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Ecologies of Knowledge: The Encyclopedic Narratives of Richard Powers and His Contemporaries.

An encyclopedic "Continuing Education Project" which evolves into a survival lesson on complexity and ecological wisdom, Richard Powers's The Gold Bug Variations strives to be nothing less than "the universe's User's Manual"--"Not a how-to, but another kind of self-help manual all together" (Gold Bug 124, 88; Galatea 241).(1) The encyclopedic breadth of Gold Bug, like the expansive novels of Powers's most ambitious contemporaries, is an attempt to confront the devastating, large-scale ecological catastrophes that these writers sense on the millennium's horizon.

Gold Bug marvels at the magnificent complexity and unlikelihood of the human archive, while William T. Vollmann's You Bright and Risen Angels and Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes chronicle the brutal cultural and environmental degradation of America from the arrival of the Vikings to "the present when everything is sort of concreted over."(2) In David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, former Las Vegas crooner, now President, Johnny Gentle's scheme to repackage "a whole new North America for a crazy post-millennial world" includes catapulting garbage-laden projectiles across the border into a Canadian wasteland.(3) Evan Dara, the newest encyclopedist on the block, records the multiple voices a local toxic disaster scatters from a small Missouri community in his Gaddis-like novel The Lost Scrapbook. Finally, Bob Shacochis's Swimming in the Volcano, the first volume of his Soufriere Trilogy, depicts the rampant "global pillage" thirty years of American foreign policy have wrought on the economy and ecology of the Caribbean.(4) All of these spectacular, excessive fictions cultivate "a perpetual condition of wonder" (GB 411) as they engage the complex order of the natural kingdom and warn us about the fragility of our niche in the ecosystem. The gigantic scale of these narratives strives to duplicate the natural richness of the planet and to counter the effects of humankind's impact upon it on a global scale, because the global scale is the scale of nature.

In 1976, in the vapor trail of Pynchon's rocket, Edward Mendelson suggested formal criteria for encyclopedic narratives, including The Divine Comedy, Don Quixote, Gargantua and Pantagruel, Faust, Moby-Dick, Ulysses, and Gravity's Rainbow. According to Mendelson, these massive fictions must originate during periods of cultural turmoil, articulate an emerging culture's sense of its existence, catalog a range of literary styles and narrative forms, and represent the current state of knowledge through a synecdochal account of technology, science, art, or sociopolitical vision. In addition to these intrinsic characteristics, Mendelson identifies "extrinsic matters of reception and expectation"--an encyclopedic narrative must provide an exclusive "cultural focus" for a national literature. While the encyclopedic novels of Powers and his contemporaries meet Mendelson's formal definition for encyclopedic narratives, they are not totalizing "literary monument[s]" but narrative ecologies.(5)

Narrative ecologies are complex, hybrid networks of information systems linked by narrative. One notable feature of these encyclopedists' books is the diversity of specialized knowledge--from biology, chemistry, economics, entomology, linguistics, music, mythology, painting, physics, psychology, and other fields--that they process. However, when we judge these texts as encyclopedias, they become grand-scale failures. As Powers notes, explaining photographer August Sander's failed attempt to record "his human encyclopedia," Man of the Twentieth Century: "The shattered, overambitious, unfinished work seems the best possible vehicle for its undemonstrable subject.... The incomplete reference book is the most accurate" (Three Farmers 41, 43-44). What is missing from Mendelson's schema and what keeps the novels of Powers and his contemporaries from being grand-scale failures along the lines of Sander's project is the imposition of narrative. For when narrative enters a static encyclopedic system, a living, evolving textual ecology unfolds.

Biological metaphors of self-organization began to appear in the work of many scientifically cognizant novelists, including Powers and Vollmann, during the 1980s. Such a conceit is foregrounded in Gold Bug, as Jan O'Deigh delves into her genetic research project, wondering, "How can pruning produce the irreducible width of the world lab?" (253). It is likely that it could not, explains biologist Stuart Kauffman. If evolution depends on selective processes alone, then humans are indeed biological accidents, or, in Kauffman's terms, "molecular Rube Goldbergs."(6) Instead, Kauffman posits a theory of emergence that weds selection to self-organization in order for life to be grasped as inevitable, complex, and whole: "Life, in this view, is an emergent phenomenon arising as the molecular diversity of a prebiotic chemical system increases beyond a threshold of complexity.... Life, in this view, is not to be located in the parts, but in the collective emergent properties of the whole they create" (24). In other words, self-organizing processes create from the bottom up, while selection weeds life's proliferating catalog from the top down. Similarly, the narrative ecologies of Powers and his encyclopedic contemporaries are hybrid information networks linked by multiple narrative nodes. Complex and coherent, these narrative ecologies grow and flourish through "the emergent interplay of parts"(370), the collective properties of interacting networks, which permit the whole to exceed the limitations of its parts.

Life's emergence from this chemical soup is not remarkable, Kauffman claims, but our human variation on life's theme is. With the ecological verdict that "we are driving the life crystal back into inertness" (332), Powers leads his fellow encyclopedists in forging a natural contract with the planet.(7) "[R]everence, not mastery" is the purpose of science (411), Ressler warns O'Deigh, "We should feel dumb amazement. Incredulous, gasping gratitude that we've landed the chance at all, the outside chance to be able to comprehend, to save any fraction of it" (333).

The new encyclopedists do not capitulate to the overwhelming amount of information in postmodern culture. While Powers laments that his novels appear to be "a comic-book simplification of any ten unbuffered minutes in the Information Age,"(8) readers of Gold Bug are often amazed by how the novel's fractal symmetry extends its four base notes. Each narrative thread echoes another. Each variation denies it is a variation and mutates the original theme with infinite invention. Self-similar patterns recur at every level of the novel's hierarchy: "Ecology's every part ... carries in it some terraced, infinitely dense ecosystem, an inherited hint of the whole" (627).

The encyclopedia, like narrative, is a system for organizing information. Within the multi-, inter-, and cross-disciplinary space of encyclopedic information systems, complexity and meaning emerge through narrative. "To narrate," according to the O.E.D., is "to relate.... [to] make a relation." In Gold Bug the crucial lesson Stuart Ressler learns is "Not what a thing is, but how it connects to others.... Each thing is what it is only through everything else" (179-80). Not essence but relation--narrative circulation--opens the encyclopedic field, clearing the ecological routes by which knowledge circulates.

In this way Gold Bug presents (and embodies) models of narrative ecology that bridge the incompleteness of encyclopedic structures. Powers's metaphor for the earth's overtaxed ecology is "a lending library--huge, conglomerate, multinational, underfunded, overinvested" (326). Humanity's only hope, Ressler imagines, is that we learn "the layout of the place, the links" through the "mysterious, interlocked systems" of life's encyclopedia (326, 334). Circulation is "the language of life" (327), and O'Deigh envisions the trajectory of evolutionary processes as "an intricate switchboard, paths for passing signals back and forth: generation to generation, species to species, environment to creature, and back again" (251). Narrative models the circulatory flow of information through the earth's library and its analogue, the encyclopedia, "an ecology of knowledge" (326).

Narrative is inseparable from knowledge; what we know depends upon how we know. All knowledge, essentially, is translation. And so in Gold Bug and elsewhere Powers returns to the same question from A Midsummer Night's Dream: "How do you put moonlight into a chamber?" The novel, which Powers calls his "act of unschooled translation" (Galatea 241), offers two answers: either you can build a room to contain the moon, or you can dress someone up as the moon. This second strategy, a metaphor for the metaphoric process, translates information from one context/discipline/discourse to another. When O'Deigh looks up the definition of translate, she finds, "Latin origin: to relocate, carry across, port over," as well as "to bring to a state of spiritual or emotional ecstasy" and "the now-familiar bio-chemical one" (488). Jay Labinger's discussion of coding in Powers's novel notes that metaphoric language generates a "many-to-one-mapping" which produces cascades of new meaning.(9) "The aim is not to extend the source," Powers writes, "but to widen the target, to embrace more than was possible before" (491).

The narrative ecologies of Powers, Vollmann, Wallace, Dara, and Shacochis--these complex, hybrid attempts to widen the target--are "antidote[s] for arrogance."(10) They are attempts to set aside mastery, domination, and possession in favor of an ecological "ethic of tending" (336) advocating curiosity and care. A fractal map into the mystery, "the heft, bruise and hopeless muddle of the world's irreducible particulars" (601), these novels urge their readers to practice global and local wisdom. "Survival and happiness depend on knowledge," Vollmann writes. "And knowledge can only be obtained through openness, which requires vulnerability, curiosity, and suffering."(11) "How much does the individual matter?" Powers asks. It depends whether he pushes the right way. But these encyclopedists claim we are collectively pushing the wrong way, and their big books push back. As "exercises in extended empathy" (476), these narrative ecologies provoke "the courage of curiosity" (614), and send us out into the world reconfigured.


(1) Quotations from Richard Powers's works are cited parenthetically: The Gold Bug Variations (New York: William Morrow, 1991); Galatea 2.2 (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1995); Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance (New York: William Morrow, 1985).

(2) Larry McCaffrey, "An Interview with William T. Vollmann," Review of Contemporary Fiction 13 (Summer 1993): 9.

(3) David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest (Boston: Little, Brown, 1996), 384.

(4) Shacochis, who acknowledges Powers as "one of the best novelists of my generation," borrows the phrase "global pillage" from Prisoner's Dilemma to characterize the invasion of American politicos and Eurotrash tourists who dismiss the people and nature of the Caribbean as mere scenery. Swimming in the Volcano (New York: Penguin, 1993), 519.

(5) Edward Mendelson, "Encyclopedic Narrative from Dante to Pynchon," MLN 91 (1976): 1268. Mendelson's insistence on the cultural dominance of a single encyclopedic text assumes, falsely I believe, that the encyclopedic project can succeed. By way of contrast, narrative ecologies organize non-totalitarian networks that situate global and local knowledges in a "thick" field.

(6) Stanley Kauffman, At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 98; hereafter cited parenthetically.

(7) Philosopher Michel Serres calls for "a natural contract of symbiosis and reciprocity, in which our relationship to things would set aside mastery and possession in favor of admiring attention, reciprocity, contemplation and respect." The Natural Contract, trans. Elizabeth MacArthur and William Paulson (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1995), 38.

(8) "Mapping the Here and Now: An Interview with Richard Powers," Tamaqua 5 (Fall 1995): 10-20.

(9) Jay Labinger, "Encoding an Infinite Message: Richard Powers's The Gold Bug Variations," Configurations 3 (1995): 82.

(10) Evan Dara, The Lost Scrapbook (Normal, IL: FC2, 1995): 284; hereafter cited parenthetically.

(11) William Vollmann, "American Writing Today: Diagnosis of the Disease," Conjunctions 15 (1990): 356.

TREY STRECKER, a doctoral student at Ball State University, is completing a dissertation on contemporary American encyclopedic fiction.
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Author:Strecker, Trey
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Date:Sep 22, 1998
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