13 November 2010


The Interrogative Mood: A Novel?, by Padgett Powell (Profile)

Is my review of a novel composed entirely of questions itself going to be composed entirely of questions? What do you think? What is this novel composed entirely of questions about? Is it “about” anything? How are we to imagine the scenario? Do certain lines and section-breaks in the novel, one coming after the question “Do you have anything you’d like to say?”, imply unheard answers by another character? If we assume the questioner is speaking his questions out loud, what are we to make of the moment when he says he was writing one? Is this interrogation taking place in a military base, or a padded cell, or in Purgatory? Who are the other people present who never speak either but are implied exactly once? Or is this all in the questioner’s head? And if so, how did we get inside his head? How can we get out?

Does a person who constantly asks questions not give away more about himself than perhaps he intends? Does the flurry of references to surgery, disease, and biopsies imply that the questioner is a hypochondriac, or that he is sick? Why is he obsessed with, among other things, “rubber army men”, pine needles, tree bark, brick masons, fantasies of retreating from the world into a simple life, and “the velvet ant”? Does he plot seduction, or revenge, or does he just want to know a lot of things before he goes? May I hasten to add that he realizes (“Could you, or someone, do you think, make […] a profile of me from the questions I have asked you?”) that he is exposing himself through his pitiless query-bombardment? Did you notice how useful, by the way, is the phrase “May I hasten to add”, since it allows one to disguise a simple declaration as a question? Is that cheating?

Am I halfway through this review yet? Is it getting difficult to keep asking questions? Is it getting difficult to keep reading them? Would you like me to stop? Have you, in a curious way, almost forgotten what a simple declarative statement sounds like in your head, its comfortingly parabolic music? Do you feel as though you are talking to a teenager? Or are you fully acclimatized, by now, to the interrogative mood? Do you even like it?

When the questioner invites the questionee to respond to an apparent bit of nonsense — “chiropractic boondoggle” — is he performing a kind of verbal Rorschach test? If I said that this strain of nonsense-Rorschach phraseology reminded me of an old army pizza kitten, would an image form in your mind of what an old army pizza kitten is? What does it look like?

Do you feel uncomfortable? Does even a short text comprised entirely of questions feel like an oppressive harangue? Might a longer text of the same ilk nonetheless acquire a hypnotic energy, a relentless comedy and half-crazed momentum? If I were to ask you, as the questioner does in this book, “Do you recall the last time you set something on fire that you were not supposed to set on fire?”, or “If you once owned a slide rule and do not have it now, do you know what happened to it?”, could you avoid thinking about what the answer is with respect to your own life? After many such questions, would the book not have become a kind of mirror? If so, will your experience of this book be more different from mine that similar to it, I mean even more so than is usually the case with books and readers? Is that interesting? Or is it merely to point out that any old questionnaire, commercial or psychological, is already a deeply designed literary artefact?

Don’t designers of commercial questionnaires, however, strive to avoid misunderstanding? And isn’t the question “Have you lost your mind?” that appears so dramatically in these pages poised with beautiful ambiguity between present-tense offence and the disinterested taking of a psychiatric history? (Doesn’t “What broke your heart” work in the much same way?) And when the questioner asks “Have you ever taking a beating? Would you like one?”, is he offering to assault his interlocutor violently, or is he perhaps offering a bowl of bonbons, to which no stage direction explicitly adverts? (Can you be an interlocutor if you never say anything? Or are you merely an audience? Or a reader?)

Do you think a novel should be about “characters” who undergo “development” and take the reader on an “emotional journey”? Would you be disappointed if I told you that this is not that kind of novel? Would you even refuse to call it a novel? Would I then become obliged to explain why it is a novel? Is that the tedious kind of generic debate that the book’s cute subtitle is designed to forestall? Can we assume, in that case, that the debate is thus forestalled? Do you mind?

Is there something else before you go? What’s that? Is this the most bloody-mindedly brilliant new work of fiction I have read this year? Why? Who’s asking? Could you stop that please?