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Richard Powers: The Gold Bug Variations
The book starts with a puzzle – a dedication/acknowledgment or something else, consisting of four lines of some code in the form of three letters or, in a few cases, a letter, a question mark and another letter. The code is:
RLS CMW DJP RFP J?O CEP JJN PRG
ZTS MCJ JEH BLM CRR PLC JCM MEP
JNH JDM RBS J?H BJP PJP SCB TLC
KES REP RCP DTH I?H CRB JSB SDG
Far cleverer people than me have suggested that it is merely dedications in the form of initials, JSB (the second last), for example, being Johann Sebastian Bach. The Bach reference, of course, refers to the title, which refers both to the Goldberg Variations and to Poe’s The Gold Bug. But it does show that this book is, in part, about codes.
The plot is relatively straightforward. There are essentially three related stories (as in Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance) which are also told simultaneously. Stuart Ressler is a brilliant geneticist, working on DNA decoding in 1957. He falls in love with his married colleague and she gives him the famous Glenn Gould recording of the Goldberg Variations. However, she decides to leave him and return to her husband. He is devastated and gives up cracking the genetic code and disappears. Twenty-five years later, a librarian, Jan O’Deigh, is asked by Franklin Todd to help him find information about one of his colleagues, who works as a computer programmer for a financial organisation. Todd is writing a doctoral thesis on the obscure Flemish artist Herri met de Bles but he believes that his colleague, who is, of course, Ressler, is someone who is or at least was important. Jan finds him the information and the couple start a relationship and find out more about Ressler. The third story, which is how the book starts off, is a year after Franklin and Jan have broken off (because of Franklin’s infidelity). Ressler has died and Franklin lets Jan know. She decides to leave her job and study genetics but she still feels a strong affection for Franklin and her savings are not enough to allow her to study full time.
But the plot is merely an excuse for Powers to hang his ideas on, as in his other books. The main idea here is, of course, codes – DNA, computer code and the code Bach used in the Goldberg Variations but, as in his other books, Powers’ brilliance is to go all over the place, starting with the strange questions Jan gets from the public as a librarian (and her often quirky answers) to discourse on every subject under the sun, sometimes tenuously linked to the plot but sometimes not. It is all brilliant, it all makes for wonderful reading and this is certainly a book which you will learn for more from and enjoy far more than you would have thought possible.
First published 1991 by William Morrow