Lucy and Todd

Padgett Powell — The Interrogative Mood

In Stuff We Like, The Gloves Are Off : Thoughts on Literature on July 26, 2013 at 7:21 am

‘these questions want you bad’  (113)

This is a marvellous creation, a kind of pop art that sets off blasts in your head in mystifying, startling, explosive, and expansive ways. The language is by turns old-fashioned, elegant, even (as Powell would put it)  ‘recherché’, or zapped through with deadpan profundities, bursts of slang and some superb snippets of repartee, often in black speak, or Southern dialect anyway (Powell lives in Florida). So the tone can change in an instant from po-faced and stuffy – ‘Do you think it plausible…’ (60) and, ‘…the phrase enjoys, I believe, considerable currency’ (91) – through attitudes technical and philosophical – ‘Is all life clueless, or is most of it clueless with momentary bursts of clueness, or is it a spectrum of cluelessness to clueness on which people reside at various points, and are the points at which people reside on the spectrum of cluelessness fixed or variable?’ (80) – to low-brow, with terms like ‘cut slack’ (3), ‘…do Psalms do it for you?’ (1), ‘is it received hogwash…’ (14) – or sometimes all at once, as in: ‘Do people who purport to know what a fractal is have a leg up on those who confess they don’t?’ (18) I like that ‘leg up’. Or this perfunctory quandary: ‘Should non-asses have to put up with asses?’ (109)

The weird effect of all these questions is warmth, humanity, and an infectious curiosity (about life and, apparently, about the reader). It’s welcoming! The questioner seems lenient about human failings, and human perplexities. How easily bamboozled we are if someone shows us the least bit of attention. It makes you feel loved and needed, to be talked to this much. I’m a sucker for it: I love being asked questions! And our interrogator is always polite, painstakingly so. ‘Can you see yet (I hardly mean to single you out: we will all look horrible and we will all look like old women) how horrible you will look as a very old woman?’ (7)

These are probing questions, and one’s instinct is to answer them. If it’s a novel, it’s certainly a very odd one; but in the end the book is asking what all novels ask the unseen reader: is anyone out there? Powell chafes at this divide and wittily acknowledges it. Does he care about the answers? There are times in the book when he directly puzzles over who we are, and demands details: ‘If there is a missed sexual encounter in your past, do you recall the name of the person it might have involved? Would you be willing to share that name and the particulars with me?’ (77)

It’s also a deconstruction (not in the Lacanian sense, more in the bulldozer sense) of what a novel, or poem, should be: a sincere exploration of what’s in the writer’s head at the time. The only other similarities here to more conventional types of novel include flashbacks, some hints of autobiographical info, incidental factual (loosely educational) asides, and indications of the narrator’s main concerns, worries, irritations, foibles and even medical problems. Recurrent themes are birds (especially owls, eagles, buzzards and blue jays), pine trees, handyman tools, guitarists, model train sets, medieval sieges, nakedness, clowns, hospitals and nurses, rain, guns, chocolate, vegetarians, dogs (poodles and terriers), snakes (moccasins in particular), monkeys, horses, whores, whiskey, radishes, ‘questionable’ water drunk from garden hoses, and the author’s apparent aversion to getting mail and talking on the phone. All very reasonable preoccupations! He also likes to conjure up fantasy hidey-holes – abandoned silver mines, Andean cabins, powerboats on Lake Michigan. Again and again, the idea of wholesale retreat, hermitude, comes up, lying in a hammock somewhere and living in a secluded, self-sufficient kind of way. But, he asks, ‘What if the cartoonist R. Crumb were your neighbor? Would you sleep better, or worse, or the same knowing R. Crumb was your neighbor in the next quaint stone medieval cottage in the South of France?’ (44)

Rather than forming a cohesive thread, these ideas are laid out for us intermittently, as a cat of ours used to lay out the organs of her prey in a straight line across the doormat. Some are innocent questions, some sweet: ‘Do you suppose that once a bird knows how to fly he pretty much can expect to fly without incident, more or less as, say, we walk about, or would you think bird flying to be fraught with aeronautical accident?’ (118) Others are loaded questions, like: ‘Have you ever been not disappointed by a banana split?’ (122) Most don’t lead in any obvious way from one to another, in fact Powell’s great at giving each separate question equal weight and making them work against each other. Each is distinct, there’s no hierarchy of the important vs. the trivial: they all get an airing. And the discontinuity is part of the pleasure. The book has a nice childish element to it too, since it’s children who ask the most questions, and you come to depend on the inexhaustible flow of them here. In fact, what starts as a bewildering array of random thoughts becomes a tight-rope walk – you fear Powell will fall and forget to turn every sentence into a question. That would be hugely disappointing. But he doesn’t, not once, and the effects of all this are weird and new. And fun.

There’s a lot of information about the world here and free handy hints, words of wisdom, touching pastoral moments and shifts into nostalgia – for green shield stamps, for instance, and the ice cream man, or those ‘manila rubber buttons in the garters that held up ladies’ hose’ (3). ‘Do you think the heyday of hairspray was the 1960s, or has it lived on?’ he asks, and ‘Are Kotex still worn on belts?’ (120) He throws all this at you without seeming to draw breath, and you end up astounded to consider this pile he’s amassed (or we have) of all the things human beings know and think about; everything we’ve been through, and are yet to go through.

The wit is in the way he uses language, but also in the absurd juxtapositions, when he follows a serious question with something incontrovertibly frivolous, as in: ‘If you were sitting…on a stool at the soda fountain of an old drugstore…and a robber came in armed and commenced holding the place up, and you had a nice safe handy shot at the back of his head with a convenient good and heavy blunt instrument, would you take it? Do you find the expense of alterations at an alteration shop prohibitive?’ (36-7) Another fine pairing: ‘Do you realize that on Sunday-morning network television in the United States of America one can hear a voice-over in a commercial for erectile dysfunction informing the target audience, presumable families headed for church, that an erection lasting more than four hours should be regarded as a medical emergency? Would you rather be kicked in the head by a horse or a bull?’ (111) As a result, the book is a non-stop thrill to read: moving, disturbing, heroic, and terribly funny at times. There are horrific moments too, scary images abruptly shoved before you, such as his description of cows being slaughtered (128), which is barely contained a question 170 words long, making it really a mini-essay on what our beef needs entail.

At first you just don’t know how the thing works, but within thirty pages I was completely hooked and noting my favorites. Quoted in order of appearance:

‘Are you comforted by the assertion that there are yet people on Earth who know what they are doing? Or, like me, do you subscribe to the notion that people who knew what they were doing began to die off about 1945 and are now on the brink of extinction?’ (6)

‘Are you comforted by good tile?’ (11)

‘Is the sky the limit?’ (14)

‘Does the question of where all the garbage goes and how can it not soon not be able to go there bother you? Should I have put that a little more clearly?’ (19)

‘Would you trust a vegetarian veterinarian? With your own dog?’ (21)

‘Do you carry a big gob of keys or have you managed to pare down?’ (24)

‘Is good amateur theater oxymoronic?’ (28)

‘Why do you think the hole in 45 rpm records was so large and the hole in the much larger 33 rpm record was so small?’ (29)

‘For good furniture, what is your wood of choice? Can I sell you on walnut?’ (31)

‘Have you ever carpeted a room with carpet samples?’ (38)

‘Do you miss Tab and do you fully understand its disappearance?’ (43)

‘Do you credit that a man seriously advanced “cogito ergo sum” with a straight face?’ (53)

‘Do you have a favorite dinosaur, and do you trust that the popular images of dinosaurs bear any resemblance to what they really looked like, and do you have any idea how dinosaur scientists think they know, from bones alone, what the damned things looked like?’ (56)

‘Have you ever known anyone proficient on a unicycle who struck you as a normal person…?’ (86)

‘What does “It just goes to show you” mean?’ (111)

‘Is Santa Claus in your view essentially a pedophile?’ (111)

‘Do you comprehend exactly how more casualties on a battlefield can be said to render previous casualties on the battlefield not to have been in vain? Is the argument beneath this logic not that the losing dead are worse off than the winning dead? Is there any hope? Do we need galoshes?’ (112)

‘Would you check in for a long stay, a short stay, or would you not stay at all at The Hotel Enema?’ (143)

‘Is the chief function of the doily protective or decorative or both?’ (146)

‘If told your house was to be painted either “arsenical green” or “cupric yarng,” which would you pick?’ (147)

‘Would you rather see a cancan show or a turtle race?’ (151)

And so it runs on, splendid, brave and fascinating. If there are faults, they would be these: it begins to feel as if Padgett assumes his reader is male, rather than male or female. Though this does allow him some fun jabs about erections and other stuff, it seems a mistake to make women feel excluded. And there are moments, just a few, when it can seem a bit too Americacentric. Also — I wasn’t convinced by the ending. This was perhaps inevitable because I didn’t want it to end. The whole book is sort of an open-ended question. And maybe that’s as it should be. But if I were the editor, I’d have recommended ending it with the entertaining riff on Jimi Hendrix. End on a high note.

So I will too. We have pity for each other. That’s a great human trait (though I’m sure animals have it too). We didn’t need Jesus or Mother Theresa to tell us to do it. Human beings have been pitying each other since the first woman breastfed her baby, and the first person spoke to another (unless they spoke in anger). And you see it when infants start to interact with other infants: the pity that comes when total selfdom bows to an awareness of other people. Social life requires empathy, and within empathy comes a humbling sense of equality, fellow feeling. This is the source of civilization, socialism, and most good novels. Within every question Padgett Powell asks, pity is there.

So we think The Interrogative Mood should be America’s new Citizenship Test.


(These quotations are the copyright of Padgett Powell, The Interrogative Mood, Ecco Press, 2009; Profile Books, 2010)


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