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The Gold Bug Variations Paperback – 30 Sep 1992
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About the Author
RICHARD POWERS is the author of ten novels. The Echo Maker won the National Book Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Powers has received a MacArthur Fellowship, a Lannan Literary Award and the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Historical Fiction. He lives in Illinois.
FACEBOOK: RICHARD POWERS
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There are are really 3 stories here which intertwine. 4 if you count the history of DNA. There is the story of Stuart Ressler as a young man at the height of his academic prowess. The personal choices he makes, how the affect his work and set him on the course for the rest of his life. This part includes his introduction to music in the form of Bach's "Goldberg variations". It is from this music that the novel takes it's form with an intro/outro aria and 30 variations in between. I needed to do some background reading here and work out how closely the themes of the chapters matched the themes of the original variations. I'm still not entirely sure and I'll probably come back to it later.
The second story is that of Jan, a public librarian, who ends up studying Ressler's story to learn more about him. It's from this research that we get much of the first story. She's also drawn into the world of the 3rd story involving Ressler and Franklin Todd, who work the nightshift on a tedious job running batch jobs on a computer (this was based on late 80's tech, so will look very dated to today's readers, but is in no way an issue).
It's very hard to write a good review here because there's simply so much to look at. It's a book that needs to be read slowly, yet at the same time devoured eagerly. It requires your full attention in case you miss something.
Oh, and if you feel the urge to listen to Bach's Goldberg Variations, as I did, then I can recommend the Murray Perahia version. Plug your headphones in and settle down with a good book ...
Powers novel is a long, complex and difficult read. It demands total concentration and perhaps a good level of knowledge of western art, and science. As one reads the novel one is left with the impression that Powers not only alludes to but discusses the whole canon of western art. Yet on the other hand, there is a recurring refrain that runs throughout the novel, "What could be simpler?" which hints that Powers is teasing the reader by suggesting that the novel is a simple read. And there is a grain of truth in this phrase because for all its complexity the basic story of the novel is simple and can be summarised thus. The novel is set mainly in Brooklyn, New York. The first person narrator, Jan O'Deigh, gets a note from an old lover, Franklin Todd telling her about the death of a mutual friend, Stuart Ressler a genetic research scientist, whom she had met and worked with some years earlier. She begins to ponder her meeting and knowledge of Ressler. Jan subsequently quits her job as a librarian to tell her and Resseler's story. In doing so Jan looks back over a period from the late 1950's to the late 1980's. Jan effectively goes on a quest to crack a code of the late Dr Ressler's abandoned genetic research project. Along with the process of revealing Dr Ressler to us and teaching herself science and the scientific research method, Jan takes time out to tell us about two doomed ménage a trois love stories. On top of all this Powers takes the opportunity to show off his broad knowledge of the arts and his genius for the use of language.
There are all sorts of clever schemes at work in the novel. There is the important issue of the double helix genetic code as the building block for life; there is a theme about the limitation of language in describing and explaining the world and to reveal this there is a lavish display of figures of speech, especially puns, throughout the novel. There is a recurring motif on the number 4 for example drawing analogies between the four note base motif in Bach's Goldberg Variations with "a simple self duplicating string of four letters that inscribes an entire living being." And of course the title of the novel alludes to, and it draws on, The Gold Bug a short story by Edgar Alan Poe where the hero goes in search of treasure after being bitten by a bug thought to be made of pure gold. In Powers novel the search is for the genetic code. The title also alludes to Bach' Goldberg Variations which is a setting of an aria, and aria de capo and 30 variations for harpsichord. Powers novel imitates this by having 30 chapters with an aria in the shape of a poem and a single sentence aria da capo to end the novel.
It might well be asked how does the reader engage with this esoteric and erudite novel. From the point of plot if there is one holding the novel together it is the narrator's dogged pursuance of information about Ressler and his work. The book cannot be considered a great page turner. Nonetheless, I could not help but want to learn more about Ressler and the other three main characters. Furthermore, if there is an emotional undertow in the novel it must be the almost tragic withdrawal and decline of Ressler from the scientific community. Another way of engaging with the novel is through its beauty. This is rendered by means of its complex form through which Powers suggest and weaves connections between science and art, the creation of life and how that life is lived.
At times whilst reading the novel the science can be over whelming which could easily lead one's attention and concentration to flag. And let's be honest for the majority of readers, including me, unless you have a background in the science of genetics you will not understand the detail and depth to which Powers takes the reader into the world of genetics. But this does not mean that appreciation of the novel is significantly lost because for one thing the narrator's unravelling of Ressler the scientist draws us into the science even though we may not fully grasps it.
The Gold Bug Variations is a mesmerizing novel about the very basic stuff of life on the one hand and on the other an exploration of some the things that make life worth living, for example love and the arts. This must be one of the cleverest novels since Proust's and Joyce's masterpieces. Where Proust played with time and memory and Joyce gives a modern take on Odysseus' homeward journey form Troy compressed into 24 hours, Powers combines art and science and render them through figurative language to reveal the short comings of language as a means of communication. A difficult and demanding read but worth it if only for Powers use of language.