel says: "I managed discussions of photography the same way I got by in all matters outside my own too-specialized technical vocation.
I use a time-honored formula: for each discipline I've memorized a half-dozen personalities and an equal number of broad technical terms. From there, I simply string together judgments, always pleading subjective bias … .". Perhaps, but this MacArthur Fellow is thoroughly immersed in music, physics, and literature.
A bit of a preacher, Mr. Powers seeks to follow the advice of E.M. Forster to "only connect." He seems to want his readers to see the interconnectedness and interdependency of all things. Jonah Strom, a major character in "The Time of Our Singing," his latest, observes that "Music itself, like its own rhythms, played out in time. A piece was what it was only because of all the pieces written before and after it. Song sang the torment that brought it into being, talked endlessly to itself." Music is an important symbol in all of his fiction, but it moves center stage in his new novel.
"The Time of Our Singing" is a sprawling, ambitious book that takes racism as its central theme. The Strom family is bi-racial, and is subjected to many types and degrees of bigotry from the white and the black communities. David Strom, a Jewish scientist who escaped the nightmare world of European anti-Semitism and the Third Reich, meets Delia Delay, the daughter of a successful African-American family from Philadelphia, at the outdoor concert Marian Anderson gave when the D.A.R. refused to let her sing in Constitution Hall in Washington.
They have three children of different hues: Jonah, who becomes an internationally respected singer; Joseph, a talented pianist who narrates his family's story; and Ruth, whose path leads deep into the radical side of the Civil Rights Movement.
Through their wanderings and very few characters in his novels have what could be called a stable home environmentthe reader is able to see history, science, art and culture both change and remain the same.
The Stroms are a musical family much given to games using the "Name that Tune" format, to recitals where parents and children just sang, to evening jam sessions where some of David's colleagues, Albert Einstein included, played their instruments. Above all, music provides a refuge from the abuse their different shades provokes. Just as music includes so much, so too are there a multitude of colors.
At a memorial service for his mother, Joseph "turned around to sneak a look at her crowd. I scanned the range of colors. Every hue I'd ever seen sat somewhere in that room … Flesh casts slanted off everywhere, this way mahogany, that way walnut or pine. Clumps of bronze and copper, pools of peach, ivory, and pearl … bleached paste from out of the flour bin of a Danish pastry kitchen, or a midnight cinder from down in the engine room of history's ocean liner … taupe turning evidence on ambers, tan showing up tawny, pinks and gingers … All ratios of honey to tea, coffee to creamfawn, fox, ebony, buff, beige, bay … ."
Joseph concludes that "Africa, Asia, Europe, and America had slammed into one another, and these splintered tints were the shards of that impact. Once, there were as many shades of flesh as there were isolated corners of the earth. Now there were many times that many. How many gradiation did anyone ever see? This polytonal, polychordal piece played for a stone-deaf audience who heard only tonic and dominant, and were pretty shaky even picking out those two. But all the pitches in the chromatic scale had turned out for my mother, and many of the microtones between."
"The Time of Our Singing" is a brave book sure to invite a variety of readers. That it might well be the best book on bi-racialism will not win it general approval, and Mr. Powers will no doubt be accused of taking on a subject best left to academic debate. However, this novel will appeal to readers who want to learn as much as they can about themselves and their species. No reader will come away from it unchanged, a claim that only our best artists can make on us. This is an important novel from a major writer.

Vincent D. Balitas is a poet, teacher and critic in Pottstville, Pa.


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