Padgett Powell, The Interrogative Mood

The Czech novelist Milan Kundera once wrote that the proper job of fiction is to ask questions. If that’s the case, then Padgett Powell’s The Interrogative Mood must be the greatest novel of all time—for it is no less than an uninterrupted, 165-page string of questions, each asked by a nameless narrator of you, the unsuspecting reader.

Such an undertaking is, at the very least, an impressive display of literary stunt pilotry. But Powell’s crafty narrative voice adds several unexpected dimensions to the book, making it perform some astonishing feats of reinvention as it unfolds. The Interrogative Mood starts as an amusing gimmick, transforms along the way into the strangest job interview imaginable, detours more than once into what appears to be either a midlife crisis or some garden-variety existential panic, and winds up as easily my favourite book of the past year.

I realize that giving such a gushing recommendation to what some will call a trumped-up personality quiz might seem like a bit of a contrarian pose. So let’s start with a simple premise and work outwards from there. Let’s say that novels are meant to in some way challenge their readers’ assumptions—maybe about how the world works, or why people act the way they do, or whether good and evil exist, and if so, how to tell them apart.

When good fiction accomplishes this, it does so in a very sly and irresistible manner. Still, it’s often all too easy to shrug off a novel’s finer arguments, since, after all, this stuff is just made up. Anyone can scoff at an imaginary world and pretend it contains nothing of value.

Powell sidesteps this admittedly big problem with the finesse of a matador. “Do you regard living with routines as liberating or shackling?” his protagonist asks, in a cadence that manages to be both folksy and completely unnerving. “How much of a baseball game can you watch? Will you wear rain gear or do you prefer just getting wet?” These aren’t descriptions of made-up landscapes, or strings of events you can choose to believe or reject. They’re plain questions, asked directly to you. All of a sudden there’s no narrative apparatus for readers to hide behind anymore.

At first you may choose not to answer the questions. Sure, okay. But how long are you going to keep that up? “If your survival depended on it, do you think there are things you would not eat?” Psst—he’s still talking to you. “What would these be?”

Well? What would they be?

To read The Interrogative Mood correctly is to end up interrogating yourself, albeit with the help of a particularly masterful prop. Powell’s narrator nudges you in directions you’ve never thought about before, and after reading enough of his gentle, probing, ever-curious inquiries, you will start answering him honestly. He wears you down. “Do you sympathize with the outlaw?” Yes! “Are you big on nutrition, or is it something that happens or doesn’t?” Mostly the former, but sometimes the latter!

There’s a deceptive structure to the book, too. The narrator’s questions are a pleasantly odd-ball mix of the profound and the inane, and they’re grouped together in such an orchestrated way that each paragraph has its own music and buoyancy, with certain sections riffing on others, and some of the biggest questions catching you completely off guard thanks to a clever little decoy placed just before it.

And before you know it, Powell’s narrator slowly comes into focus as his own distinct personality, even though you never quite get a clear look at him. He’s a middle-aged man, probably urban, probably white, who nonetheless comes from an outdoorsy, blue-collar background. He’s smart, but not showy about it. And he has a few key recurring interests: our inability to explain how technology works, archaic vocabulary (haberdasher, leggins), and checkered tablecloths, to name a few.

He’s also—and here’s a place where he overlaps with Powell precisely—an immaculate constructor of sentences. Here’s one of many that winds and coils and finally pounces right when you least expect it:

Is the thing you notice about cheerleaders that while they do have those tight stomachs—I suppose by fashion one should say tight abs, they have no fat on their bellies—and it is arresting and interesting to see them, and this firmitude leads you right up to the breasts and your speculations thereupon, you notice how cheerleaders always seem to be refreshingly modest in that department, not amped out on silicone (I refer to the college girls, the professional sideline tramps are another matter), and you are on to the painful-looking perpetual smile that cheerleaders must maintain, and she is bouncing or otherwise celebrating the joyous routine, looking finally rather dumb, the whole thing rather dumb, not really her fault, or their fault, though you do fault her male consorts for being cheerleaders and not on the football team, what the fuck is the matter with them, and so there she is all hot and trim and bouncy and pert and full of vim vigor cheer and goodwill for your benefit, and you are supposed to want her a little and more than a little want your team to do well but you are nagged by this fact: you do not want her at all, and that not wanting has abrogated your wanting the team to do what she ostensibly wants you to want the team to do, and there you sit, a lost fan and a lost man?

Sam Mendes’s film American Beauty took more than two hours to explain how the American suburbs were quietly killing middle-aged husbands. Powell takes all of 240 words to accomplish the same thing, and more.

So in the end, there is a narrative apparatus here. There’s a fleshed-out protagonist, hints of major tension, and an intricate structure—it all just deploys itself so quietly that you hardly notice it’s happening. In other words, it functions just like the very best strait-laced fiction does. The book is cheekily subtitled A Novel?, but this is one of the few questions that requires no thought at all.

The answer is yes. Yes, yes, yes.

Ecco, 165 pages, $27.99, hardcover

(review originally appeared in Crab Town Magazine, April 1, 2010)

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