Sunday, 27 March 2011

Padgett Powell, The Interrogative Mood (2009)


Not sure how I missed this when it was published a few years ago; for it is a thoroughly remarkable book. It sounds like the kind of project a person writes for a bet, or after having ingested too many Experimental Writing Biscuits (I've a supply of those myself in the cupboard, incidentally) -- for its every sentence is a question directed at the reader. Some of these are straightforward, some goofy, some thought-provoking; it's not easy to see any underlying logic in the stream of interrogatives and yet somehow, I'm not sure how (and I make it my business to know these things) it works. By 'works' I mean: it hold your attention; it entertains and amazes you; and it works in intriguing, profound ways upon the mind. Here's a taste:
Are your emotions pure? Are your nerves adjustable? How do you stand in relation to the potato? Should it still be Constantinople? Does a nameless horse make you more nervous or less nervous than a named horse? In your view, do children smell good? If before you now, would you eat animal crackers? Could you like down and rest on a sidewalk? Did you love your Mother and Father and do Psalms do it for you? If you are relegated to last place in every category, are you bothered enough to struggle up? Does your doorbell ever ring? Is there sand in your craw? Could Mendelyev place you correctly in a square on a chart of periodic identities, or would you resonate all over the board? How many push-ups can you do?
All the way through, like this. Hypnotic.

A couple of immediate, and gut-level responses (I mean: I haven't analysed the 4000-or-so constitutive questions in any systematic way): the questions are mostly closed -- for example, questions with a yes/no answer -- although a fair number are open; they are divided pretty equally between the literal and the metaphorical, and likewise between the practical and the for-want-of-a-better-word-we-might-as-well-etc the 'metaphysical', and the frame of reference is skewed pretty heavily American. Although the book is often very funny (indeed, I read passages aloud to my nine-year-old daughter -- only very occasionally having to bowdlerize or omit question on the hoof -- to her howls of laughter) I found the overall effect rather melancholic. But I strongly recommend you give it a go yourself.

3 comments:

Faster, Harder, More Challenging GeoX said...

Intriguing. From that excerpt, it sounds a LOT like something Donald Barthelme would have written.

embachman said...

For more interrogative storytelling, Gilbert Sorrentino's Gold Fools (2000) is well worth checking out as well.

springer said...

Powell was a student of Barthelme, so no surprise there.

For some reason, this got more attention in the UK than it did in the US. Perhaps its brand of absurdist humor is more in keeping with British sensibilities than American ones?