Though it’s been over two years since I was first introduced to Richard Powers (via Galatea 2.2), this is regrettably only the second book of his that I’ve read. Powers’ books are not the sort of fluff you can just pick up any time you want, after all. Reading them—and I think this is the hallmark of great books—is a work of care and devotion. Otherwise, you might as well be reading Twilight1.
Three Farmers On Their Way to a Dance is Power’s first novel (published way back in 1985, when I was born), but you’d never notice: it contains the same distinct Powerisms and the same quality of craft that mark every other book by him since.
There are three plots and several narrative voices in Three Farmers. It begins with Powers as a first-person narrator (which may or may not be an accurate depiction of the real Powers2 ) seeing a photograph while in Detroit, and this photograph sending him into a frenzied hunt to find out more about it. The real Richard Powers had just such an experience: he was a computer programmer until he saw “Young Farmers” by August Sander (the photograph on the book cover), at which point he quit his job and wrote his first novel. I’ll leave it to you to figure out the recursive nature of that event. This character (or I believe it to be) spends half the time as an actionable character and half the time as a general narrator, lecturing about, say, Henry Ford, or the nature of photography. He’s also the narrator whose philosophical musings tie the lessons of the other plot threads together.
The second plot is that of the three young boys in the photograph, taken as it was on the cusp of World War I. The story follows their travails as they deal with, run from, or fight in the conflict. On a smaller scale, it deals with their senses of identity (as they vacillate between being German and being Dutch); on a larger scale, it touches upon sense of biography (which becomes important later) and their physical (read: timeline) effect on the characters of other threads.
Finally, there is Peter Mays, whom we assume is contemporary to the Powers narrator, since he’s living in the 1980s. An unhappy technical writer for one of three virtually identical trade magazines, Mays sees a redhead lugging a clarinet one day from his office window, becomes smitten, and sets off on a journey to find his mystery woman. Along the way, as you might guess, his plans change and he learns a few things about himself.
Powers doesn’t necessarily write characters with whom we can relate, or sympathize. Powers as narrator is perhaps a half-character, and short of Cameron from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, I can’t think of any other character in popular culture who seems so deeply affected by seeing a work of art. The three Germanic friends in 1914 are all mad, or stupid, or crass, or naïve, or all of the above. Peter Mays, perhaps, plays the hopeless romantic at whom we coo sympathetically, but his existential helplessness turns him into something of a vehicle.
I don’t say any of this to imply that Powers has written anything insipid or distant. What I mean to say is that the story of Three Farmers isn’t necessarily to present a character who fulfills a narrative arc and you, as reader, eventually empathize with him and cheer inwardly when he succeeds at the story’s climax. No, what Powers has written here is more akin to the gears of a clock; we get to watch it run smoothly as well as break, its success or failure cascading from gear to successive gear.
So, in part, Three Farmers is a general historical critique of the 20th century—of World War I in particular—and the vagaries of its violence, celebrities/royalty, its reactions to blistering technological progress (and its effect on violence); in part, it’s a description of the biographical legacy of those same ideas; in part, it’s a dissertation on the very idea of biography, the disparity between historical record and personal experience. In sum, it’s an absolutely riveting book; if one is being picky, I suppose it’s not as polished as some of Powers’ later work, but its ideological, intellectual and emotional depth is breathtaking.