With the exception of Powers’ latest novel (which, admittedly, felt more like a novella, for him), or at least everything of his that I’ve read, invariably contains two parallel plots, one current and one historical, that converge around some central idea. The Gold Bug Variations is no different, and it may be easily be Powers’ most well-known work, and I daresay his most lengthy and daring.
To put it glibly, The Gold Bug Variations draws connecting lines between genetics, music (specifically Bach’s Goldberg Variations), and to some degree, computer science. While the book certainly has a long reach, its ultimate impact fails to be quite as impressive as it promises to be.
Three stories in one
The briefest of summation as can be applied: Stuart Ressler, a young molecular biologist, joins a team at the University of Illinois in the 1950s to crack the genetic code. His first year, he manages to fall in love with a married colleague, and comes upon the cusp of a major breakthrough by happenstance when he begins to listen to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, and realizes the similarity between the music’s variation from four bass notes and DNA’s variation from four base chemical pairs. Fast forward to the mid-80s: Ressler is now working at a data processing facility in New York, where he plays the father figure to a young colleague named Todd, who works as a night operator even though his real passion is obscure Flemish painters. Todd meets and courts a librarian named Jan, who immediately falls in love with him (romantically) and with Ressler (not romantically). Jump ahead several more years: Ressler has recently died, Todd is apparently somewhere in the Low Countries, and Jan is falling apart at the seams as she attempts to figure out what went wrong with Todd, understand Ressler’s abandoned work in genetics, and cope with the loss of both of them.
In mechanical terms, I would not call Powers the greatest writer of our generation. Even in his other books which I prefer to Goldbug have rhetorical flair but relatively uncompelling characters. See William Deresiewicz’s article for The Nation:
[W]hat’s missing from the novel is, well, a novel. The characters are idealized, the love stories mawkish and clichéd, the emotions meant to ground the scientific speculations in lived experience announced rather than established. The thinnest of devices are introduced to allow Powers to suspend the plot for dozens of pages at a stretch while he lays out the genetic and musicological basics that will ultimately enable him to get to the interesting stuff.
He has been called an experimental novelist for some reason, but aside from a predilection for double plots, his approach to narrative is quite conventional, even naïve. Rather than Pynchon and DeLillo, the writer he most reminds me of is Douglas Hofstadter in Gödel, Escher, Bach, and much of what Powers does is closer to science writing than to fiction.
There’s an important point to be had here: Powers’ characters don’t usually act, or speak, or even think as we expect real people to, but instead do whatever he feels is necessarily to illustrate his next large-scale point about whichever topic he’s covering; thus, every character sounds like Richard Powers, even when narrated in the first person (as Jan is). I think Deresiewicz’s point stands: Powers seems to be a wonderful science writer who, for reasons unbeknown to us, insists upon writing fiction.
That’s not entirely fair: Powers isn’t a bad fiction writer, but when he’s particularly excited about whatever “macro” idea he’s integrating, he tends to forget himself, as was the case with The Gold Bug Variations. Paradoxically, though his characters were thin and weak, his writing was as rhetorically-exciting as I’ve ever seen it, which may account for some of the novels girth; it seemed at times he gets so wrapped up in adjectives and similes to describe the new morning that he forgets his character needs to get out of bed.
Encryption and Variation
The book’s name, and in some ways its content, is an elaborate pun about the aforementioned Goldberg Variations by Bach and The Gold Bug by Edgar Allen Poe, the first book to popularize the notion of simple encryption and substitution ciphers. Powers has muddled the three all up until the reader is almost convinced that it’s there’s an elaborate connection between the three in nature; that music, the building blocks of life, and mathematical theory are all vines intertwined around the same academic tree. But they aren’t; at least, not in the fulfilling sense that we’d like it to be, hoping against our better sense for Dr. Ressler’s sudden appreciation of the Goldberg variations to spark some revolution in the field. At best, you could say that these things are metaphors for each other, and that they have a vivid and romantic similarity.
This knowledge is why, when Powers has finally climaxed, one feels distinctly underwhelmed; in the words of Peggy Lee: “Is That All There Is?” It’s all very clever, but it doesn’t invoke the melancholy or somber gravity of Three Farmers, and our relative distance from the characters has preempted much personal involvement. There isn’t a nice ending to be had, anyway; in retrospect, The Gold Bug Variations was as much about failure and disappointment and mistakes as it was ever about the grand relationship between nature, art, and math. The characters are irreparable misfits with unlovable flaws who remain largely unloved and unsuccessful and unimpressive. I can’t give details without spoiling the second half the book, but needless to say, Powers’ usually static characters were positively immobile this time around—once again, perhaps because Powers was too busy waxing eloquent about his hobby horses to dedicate much time to writing characters or plot.