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A Novel? Padgett Powell's Book Defies Genre

Dec 31, 2009 (All Things Considered)

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The question mark that accompanies the subtitle of author Padgett Powell's new book, The Interrogative Mood: A Novel? might seem flippant. But Powell's book earns that bit of punctuation. The Interrogative Mood is composed entirely of questions. Some of them are laugh out loud funny, some designed to provoke memories of long gone times, some leave you pondering the meaning of life. But is it really a novel?

We can deduce, by some of the questions he asks, that the book's narrator, or perhaps its interrogator, is a man of someone of a certain age: "Do you miss Tab and do you fully understand its disappearance?" he asks.

He's nostalgic about the past, or at least about a soda that has long since peaked in popularity. What else can we deduce? One guesses he's not entirely pleased with the way things are in the present. Some of his questions are not meant to be discussed in polite company. He has a wicked sense of humor. But this funny guy of a certain age also seems to be contemplating his own mortality: "Do you want something said of you, or nothing said of you, when you go?"

He can make you smile one second and send you into a private reverie a moment later: "Have you done any mountain climbing? Would you eat a monkey? What broke your heart?"

Who exactly is this man of many questions?

The author himself answers, "Well let me use some of my rich French: C'est moi. Why be coy about it? That's me."

Powell is both the author of this book and its only character. And he says he never really thought of this book as a novel. He began writing it in response to some e-mails he got at the University of Florida, where he teaches. These e-mails posed of series of questions which annoyed Powell, so he decided to respond in kind.

"I sat down and wrote, 'Are your emotions pure? Are they the stuff of heroes or the alloyed mess of the beaten? How do you stand in relation to the potato?' And it was a lot of fun and I kept going and woke up at some point in some horror that I had about 142 pages of this," he says.

Powell was hailed as literary genius when his first novel, Edisto, was published in 1984. Since then, he's written half a dozen novels and collections of stories, but he says that traditional fiction no longer interests him. So there is no real narrative structure in The Interrogative Mood. Powell's love of language and the nature of his obsessions carry the book, and are revealed through the questions themselves and through his odd juxtaposition of whimsical wonderings and more profound ponderings.

"There's lightness and there's gravitas and they're coming in cycles and in rhythms," Powell says. "Those things are constituting a kind of substitute for narrative in the squarer sense of that word."

At first the book seems like a quick, breezy read. But then Powell's narrator will pose a particularly intriguing string of questions: "Do you regard yourself as redeemed, redeemable or irretrievably lost? Do you find that the flavor butter pecan, as in butter pecan ice cream, sounds better than it tastes? What is the loudest noise you have ever heard?"

Suddenly, Powell's questions can insist on being answered. The interior dialogue that results can be surprising, and demanding.

Novelist Rick Moody reviewed The Interrogative Mood for bookforum.com. Faced with its premise, he says he was puzzled.

"I confess that upon opening it I did think, 'Is there any possible way that a meat and potatoes reader is going to be able to get through this book?'"

But Moody says as soon as he started reading the book, his fears that it would be too forbidding vanished.

"First and foremost, its hilarious," Moody says. "But it's also great that as in all Padgett's work, what's funny, and what's deeply moving and deeply sad, are cheek by jowl. So the second you find yourself chuckling and going 'Oh that's a good one.' Then the next question is some lacerating bit of self engagement that really makes the whole thing lift off the page, for me. And that's how you make the emotions stick in fiction is to have them all mix together like that."

Moody says it doesn't matter whether you call Powell's book a novel or not — that's just a way to sell the book. Instead he calls it "a bit of a masterpiece". As for Powell, he says he's been amazed by some of the reactions to his book of questions.

After an early excerpt of the book appeared in The Paris Review, Powell says, a man sent him an email, "Saying that he read the excerpt to his new girlfriend and had her answer all the questions. And he wanted to thank me because he thinks he knows her a lot better now. And I thought, 'What have I done? What have I got here?'">

Just a couple more questions to contemplate.

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