In Dan Halpern's recent New York Times piece on Powell (highly worth reading), one of the sage masters of American letters, Barry Hannah, declared: "At the moment American fiction is kind of dull, frankly.... I don't know who else is adding to it besides Padgett (Powell). Very few people are bringing something new. He is."
Hannah and Powell both belong to a small group of writers who take big risks on and off the page, and whose storied lives are as colorful and wild — or at least reflect that perception — as the stories they publish. They are held in great esteem by fellow writers and deeply-immersed book folk all over.
But don't be surprised if you haven't heard much about Padgett Powell's latest "novel?" — The Interrogative Mood. It's a preposterous concept — nothing but questions, over 150 pages of questions: personal questions ("Out of all the times in your life you have wept, can you select a time that you most wish you had not wept?"), ethical questions ("Is the blue jay justly maligned?"), tough questions ("If integrity resides in failure, does the abnegation of integrity reside in success?"), strange questions ("Did you see the pair of little blue pants by the road?"), mundane questions ("Do you prefer a red bean or a black bean?"), conversation-starting questions ("Would you prefer to spend a day at a mental hospital or a day at a mall?"), practical questions ("Can a car body not be made of copper?"), deceptively simple questions ("Have you ever been not disappointed by a banana split?"), questions that reach deep into your life, to a place you find surprised to have returned, and ever more surprised to linger for a while in this place ("Do you recall that the milk in bottles delivered unto the stoop that we miss so badly sometimes turned to a clabber so heavy and yellow and thick that it could not be forcefully shaken from the bottles? Was your looking into this clabber — as rococo as bread pudding, as weird as a preserved calf — not unlike looking into your own crystal ball?").
Like any literary experiment, this book has its ups and down, but overall we'd have to consider it a great success, due to Powell's humor and audacity, his terrific wordplay and juxtaposition, his grizzled observation and native wisdom. You continue reading, if not to consider each question carefully, then to come across those big, life-shaking questions that combine all the best elements into one trenchant inquiry:
"What do you think about a small candy factory in Desoto, Georgia, called the Desoto Nut House that once allowed tours of its kitchen while large black women handled great slabs of peanut brittle and other confections on marble tables, all of this in a sweet open warm friendly air of business and pleasure, and you emerge and buy a bag or two of nuts or candy more out of good feeling and cheer than out of any affection for the stuff, so fun was the kitchen and watching the women turn the dangerous boluses of hot sugar, and now when one goes to the Desoto Nut House one is not allowed in the kitchen because tours are no longer allowed for reasons relating to insurance? What I mean to ask is, is it not the kernel of the demise of the world as we knew it that you can no longer watch candy be made "for insurance reasons"? Does not someone need to stand up and say, "If I cannot have people watch my candy be made, as I have done for forty years without incident, because of insurance, I will not have insurance?"
It can be said of every book, but this one more than others — every reader will take a different experience away from reading it. Maybe because of what it casually asks the reader to supply, the flip-side of a twisted interview.
Our senior book fellow, a proud reader of all Mr. Powell's books, felt inspired after reading The Interrogative Mood and so pestered the author into a correspondence, which was submitted in transcript, a decidedly uninquisitive interview:
Turnrow: When I first heard the concept of your new novel, I expected a traditional story told in questions, complete with characters and plot and rising/falling action. Now I realize the foolishness of that assumption. Nevertheless, the novel is something much different and bolder than I originally expected, and while I shouldn't be surprised that you pulled it off, I must confess that I am. To further denounce my own thoughtless surprise, this book is not the "radical departure" from your previous work, as I first imagined. After all, your last novel, Mrs. Hollingsworth's Men — a novel I'm terrifically fond of, by the way — is itself a rather artful litany, a grocery list run amok, yet lacking the tedium generally associated with litanies. You should take no offense, then, if I proclaim you our best litanist.
Powell: None I shall take.
Turnrow: I suppose one could argue that there is a story buried in The Interrogative Mood.
Powell: There is a wave set of obsessions and preoccupations, certainly.
Turnrow: One could also see this book as a kind of memoir, while another would venture to call it poetry. Dare I say, even "prose poetry."
Powell: "I try to stop just short of poetry" — Don Barthelme.
Turnrow: As for the implication of a memoir, this book may have achieved a rare dual memoirship — that of the author and the reader. As you said, there are some preoccupations that recur, some evidence of the author's own life, perhaps. And through the interrogative mood, you also engage the reader, inciting him/her to supply their own story. It is then, if the reader is willing to participate, a kind of life-swapping conversation.
Powell: This sounds a tad more venereal than I'd have planned for.
Turnrow: Speaking of venereal, I suppose it would be common, when given to so much pondering, that a healthy number of questions would arise about sex, including personal predilections, hypothetical scenarios and hospital room encounters.
Powell: Yes: common.
Turnrow: You must have a thing for birds, especially blue jays.
Powell: I defend the blue jay, a populous bird in my childhood now apparently extinct. I think it has the fine lines of the Creator, or found a really pretty blue niche in the Darwinian gameboard.
Turnrow: I found myself, at certain breaks in the narrative, pondering the construction of this novel and how I might have achieved such a task. Probably I would have first conceived the idea, then become further inquisitive in my daily life, perhaps recording these questions in a small Moleskine notebook and taking them home each night to cull and fine-tune them. I remember, though, in a previous interview you once said you never took notes because if you couldn't remember something, it probably wasn't worth mentioning ... not to throw your own words back in your face. Perhaps you sat down and wrote it all out off the top of your head, as they said did when he wrote , in one magnificent draft with minimal editing, if you don't feel uncomfortable by that hypothetical comparison.
Powell: It is always fun to picture Mr. Bill listening to his big radio on his good drugs, isn't it? I still get the hallow willies with him — just read Absalom again and in Morocco. As for The Interrogative Mood, had there been an "idea" "first conceived," I'd never have done it. I just sat down and did it for two years.
Turnrow: Probably (I'm guessing) the thought occurred to make this a short story and then something — something I'd be curious to know more about — told you, No, you must go all the way.
Powell: You credit too much cogitation and planning. I just write. Have depression, will write.
Turnrow: Hmm, I see. The brevity of your responses leads me to believe you are either unnerved by the imperative mood of this interview, or else you have cleverly devised a scenario in which a man who poses a book full of questions will be exempt from a long and introspective interview.
Powell: A man in these circumstances imagining such an exemption is not clever, merely hopelessly hopeful.
Turnrow: Okay, then, describe the smell of a dead human body.
Powell: This I have not smelled. Does the book suggest someone has? I have felt of the corpse, but it was deodorized by professionals.
Turnrow: The text does not suggest it. I've just been curious about it lately.
Powell: I am sticking with the non-smell of the professionally prepared corpse. I kissed my father on the forehead in the hot July sun. Could have wept a little, but there were his war buddies. I had gotten there late and had to ask the digger dudes to open the casket with a crank. This they did, on one of those blue metal-flake metal caskets that cost seven thousand dollars that the funeral home compels us to buy and that turn the body to slime. I was afraid of the box. The old man looked agreeable, as indeed he had been in life, which of course made it hard not to weep since I had never talked to him in life. I did talk to him at this moment. I said, "Hey, bud." Then the kiss and the quick wipe at the eye and stride to the war buddies, themselves blinking in the sun.
Turnrow: One thing I noticed, you may be interested to learn, is that while reading these questions, I felt prompted from time to time to change "No" answers to "Yes," thus requiring me to eat "hot gritty radishes fresh from the ground" and acquire some "mounted animals or pets," to name two examples. In this sense, your book is not unlike a workbook for life or, if you don't cringe at the prospect, a self-help book.
Powell: I do not cringe. I do the opposite of cringe to think that a fellow reading my book might go out and pull a radish from the dirt and eat it in funky sulphur water. What is the opposite of cringe? Where does one find sulphur water? Where does one find people who do not automatically complain of sulphur water and will not even try to slake a hot radish burn with it? Where does one find real playmates in this late tamed pablum life we defend so loudly? Why is one so willing to mount the cliche horse?