The Gold Bug Variations by Richard Powers: A review
Bewilderment which I read late last year. So it was with some confidence that I would like it that I picked this early book of his to read. What the experience taught me is that one can't always depend on recreating one's enjoyment of a writer's later works with his earlier efforts. This book was published in 1991 and I hated it.
The first thing to be said about the book is that it is long, nearly 700 pages, and, in my opinion, if an unsparing editor had cut it to half that length, it might have been a better book. Powers seemed determined to never use only one word if ten could be employed to convey the same meaning. Moreover, he seemed equally determined to use some of the most obscure words in the language. (I'm sorry I didn't write any of them down to give you an example of what I mean; I was just too exasperated.)
I take a back seat to no one in my appreciation of our language. I'm even currently slogging my way through a nonfiction book about its history and rise to dominance on the world stage today (The Rise of English: Global Politics and the Power of Language by Rosemary C. Salomone), but surely the first test of being a good writer is to use cogent and accessible language and not exasperate your reader by making her have to pick up a dictionary every five minutes. Powers failed that test for me with this particular book.
But about the plot...
There are two tracks to the plot. The first occurs in 1957/58 and the second takes place in 1983. The two stories are intertwined. In the earlier track, scientists, including Dr. Stuart Ressler, are attempting to decode the message of the DNA spiral. In the 1983 story, we learn that Dr. Ressler is working at a commercial data processing center and art historian Frank Todd has just started working there and is curious as to why Ressler abandoned research that might have won him the Nobel Prize. Todd gets a young research librarian named Jan O'Deigh to investigate Ressler's background. Soon after the effort begins, Ressler dies of cancer, so there is never an opportunity to ask him about his reasons.
In the 1958 narrative, we learn that Ressler had an affair with another scientist with whom he worked, Dr. Jeanette Koss. Dr. Koss had given Ressler a vinyl record featuring Glenn Gould playing Bach's "Goldberg Variations." Ressler plays the record constantly and it becomes a kind of metaphor for their search for the message in DNA.
The 1983 narrative is essentially Jan O'Deigh's field notebook. From it we learn information about DNA and Ressler's and Koss's research. She is attempting to educate herself on the subject and, as we read, she educates us as well.
The construct of metaphor is essential to the novel's plot. In fact, it seems that the author may have meant it as an analogy between "The Goldberg Variations" and the DNA code, and I think the truth is that I may just not be smart enough to understand all that. To do so might require a firmer grounding in philosophy and science than I have. It is a complex and difficult plot that demands a lot of the reader and there were many references that are probably lost on the unprepared reader. I am quite sure there were many that were lost on me.
I've often felt that the time that one reads a particular book has much to do with one's enjoyment or lack of enjoyment of it, so perhaps I just picked this one up at the wrong time of my life. In looking at reader reviews of the book on Goodreads, I was struck by the fact that most of them were glowing. Those readers really, really liked this book! So, once again I am the rebel, the outlier. I can live with that.
My rating: 1 of 5 stars