No one who enjoyed Richard Powers's remarkable breakthrough novel, Galatea 2.2
, will be surprised that he has returned to the richly promising realm of cyber-invention, one of our age's few remaining frontiers and a siren call to restless intellects. In Plowing the Dark
, an old friend recruits a disillusioned New York artist named Adie Klarpol to work on "the Cavern." TeraSys, a Seattle-based company, is building this virtual environment at great expense in the hope that it will lower its enormous tax liability as well as, in the long run, provide the template for all such virtual playrooms. "Millions of dollars of funding," Adie's friend Steve tells her when she arrives on the job, "and nobody around this dump can draw worth squat." Suitably impressed by the Cavern's programming, and slowly absorbing its dazzling capacity to project vivid and convincing illusions, she sets herself the task of creating a faithful 3-D version of Rousseau's Dream
. Her painstaking efforts in the Realization Lab are aided by a host of supporting characters, one of whom, Spider Lim, proves so sensitive that he gets a bruise from bumping into one of Adie's virtual tree branches. And when the central female figure appears among the foliage, Lim is irresistibly drawn in, marveling that
their first successful leaf, twirling in the Cavern darkness, had led to this--this pale, lentil body turning in his mind's dark. This scapular profile, these tow-line braids. Her hips fell somewhere on the Limaçon of Pascal. The squares of her breasts' abscissas and ordinates summed to an integer. This was the math of women, a field he'd given up studying, female equations whose complexities had long ago surpassed his ability to differentiate.
Powers's lush language corresponds to Adie's vision of Rousseau's jungle, and in turn to Rousseau's own ecstatic vision. Yet there is also something elegiac in the author's lavish descriptions of the Cavern's miracles, as if he were offering a late, last flowering of words before the cultural ascendancy of the image. Great, quotable chunks weight every page. Even readers fond of extravagant prose may find Powers's verbal persistence wearying, though it argues that there are still contradictions and subtleties of mind that no image can track. --Regina Marler
From Publishers Weekly
A groundbreaking literary novelist and MacArthur "genius" grant winner, Powers (Galatea 2.2; Gain; The Gold Bug Variations) takes on virtual reality, global migration, prolonged heartbreak, the end of the Cold War and the nature and purpose of art in his ambitious and dazzling seventh book. Like most of Powers's previous works, this novel weaves together two sets of characters. One comprises artists and programmers at the Cavern, a pioneering virtual-reality project sponsored by a Microsoftesque company. As college students in the early 1970s, painter Adie Klarpol, writer Steve Spiegel and composer Ted Zimmerman shared a house, an art scene, a complex erotic entanglement and a sense of limitless potential. When the novel opens, it's the mid-'80s, and Steve is a programmer: he convinces Adie to flee New York City and commercial art for Washington State and the Cavern. We follow Adie as she learns about new media and about her new, multiethnic colleagues, each with his or her own emotional problems. As Adie and Steve rediscover high art and each other, both must return to the charismatic Ted and his painful fate. Powers's other plot concerns Taimur Martin, an American teacher taken hostage in Beirut. Taimur spends most of the novel in captivity, thrown back on memory and imagination: his harrowing second-person narration transforms outward monotony into inward drama, building up to some of Powers's best writing to date. Powers's fans love his gorgeous, allusive (if sometimes florid) prose, and his digressions into the sciences; both features, largely missing from Gain, re-emerge here to spectacular effect. Taimur's life and Adie's link up only thematically--they never meet; instead, Powers's dramatic prose and his intellectual reach makes their symbolic connection more than enough to propel the novel toward its moving close. (June)
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