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Deciphering the code in Richard Powers's The Gold Bug Variations.


As a preface to The Gold Bug Variations, this codon-like string of letters not only mirrors the genetic sequencing found throughout the narrative; it also troubles the unsuspecting reader who engages Powers's novel for the first time. Is there a hidden, encoded message? If so, can it be deciphered using the coding techniques found throughout Gold Bug? Or is this cryptogram something else entirely?

Although Luc Herman and Geert Lernout refer to these thirty-two letter groupings as a "motto" (Mosaic 31.4 [Dec. 1998]: 162), it seems more realistic to assume that these four lines function as an "acknowledgements page." In an interview with Jim Nielson, Powers states, "I have always tried to write my personal landmarks directly into my books in some way, if not in an acknowledgments page, then by some quotation or homage or identifiable theft that brands the book's indebtedness" (The Review of Contemporary Fiction 18.3 [Fall 1998]: 21). Although "motto" seems to be a misnomer, Herman and Lernout do, in fact, suggest that the "clue" to this arrangement "lies in the last two triplets, which represent the initials of Johann Sebastian Bach and of Bach's motto: Semper Dei Gloria. The triplets do not contain coded information. Instead, the letters may well be the initials of sixty-three different names, of which Bach's is the last. The proliferation of P's in the final position may be explained by the presence, in the potential list of initials, of family members of Richard Powers, and the question marks probably represent unknown middle names" (162). I am not exactly sure how Herman and Lernout arrived at the number "sixty-three," instead of thirty-two, but four of Powers's seven other novels--including the two books published before Gold Bug--contain dedications to different personages (Marcel Proust, Anne Jardin, T. E. Lawrence, and Emily Dickinson, to name a few), suggesting that Powers might have done the same with this text.

Furthermore, a closer investigation into the "family members" hypothesis proves fruitful. In his Understanding Richard Powers, Joseph Dewey names Powers's parents and explains that Powers was "the fourth of five children, two older sisters and a brother and one younger brother," and that he "spent ... five 'eye-opening' years in Thailand when his father accepted an appointment with the International School of Bangkok" (Understanding Richard Powers. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2002. 152, 6). According to the school's alumni search page, seven people with the last name of Powers were, in some manner, affiliated with the institution between the years 1971 and 1975--Guy Powers (1971), Patricia Powers (1971), Peggy Powers (1972), Maureen Powers (1973), Bob Powers (1974), Robert Powers (1974), and Richard Powers (1975) [International School of Bangkok Network. Last accessed 4 April 2006 <>]. One may, therefore, reasonably hypothesize that these individuals are members of Powers's family, and a quick analysis of the codon sequence reveals that several of these names could potentially correspond to various letter triplets. DJP and RFP appear adjacent to each other in the first line and could possibly stand for Powers's parents--Donna and Richard Powers. PJP could be either Patricia or Peggy Powers, MEP could represent Maureen Powers, BJP could be Bob Powers, and REP or RCP could signify Robert Powers (however, there is no way to verify whether "Bob" and "Robert" are two individuals or one person whose name was incorrectly duplicated on the alumni page).

Herman and Lernout also suggest that RLS could represent either Robert L. Sinsheimer or Robert Louis Stevenson. While I cannot invalidate such a claim, a more logical choice would be Robert L. Schneider, "a charismatic teacher" at the University of Illinois from 1954-1988 "who convinced [Powers] that literature was the 'perfect place for someone who wanted the aerial view'" (Dewey 7), a phrase he repeats in several interviews. Lastly, J?H could possibly refer to J.B.S. Haldane, a British geneticist who claimed the initials "J.B.S." as his first name (hence, an unknown middle name) and whom Jan refers to when answering a particular question from a library patron (The Gold Bug Variations. NY: William Morrow, 1991. 142). However, since these designations cannot be proven conclusively, what is most important about this page is not the identification of a few scattered names since, as Herman and Lernout note, "the possibilities ... are numerous, perhaps even infinite" (163), but the manner in which these four lines compel the reader to search for meaning amidst the seemingly random sequencing, a decoding activity similar to that which the characters in Gold Bug often undertake.

J. T. Thomas, University of South Carolina
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Author:Thomas, J.T.
Publication:Notes on Contemporary Literature
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2006
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