12 February, 2012

'The Interrogative Mood: A Novel?' by Padgett Powell

'The Interrogative Mood: A Novel?' is the first book I have read by the intriguing Padgett Powell. The American writer currently works at the University of Florida, and has said interesting things in interview about the lifespan of a writer's work, their legacy and the practicality of being a writer in the modern world; after learning about him and reading this novel, I will definitely be exploring more of his work. The book is his fifth novel, and is a little different: it comprises one hundred and sixty-four pages of questions. They range from the practical and the personal to the bizarre, the specific and the general, all of which make up the titular 'Interrogative Mood' of the entire book.

There is a Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket) -esque playfulness and whimsicality to the writing. Powell includes a specificity to many questions, and yet a nondescript and general nature to others, a juxtaposition of the superficial and the personal. The story and 'narrative' built up by the questions becomes very individualistic, and muses on the nature of 'us' and of 'we' - on humanity, together and alone. The very nature of the personal questions, such 'Do you find the phrase ''the verdant selvage of Michigan'' intriguing?' ponders the personality of the speaker and of the reader, assuming we both answer the question, and questions the relationship between the two individuals, and how it is we come to learn about one another. The novel (I'll answer his question - yes, this is a novel) relates an idea of the importance of conversation and the nature of the information contained in not just the answer, but also the question.

Chekhov states that the aim of a writer is to ask questions, not to answer them and there is a playfulness to Powell in fulfilling this assertion quite literally. The questions are fun - 'Historically, what has been your flavour when you order a milkshake?' - yet become serious - 'Does integrity lie in failure?' - but do manage to create the idea of a situation, a palpable and informed narrative as the basis for this relentless questioning.

The ideas in other reviews of the novel - the speaker is part of a political interrogation, this is a man on his deathbed - are all intriguing, but through the questions, their connotations and answers I had for them, I built up a very specific idea of the speaker. It seems to me that 'The Interrogative Mood' is a novel that everyone will react differently to, and will bring something new to. As with T.S. Eliot's 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock', the picture from different readings of 'The Interrogative Mood', as far as I can tell, varies significantly. Interestingly, I read the book in three readings of about an hour each, and the questions do not become tiresome or tedious - they become more intriguing as patterns and repetitions begin to emerge. The colour red, bluejays and the taking of a bus in a foreign city are all important to the narrator of 'The Interrogative Mood: A Novel?' If you want a relationship with a book, much more intimate than with the most open and revealing of prose fictions, then read Powell. Will you?

[For more information about the book, written in more depth and detail than I had time for, try Shigekuni on Wordpress or Julie Cline on ConnotationPress - these guys are indeed very good. If possible, read the book and then these]

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