IN THESE celebrity-hungry days, a lot of talentless people make it into the household name database. Yet here is Richard Powers; angry, eloquent, streetwise, funny and still generally unknown outside 'Contemporary American Literature' courses. His new novel, Operation Wandering Soul, is a thumpingly good book.
Only American writers can get away with being so epic and furious; so all-encompassing in their abuse. . You know exactly which side of the water you are with Powers when you get rants like this: 'This place, this heart-breaking, magnificent, annihilating, imperialist, insecure, conscience-stricken, anarcho-puritanical, smart-bombing, sheet-tinned, Monroe Doctrined place.'
But the novel's stage does go beyond America. Its cast is like a delinquent United Nations. The novel is about children, and about stories about children, but the babes here are neither victims nor twisted sadists, they are simply the freaked out future of the planet. The hero, Rickie Kraft, is a paediatric surgeon in Angel City, USA, some time in the very near future. He sews up the infant victims and perpetrators of street violence as well as the limbless, messed-up refugees of the world's hell holes.
He is on call throughout the course of the book, and as emergencies pile up, fatigue softens his mind. This is Casualty on acid and with far less reverence for the human body. ('Opening up a three- year-old's chest puts a dampner on the party.') Through Dr Kraft and his side-kick nurse Linda Espera, we meet the madcap children's ward; kids who are so inexorably led into crime that the police take their fingerprints unprompted, because they know that they'll have to use them one day.
The themes may sound a little over-ambitious, but the book is swept along by such an engaging lack of intellectual cockiness that it fully deserves the weight of its subject. We return with the characters to the world of Peter Pan, The Pied Piper, British war-time evacuation, Anne Frank. Encouraged by the benign and optimistic therapist Linda Espera, the fragmented and broken children are introduced to these narratives for the first time.
'Nothing is real until it has been fictionalised,' says Powers, and rather than just noting this as a trendy Derridean baseline to his text, he shows it in action. The fickle world of fact is represented by the American news networks, and there is a hilarious cameo by a square-jawed television reporter hunting down sound-bite anecdotes in an Asian war; at another point the hospital is flooded with casualties from a schoolyard mass- murder. The doctors watch television bulletins beamed live from their hospital in order to make sense of what they are dealing with, even though the networks are reworking the very information that the doctors themselves have just disclosed.
'Operation Wandering Soul', we discover, was the name given to the military mission in Asia led by the hero's father, whereby US troops would fly over enemy villages in the middle of the night with bilingual collaborators on board, screaming threats through megaphones to destabilize the minds of the sleeping enemy. This staccato, disconnected and disorientating thuggery is the horrible antithesis of 'story time'. Nurse Espera is the real hero of the book, working overtime to bring stories to her children's beds.
While Kraft struggles to sew the kids up physically, Espera looks to make them whole through narrative closure. In a cruel postscript we learn that her attachment to these stories is born out of the fact that, as a child, she was herself 'messed up' and abused by her brother: 'Linda never got around to economics in school. Perhaps that's why she, almost alone, sees that society's every advance up to this minute has been paid for by liquidating principle, mortgaging the unborn . . . she reads another tale, one where life exists entirely of wishes and interest.'
Thus the two worlds of this big book operate side by side, as much for the reader as for the children. On the one hand lies the macabre horror of Angel City, on the other the mythical but magical hope (Espera) of wonderful tales. Rickie Kraft, the surgeon who is himself anaesthetised by the need for sleep ('he had finally given his body to medical science') tries to enjoy the relief of both Espera's bed and her bedtime stories, but eventually the jagged and ugly factual world smashes him up. He breaks down, surrounding himself dementedly with 100 milk cartons, each bearing the computer-aged face of missing children.
And between the two poles of nasty half-truths and comforting lies there is always the black comedy of the absurd. It is this, as much as anything, which makes the book so addictive. Most futuristic novels take us too far forward to sustain much more than a 'gee whiz' reaction, Powers moves Los Angeles on almost imperceptibly. It becomes, or remains, a city where 'guns are legal but imported parrots are not', and where industry has collapsed into 'a single, exhausted, gag-gift boutique of hate and rage', so that the nation's Gross National Product relies on everyone buying each other 'Shut the fuck up' coffee mugs. Surely there is room somewhere in the Hall of Fame for Richard Powers.
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