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Richard Powers: Plowing the Dark

There is no doubt in my mind that Richard Powers is one of the most intelligent and interesting writers producing novels in the United States. However, like most writers, some of his books are not necessarily of the same calibre as his best ones. This one is a case in point. It is an interesting book, full of fascinating ideas, as we always get with Powers, but it does not really hang together. There are two stories and the link between the two is, at best, tenuous, at least to me. Secondly, the main story is about virtual reality. As Powers points out in the novel, virtual reality was something that the media jumped on as the Next Big Thing. While virtual reality is still very much in use, it remains a niche activity. Outside of some cinema and art, it has little direct relevance to the general public, while other technological innovations have been of much more interest. Of course, there is no reason why Powers should not write about it but he gives the impression that, like the media, he very much considers it the Next Big Thing, which it has not been. More importantly, he gets very much involved in many of the technical details of it which, frankly, to most laymen will be not very interesting.

The first story concerns Taimur Martin. He is a US national, with an Iranian mother (hence the unusual first name). His relationship with Gwen is not working out too well, so he takes a job teaching English in Beirut. Given that it is the mid-1980s, that might not have been a necessarily wise decision and so it proves. One day, he jokingly says to his students that he is a CIA agent. A few days later, when leaving the building, he is is hustled into a car by a group of young men. He ends up a hostage and is kept a hostage for around five years. He spends his time in a small windowless room, chained to a radiator. Whenever any of his captors appears, he must put on the blindfold, as he cannot be allowed to see them. He is allowed a toilet exit once a day and is fed fairly distasteful food. Powers drags his story out throughout the book. We learn of his attempts to befriend his captors (there is a mild success), to gain reading material (he gets Great Expectations and The Koran) and to generally improve his lot. We also follow his thoughts about his situation and his life, including his relationship with Gwen. He is moved three times and, on one occasion, realises that there are other hostages in the building, with whom he can communicate by tapping on the radiator. It is here that he learns of a cleric, who has negotiated for the release of hostages but has himself been made hostage, presumably based on Terry Waite.

But the main story is the virtual reality story. Powers does not explain the title, which presumably means something like forging ahead into the unknown. Nor does he explain the often unusual names of some of his protagonists. Adie Klarpol (her surname uses the first three and last three letters of the title, which may or may not be coincidence) is one such. She is an artist, who is now doing purely commercial work, though she had produced her own work and had had an exhibition. We learn much about her during the course of the book. She had shared lodgings with Steven Spiegel (presumably we are meant to think of Steven Spielberg) and Ted Zimmerman at college. Ted seems to be a genius. He is also a composer (of serial music). Steve is fascinated with him while Adie has an affair with him, they then break off, and then restart. Ted sadly gets multiple sclerosis and slowly gets worse. It is at this point we get one of the connections between the two stories. Like Taimur Martin, Ted is in prison in Lebanon, only he is working in a prison, teaching, in Lebanon, Ohio. This is presumably just Powers’ little joke. At the start of the novel, Adie receives a phone call from Steve Spiegel – they have been out of touch for some time – and he asks her to join the virtual reality project, known as the Cavern, he is working on. With little happening in her life, she readily agrees. Perhaps not surprisingly, most of the group seem to be misfits. For example, as far as I can see, they either have no romantic relationships at all or their relationships have failed or are failing. One of the young bright young members announces a relationship near the end of the book, but it turns out that he has met her during an online game and it is suggested that she may not be female or, indeed, may merely be a clever computer programme. Steve and Adie drift together but, once they get too close, they rapidly move apart. One of the team had a relationship with a performance artist. She left him for another more daring performance artist who either killed her (the official version) or killed herself as part of her art (the version of the Cavern team member). Their life revolves around their work.

There are various projects going on in the Cavern. Adie is involved in one called the Crayon Room. She recreates Rousseau‘s jungle world, only making it alive and incorporating the works of other artists, such as Van Gogh. Ronan O’Reilly (he has left his partner behind in Ireland for this project) is modelling oil prices and their effect on the world and seeing some strange results. There is one project devoted to pure maths, a weather room, a Large-Molecule Docking simulation. We learn little of these. However, their work is taking place against the background of major world events. Firstly, there is the fall of communism which is expected to change everything. Indeed, there is a suggestion that strife may be over and, as a result, that art will no longer be necessary. As we now know the suggestion was spectacularly wrong and the supposition that art is borne solely out of strife would certainly be widely open to challenge. Secondly, there is also the situation in the Middle East. Ronan’s model predicts the Gulf War (though not both) and, of course, there is the other story, with its hostage crisis. The point, of course, is that neither art nor scientific research can be detached from the real world and we learn more about the implications of that later in the novel.

As said above, it does not really work as it does not hang together. Yes, Powers has some interesting ideas about artistic creation, the relationship between art and reality, how you cannot divorce art and scientific research from the real world and how the changing world might change the way we think, act and feel. But, he is writing a novel and in a novel it should all tie in or, if it does not, there should be a good and fairly obvious reason why it does not. This is not to say that this novel is a total failure. It is not. A less than successful novel by Powers is better than many successful novels by other authors. But he has written better – you can find them on this site – and will write better ones later.

Publishing history

First published 2000 by Farrar Straus & Giroux