So, how did 164 pages of random questions become a bestseller?
Surreal, hypnotic and unique, the new book by American writer and academic Padgett Powell is a surprise literary hit. In this extract, he embarks on his epic journey of inquiry
Saturday 13 November 2010
Are your emotions pure? Are your nerves adjustable? How do you stand in relation to the potato? Should it still be Constantinople?
Does a nameless horse make you more nervous or less nervous than a named horse? In your view, do children smell good? If before you now, would you eat animal crackers? Could you lie down and take a rest on a pavement? Did you love your mother and father, and do Psalms do it for you? If you are relegated to last place in every category, are you bothered enough to struggle up? Does your doorbell ever ring? Is there sand in your craw? Could Mendeleyev place you correctly in a square on a chart of periodic identities, or would you resonate all over the board? How many push-ups can you do?
Are you inclined to favour the Windward Islands or the Leeward Islands? Does a man wearing hair tonic and chewing gum suggest criminality, or are you drawn to his happy-go-lucky charm? Are you familiar with the religious positions taken regarding the various hoofs of animals? Under what circumstance, or set of circumstances, might you noodle for a catfish? Will you spend more money for better terry cloth? Is sugar your thing? If a gentle specimen of livestock passed you by en route to its slaughter, would you palm its rump? Are you disturbed by over-technical shoes? Are you much taken by jewellery? Do you recall the passion you had as an undergraduate for philosophy? Do you have a headache?
Why won't the aliens step forth to help us? Did you know that Native American mothers suckled their children to age five, merely bending at the waist to feed them afield? Have you ever witnessed the playing of shuffleboard at a nudist colony? If tennis courts could be of but one surface, which surface should that be? In your economics, are you, generally, laissez-faire or socialist? If you could design the flag for a nation, what colour or colours would predominate?
Should a tree be pruned? Are you perplexed by what to do with underwear whose elastic is spent but which is otherwise in good shape? Do you dance? Is having collected Coke bottles for deposit money part of the fond stuff of your childhood? Have you inadvertently hurt, or killed, animals? Would you eat carrion? When it comes to pillows, are you a down man or feather? Are you a man? Will you place $200 in the traditional red envelope and give it to me? Have you ever had to concern yourself with the imminence of freezing water pipes or deal with frozen water pipes? How is your health? If it might be fairly said that you have hopes and fears, would you say you have more hopes than fears, or more fears than hopes? Are all of your affairs in order? Would you have the slightest idea, if we somehow started over, how to reinvent the radio or even the telephone? Do you recall the particular manila rubber buttons in the garters that held up ladies' hose before the invention of pantyhose? Who would you say is the best quarterback of all time? Between an automobile mechanic and a psychologist, which is worth more to you per hour?
Are you happy? Are you given to wondering if others are happy? Do you know the distinctions, empirical or theoretical, between moss and lichen? Have you seen an animal lighter on its feet than the sporty red fox? Do you cut slack for the crime of passion as opposed to its premeditated cousin? Do you understand why the legal system would? Are you bothered by socks not matching up in subtler respects than colour? Is it clear to you what I mean by that? Is it clear to you why I am asking you all these questions? Is, in general, would you say, much clear to you at all, or very little, or are you somewhere in between in the murky sea of prescience? Should I say murky sea of presence of mind? Should I go away? Leave you alone? Should I bother but myself with the interrogative mood?
Can you ride a bicycle very well? Was learning to ride one for you as a child easy or not? Have you had the pleasure of teaching a child to ride a bicycle? Are your emotions rich and various and warm, or are they small and pinched and brittle and cheap and like spit? Do you trust even yourself? Isn't it – forgive me this pop locution – hard being you? If you could trade out and be, say, Godzilla, wouldn't you jump on it, dear? Couldn't you then forgo your bad haircuts and dour wardrobe and moping ways and begin to have some fun, as Godzilla? What might we have to give you to induce you to become Godzilla and leave us alone? Shall we await your answer?
Do you ever suffer that sinus condition that effects exactly the sound of a raccoon in your head? Are you as much fascinated as I by the science and indeed art of artillery? Are you as much put off as I by the phrase "science and art", and more put off by the phrase "science and indeed art"? Who is your favourite painter?
Is your appreciation of a good material thing – let us say that pearl-handled revolver there – influenced by having worked hard to get it, or are you as likely to value a good thing having come by it easily? Do you value coherence of argument? Do you favour a day of the week? Have I told you that I have taken refuge in and, verily, succour from the Shodlik Palace in Tashkent, Uzbekistan? How much weight should a child porter be required to carry? Do you ever wonder after the stories stolen in Mr Hemingway's valise on the platform in Paris? That he had no copies, that he had so many bags he could not keep track of them – are not these facts but proof of a boor and a brute who deserved it? Do you know what I mean by "it"?
Do you wish, as we all do, that you had a sunnier disposition? Would you like to learn to lift weights? Are you comforted by the assertion that there are yet people on Earth who know what they are doing? Or, like me, do you subscribe to the notion that people who knew what they were doing began to die off in about 1945 and are now on the brink of extinction? That they have been replaced by fakes and poseurs? That in 10 more years, when everyone rides a Segway talking on mobile phones embedded in their iTeeth, the clueless world will be painfully immanent? That a large number of the world's folk will be fervently annihilating themselves, if they have not already starved, and a small number of the world's folk will be excited by rapid online acquisition of an exorbitant T-shirt? Have you used the Tibet Almond Stick from the Zenith Chemical Works in Chicago on fine furniture? Would a good paper airplane give you a soupçon of pleasure? Provided you were given assurances that you would not be harmed by the products of either, would you rather spend time with a terrorist or with a manufacturer of breakfast cereal? What in your view is the ideal complexion for a cow? Is there a natural law that draws a plastic bag to an infant similar to the law that draws a tornado to a mobile home? Do you understand exactly what is meant by custard? Would it be better if things were better, and worse if things were worse, or better if things were worse and worse if things were better?
'The Interrogative Mood: A Novel?' is published by Profile Books (£9.99). To order a copy for the special price of £8.99 (free P&P), call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600 030, or visitwww.independentbooksdirect.co.uk.
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