Plowing the Dark, Richard Powers, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2000, 415 pp
The next book in my challenge to read all the novels of Richard Powers this year was a challenge!
He uses two parallel stories to investigate how we perceive and navigate reality, imagination, confinement, freedom and, as always, modern society.
One of his stories is set on Puget Sound on the northwestern coast of Washington State. A collection of math geeks, coders and an artist are combining their talents in the late 1990s to create early, cutting edge virtual reality rooms. Funded by some deep pocket billionaires, this little band of imaginative pioneers barely set foot outside the lab.
I have virtually no reality on virtual reality. I don't exactly know what coding involves except that it is based on higher math. I have never engaged in VR games though I am aware of them, have seen movies about them and read a few books. The concept of worlds that seem to be there but are not is a hard one for me to grasp. I could sort of picture what was going on in the lab but truthfully, my head spun.
Luckily the characters were real, talented, troubled and intrepid individuals even if they lived on junk food and hardly slept.
The secondary story on the other hand was almost too real. An American English teacher of Middle Eastern descent has been taken hostage by terrorists who hope to send a message to Western powers. The September 11, 2001 attacks have not yet happened, but its antecedents are simmering in this war-torn Mediterranean city.
The young hostage's suffering and imprisonment are gruesome but are a counterpoint of daily reality to the VR in that lab in Washington. The man uses his imagination and memory to create for himself a reality in which he can survive.
The novel is as dense and wordy and exciting and philosophical as any other Powers's novels I have read so far. Struggle though I did to comprehend much of it, I reached the end once again transformed, once again pondering life in new ways.
An Esquire reviewer, Sven Birkerts, is quoted on the back cover of Plowing the Dark as saying, "Mention Richard Powers's name and see writers get that far-away look in their eyes: They are calculating the eventual reach of his influence." Well, I get the same look in my eyes and in my own private virtual reality when I read and later ponder his influence on me.