Powell, Padgett (2009), The Interrogative Mood: a Novel?, Ecco
When I heard about this book in bookblogs, I was skeptical. See, American bookbloggers have a tendency to elevate stern genre distinctions to fetishes, creating such a strong image of what a genre is supposed to be like, that they happen to hail a surprising number of recent and not-so-recent publications as major breakthroughs in the genre in question. From an “Alternative History” of the novel to Lydia Davis’ work, the unexciting string of ‘shocking’ breaks with convention is long and dire. So when Padgett Powell’s most recent book, The Interrogative Mood, was received along similar lines, lines that the subtitle “a novel?”, with the pointed question mark, only served to deepen and emphasize, I almost regretted getting it. I wrote down a few remarks for this review concentrating on the ludicrous straw men of some reviewers, tying in this book, without having read it. Yeah, I do that sometimes. As I got into it, however, I became genuinely excited about the book and its writer. It’s quite astonishing that Powell really manages to pull this off: an experimental book that does play intelligently with genre notions and conventions, that’s an engaging read, quite moving, frankly, yet also challenging and consistently interesting. Pick up this book. You will not be disappointed. And while you’re at it, pick up also his debut novel, Edisto (review forthcoming). Padgett Powell is one of the most genuinely exciting writers I’ve discovered in a while.
The Interrogative Mood is an interesting kind of novel (and why not run with it and call it that). On the surface, there is no plot, there are no characters, there are just questions. 164 pages of unceasing, unflagging questions, one after another. When I heard that the book consisted solely of questions, a few ideas came into my head about how a plot might be constructed through questions, but I didn’t expect this. The endless stream of questions appears to be a barrage of non-sequitur inquiries, some humorous, some not, some political, some not, many very silly, many not. The second question of the book is “Are your nerves adjustable?”, third question “How do you stand in relation to the potatoe?”, fourth question “Should it still be Constantinople?”, sixth question “In your view, do children smell good?”. And so on. The wealth of questions is quite overwhelming, but in a good way. When Powell set out to write a book composed solely of questions, this is exactly what he did, unlike other writers, he didn’t cloak a cheaply traditional, sentimental book with experimental cloth. He really wrote an experimental book that is truly unlike any book I’ve read so far. What makes it so unique is the fact that these questions appear to form an incoherent stream of impromptu ideas, a rambling book with, at best, novelty factor, but that in Powell’s hands, they acquire a subtle coherence, a voice, direction and meaning. The book is both coherent and rambling at once, depending upon the degree of care which one applies to the text. It’s a text glittering with subtleties.
It’s also an addictively readable book. The flow of questions is exhilarating, challenging and fascinating. Some questions provoke you to raise objections, some ask you to dig into your memories, still others, and those are a large portion of the whole, are goofy and funny, some of those more like cheap comedy quips, and some as finely wrought as a Dr. Seuss book. There will be questions that surprise you, questions that will touch upon some memory that’ll move you, make you rev up your memory. It’s hard to imagine a reader not swayed by the titular ‘moods’ of Powell’s book (I’ll mention other meanings of the title in awhile), at least to some extent. These questions are well crafted and it’s admirable that Powell is able to use them as he does. But on the whole, as you turn the pages, the questions lose importance and you answer fewer and fewer of the, just coasting along on the wave of words, as the small units of questions coalesce into something larger. Something, yes, that I would call a novel.
Definitions of the novel abound, and since, to riff on a phrase of Jarrell, a definition is a short text that has something wrong with it, I won’t try to define the novel here, it’s been done, with varying levels of success. Try your local library. It’s difficult to come up with a list of “must” elements in such a comprehensive and fluid genre like the novel, which isn’t defined in a non-ambiguous way through any element. There are novels in verse, brief as well as long novels, expansive historical novels and dense, action-packed novels. Novels can feature any kind or amount of characters and are composed in all kinds of structures. While it’s easy to determine if a book is ‘clearly’ a novel, the borderline cases are far harder to pinpoint. One such case is Padgett Powell’s fine book, which explicitly asks the reader to consider whether it’s a novel, and indeed it shares enough properties with the mainstream novel to justify calling it one, or at least considering it as one as a valid mode of reading the book (among others). The first, most basic properties are these: The Interrogative Mood has two characters (a very basic requirement) and a narrative. One of the characters is the narrator, the interrogator, the one asking the questions. He definitely experiences a change of character as the book progresses, and as we hear to him ramble, we notice that some questions are more personal than others.
There is an urgency in some questions, and some explicit biographical background worked into others. The very nature of the questions used suggests a personal spin. The kind of questions, their sequence and recurrence, among other factors, help map out a kind of personality. It’s actually quite remarkable how precise a writer Powell proves to be in this regard. For example, there are quizzes, i.e. detailed questions that are about general knowledge. The vast majority of these have to do with nature, which suggests a preeminent importance of the topic for the asker of questions. This fact is firmly impressed upon the reader, as names and images of animals and plants are threaded through his head as he tries to follow the book, keep up with its dodges and feints. These quiz questions are fair and open, and only revealing in terms of sheer quantity and focus of topic. There are also other questions, less fair, but also still more revealing ones. In personal and political matters, Powell’s narrator has the tendency to ask leading questions. He confronts his counterpart with false dichotomies, or he asks what is at best a rhetorical question. It is with these questions that he’s really tipping his hand. These questions, whether it’s his use of false dichotomies or of rhetorical questions, they tell us what the narrator believes or at least what he wants to make his counterpart think he believes. There is, however, no indication of subterfuge in the book, despite the tricky surface. The unnamed narrator appears to be quite earnest and straightforward, within the limitations of the form he has chosen, of course.
So when he gives his opinions away they don’t develop into a new game, they lend resonance to the book, imbuing it with a voice that is singular and unmistakable. As you read on, engrossed by the entertaining surface, you enter into a kind of intimacy with the narrator, listening for his voice, for personal issues even in perfectly innocent questions. This is a work that the book expects you to do. It relies firmly upon our instincts to look for and draw connections even between seemingly unconnected events and statements. By looking closely at the text, listening to it, we find that, far from random, the book is composed, and structured. While one reading wasn’t enough for me to puzzle out that structure, it’s worth noting that the narrator has a few subjects he’s obsessing about, subjects that keep recurring, often in different contexts. It’s not, from a first reading, obvious how these subjects and themes work, in what way they are stacked and repeated, but the enormous amount of them assures that we are made aware of structure, and together with the changes in tone and direction that we see in the personal questions, we have an immediate sense of narrative. Make no mistake, there is not an overt plot, a story that we can follow and retell. To claim that would be absurd. Yet it would be equally absurd to deny the fact of structure, hidden though it is in the folds of this complex book, structure that, indeed, amounts to what can meaningfully be called a narrative.
As for the counterpart, the listener to questions, the answerer of them, little is known about him. The interrogator addresses him in the second person singular, an address that is purposefully fuzzy. The reader naturally assumes that he or she is meant by the questions, and immediately starts formulating answers, thinking about the questions. Not until quite a few questions in, the interrogator refers to answers that he has received. Not from the reader obviously. How we read these references and asides hinges mostly upon the question of whether we are prepared at all to read this as a novel. If we’re not, the putative answers will only be seen as a rhetorical device to further engage “you”, i.e. the reader (who would be the prime suspect for the role of the “you”), in the book’s discussion. If on the other hand, we are open to seeing The Interrogative Mood as fiction, a listener, a counterpart emerges that could (or not) motivate the speaker to ask more and more personal questions. Reading the book with a hypothetical listener/answerer in mind, questions that are pointed and focused, questions that we thought referred to the interrogator and his situatedness, could be his way of riffing upon his counterpart. All these, while they may seem like idle speculations, are legitimate questions, and I think that from the subtitle to some of the details, Powell fuels this kind of debate.
It’s hard not to think that Powell is very aware of how our thinking about genre conventions in the arts has changed, from Wayne Booth’s groundbreaking work on the novel (there is a point to make about Booth’s treatment of James’ narrators and the way Powell’s narrator is set up) to Nelson Goodman’s astonishing distillations in the 1970s and 1980s. This isn’t, by the way, the only theoretical consideration that underlies the book. The title refers us to another one which I can but briefly sketch. “Interrogative Mood” is a grammatical term, referring to a way to express interrogativity in some language, though not in English. That is remarkable for a book written in English and suggests that the book is concerned with the wider modes of interrogativity. In semantics, interrogativity holds a special place. It’s a repository for doubt, a marker of ambiguity (ambiguity of reference, for example. Interrogatives are often highly dependent upon context to be clarified, yet it is this context that Powell, slyly, denies us), of epistemological uncertainty. It is a mode that doesn’t just raise questions, it also puts things into question. But in the case of The Interrogative Mood, this isn’t a coldly calculating questioning, not an intellectually bracing search. Powell’s narrator is clearly calling not just aspects of his knowledge of the world, and his interlocutor’s, into question, he puts himself up for discussion. The very form and shape of the book is designed to be elusive, to allow the narrator to hide in a mirror cabinet of questions. Questions seem to be propelled outward, demanding answers of people elsewhere, but we can, as I said earlier, follow these questions back to their source, Powell’s narrator.
When you come down to it, The Interrogative Mood is a very small and personal book, yet through its engagement with the reader (the ambiguity of reference is a big part of that), it’s also a very open book, open to the world without. Many definitions of the novel, especially German ones, have stressed that the novel is the one genre that contains the fullness of life, the smörgåsbord of the everyday, containing often disparate elements, from human psychology, to public events and the richness of bodily experience, in short, “life in its allness”, to quote from Lucács’ classic Theory of the Novel. And in the stupendous amount of kinds of questions and sectors of knowledge that Powell’s book draws on and uses, it does just that. It’s a slim book, a simply written book that is teeming with life. Yes, the two characters’ lives, but also ours. Powell introduces the book with a quote from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. “Does the Daylight astonish?” Whitman asks. And the very first question that the book has for its reader is “Are your emotions pure?”. That wonderment, that tender sensitivity, the careful voice of the narrator expecting, no, hoping, for something beyond the fog that crawls all over us. Yes, the questions are a kind of fog themselves, but if we let them, they can clear some of the other fog away. Padgett Powell has written a wondrous book, a light, musical read, that is formally brave and beautiful in terms of its emotions. It’s not a generous book, but the heart of it is hardened by distress. Read The Interrogative Mood. You won’t be sorry.
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