Do I astonish more than they?

Do you think of an angel as something that could fit on the head of a pin? (Padgett Powell, in The Interrogative Mood : a novel?)

Padgett Powell‘s fifth novel “poses question after question — mad, peculiar, and often very thought-provoking,” as Troy Jollimore put it in his review for The Guardian. “Unlikely though it sounds, it’s a work of real charm.”

This short work of fiction was not, to my way of thinking, unputdownable. In fact, I did put it down three or four times during the course of my reading, asking myself: Do I really want to keep on with this? or should I simply return it?

But I persevered. And, borrowing the words of Celia Green, “Astonishment is the only realistic emotion.”

Incidentally, that’s a most appropriate word, given the quotation with which Powell prefaces his book:

Do you take it I would astonish?
Does the daylight astonish? or the early redstart
…..twittering through the woods?
Do I astonish more than they?”

(Walt Whitman, in Song of Myself)

The New York Times review — by Josh Emmons, author of Prescription for a Superior Existence — credits it with “echoes of the Tao Te ­Ching, ‘My Funny Valentine,’ Pascal’s ‘Pensées’, ‘Green Eggs and Ham’, Annie Dillard’s ‘This Is the Life’ and countless other quests for conviction that secretly understand and depend on the futility of such quests …” and warns that “it is wondrous strange.”

“Powell, with his outsize romanticism and urge only to connect, shows that it is through questions rather than answers that truth can, however fleetingly, be glimpsed,” Emmons adds.

The Village Voice called it “a kind of stylistic Hail Mary, reminiscent of David Markson or … well, nobody really, but with better rhythm and jokes where the Wittgenstein references would otherwise go. Not that it doesn’t have those too.”

Powell, Padgett. 2010. The Interrogative Mood: A Novel? New York: Ecco (HarperCollins).


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