Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Interrogative Mood

My favorite literature-related blog is Scott Esposito's Conversational Reading. He recently had a post about a new book by Padgett Powell's new book The Interrogative Mood, which is described as a novel, but is really more of a book-length list poem consisting entirely of questions. Esposito cites an interview in which Powell talks about the origins of the book:

I was in the habit of receiving emails in a particular form from a female colleague at work, instructing me how to act,’ he says – he teaches creative writing at the University of Florida. ‘They would go something like this: “Is it time for our esteemed director to chat with the provost about the autonomy of the programme? Are we remembering what was promised us last week by the dean?” I started wanting something in response. So I sat down one morning and wrote: ‘‘Are your emotions pure? Are your nerves adjustable?” Within about two pages I was done with her and I was having so much fun I wanted to carry on.
And carry on he does, for close to two hundred pages. The obvious challenge, right from page one, given the severe formal limitation which the author has submitted himself to, is to somehow avoid making the reader feel bored or bludgeoned and overwhelmed by just too damned many things coming at him for too long a time.

So how do you do that? Well, it helps to be manic and it helps to be funny (this is the funniest book I've read in years) and it helps to be innovative and uninhibited and it helps to have a supercharged brain that that can get from point a to point b to point z and back again in lots of different ways.

Here's the opening salvo:

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 lie down and take a 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 Mendeleyev 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?

Are you inclined to favor the Windward Islands or the Leeward Islands? Does a man wearing hair tonic and chewing gum suggest criminality, or are you drawn to his happy-go-lucky charm? Are you familiar with the religious positions taken regarding the various hooves of animals? Under what circumstance, or set of circumstances, might you noodle for a catfish? Will you spend more money for better terry cloth? Is sugar your thing? If a gentle specimen of livestock passed you by en route to its slaughter, would you palm its rump? Are you disturbed by overtechnical shoes? Are you much taken by jewelry? Do you recall the passion you had as an undergraduate for philosophy? Do you have a headache?

Why won’t the aliens step forth to help us? Did you know that Native American mothers suckled their children to age five, merely bending at the waist to feed them afield? Have you ever witnessed the playing of shuffleboard at a nudist colony? If tennis courts could be of but one surface, which surface should that be? In your economics, are you, generally, laissez-faire or socialist? If you could design the flag for a nation, what color or colors would predominate?

This is essentially all by way of warming up. As Powell gets going, he keeps inventing new ways to bend sequences to new purposes and to begin connecting them so that they (at times) resonate with one another and (at times) leap off in other unanticipated directions. Sometimes there are little riffs with philosophical overtones:

Is there enough time left? Does it matter that I do not specify for what? Was there ever enough time? Was there once too much? Does the notion of “enough time” actually make any sense? Does it suggest we had things to do and could not do them for reasons other than that we were incompetents? Did we have things to do? Things better done than not? Thus, important things? Are there important things?
(The book I found myself thinking about as I was reading The Interrogative Mood is John Ashbery's A Wave. In both books, you basically are launched into a hyperstimulating verbal environment with sequences of sentences and thoughts coming at you in waves: the verbal equivalent of jazz, with many of the attendant pleasures thereof.)

Sometimes it feels as if you are under interrogation by a pyschologist attempting to assess your competencies and your character, as if in rehearsal for The Last Judgment:

Were you a thumb sucker? Would you rather argue with people or not? Can you think of a musical instrument useful in murder other than piano wire? Have you studied the soft toes of geckos? Do you comprehend with complete certainty how bonds work? Would you sail an ocean on a small boat? Do people who purport to know what a fractal is have a leg up on those who confess they don’t? If you came upon a party celebrating something or someone with a yellow sheet cake and white icing, would you partake happily? Do you remember the candies called jawbreakers and Fireballs? Do you have a cutting-edge TV? What dead person would you bring back to life? Do you favor protecting the little wilderness remaining, or do you concede that there is so little left it might as well be ceded to the tide? Would a small red balloon cheer you up? A dog?
And sometimes it's just, well, like this:

If I said to you, “I want to return to 1940 and have a big coupe with big running boards and drive it drunkenly and carefully along dirt roads never causing harm except for frightening chickens out of the road, and I want you standing out there on the running board saying Slow down, or Let me in, and laughing, but I don’t stop, because of course you don’t mean it, you think as I do that a big 1940s coupe and careful drunken driving and one party outside the car and one inside and both laughing and chickens spraying unhurt into the ditches is what life was then, is what life was before it became ruined by us and all our crap,” and if I said to you, “I have an actual goddamned time machine, I am not kidding, we can get in the coupe inside thirty seconds if we take off our clothes and push the red button underneath that computer over there, come on, strip, get ready”—would you get ready to go with me, and go? Would you ask a lot of questions? Or would you just say, “Shut up and push the button”?

So if you find yourself, as I did the other night, with your finger hovering over the keyboard as you debate with yourself whether or not a book of this kind might be worth ponying up some cash for? Shut up and push the button.