'You and I' (published in the States as 'You and Me') is the second short work from this author in rapid succession. It does give something of the impression of an attempt to capitalise on the unexpected success of the earlier book, 'The Interrogative Mood', which was awarded the James Tait Black Prize and is a genuinely funny and thought-provoking piece of short fiction in the vein of Donald Barthelme. Both books are described as novels, but the word is used very loosely. Each book is stylistically challenging in a mild way, and neither gives the reader the straightforward satisfactions of the realist fiction that we think of as central to the novel as a form.
Of the two, 'You and I' is the less innovative. Where 'The Interrogative Mood' was composed entirely of questions that over the course of the book accumulate force and suggest underlying themes, 'You and I' is a novel in dialogue. The scene is indeterminate - an imaginary blend of California and Florida - and the principals are two ageing men, living together in a relationship of friendship, who find their pleasure in sitting on the porch and indulging in alcohol-fuelled conversation. Their dialogues range freely from the expected musings on change and mortality to flights of imagination spurred by contemplation of passing strangers, odd words and the failure of the world to live up to their needs and expectations; no flying dogs, for example.
In this sense, 'You and I' is a rather old-fashioned book, in spite of its formal games. It takes its place in a long line of American comedic writing that turns on fun with language, the tradition of the tall tale and a sort of popular surrealism of which, again, Donald Barthelme - whose work supplies one of the two epigraphs - was perhaps the most brilliant exponent. In fact, one objection to the book - which is always perfectly readable and often genuinely funny - is simply that it can come across as warmed-over Barthelme: or, if one prefers, a reheated product of the mind that at a higher temperature produced 'The Interrogative Mood' and Powell's earlier novels.
Palatable food can be made from the remains of a meal by a skilled cook, but not food that one would confuse with filet mignon. 'You and I' sometimes seemed to be the book of a tired man; a little too repetitious, a little too lacking in vitality. Given its theme, which for all the comedy centres on disappointment and fading powers, this is perhaps not inappropriate.
'You and I' is likely to appeal to anyone who enjoyed 'The Interrogative Mood'. Powell can be amusing and uninhibited about the indignities of age, and his taste for the turns of vernacular speech is a steady source of pleasure. For other readers, particularly those familiar with Barthelme at his best, it may not be the ideal place to start with Powell.
on 8 October 2015
The moving nostalgic sweep of Padgett Powell’s last book The Interrogative Mood was always going to be a hard act to follow. How to create something new and inventive after such an innovative and unusual novel? Well, Powell continues to rebel against a normal plot development and instead goes for a conversation, a clever move given his wonderful ear for dialogue. Two men chat, drink coffee, reminisce, bicker and riff off each other, occasionally displaying a benevolent misanthropy and, at other times, a juvenile silliness. This senile slackerism throws up some wonderful lines: ‘I am in want of recreational drugs, untattered clothes, psychological counsel, carnal affection, a dog, and a child upon which to lavish trinkets and advice.’ The droll response: ‘I fear for this child.’ The swift comeback: ‘Not more than I.’
Powell’s characters all seem to want to hold a mirror up to what we have become and what we have lost, often giving voice to a yearning for past times that isn’t as sentimental as it would be in other hands. One of his old men opines: ‘As we decline the words get better.’ Indeed they do.
on 13 July 2014
I really enjoy Powell's tone, and all his games, and his dissenting voice, his jokes and his resigned quasi-despair These 2 oldish guys are never going to get off their porch, and their fantasies are always going to go round in circles, but it's a very entertaining and often poetic book, and just as good as all his later sui generis fictive essays.