A Novel? Padgett Powell's Book Defies Genre

Padgett Powell i i
Author photograph by the author
Padgett Powell
Author photograph by the author

The question mark that accompanies the subtitle of author Padgett Powell's new book, The Interrogative Mood: A Novel? might seem flippant. But Powell's book earns that bit of punctuation. The Interrogative Mood is composed entirely of questions. Some of them are laugh out loud funny, some designed to provoke memories of long gone times, some leave you pondering the meaning of life. But is it really a novel?

We can deduce, by some of the questions he asks, that the book's narrator, or perhaps its interrogator, is a man of someone of a certain age: "Do you miss Tab and do you fully understand its disappearance?" he asks.

He's nostalgic about the past, or at least about a soda that has long since peaked in popularity. What else can we deduce? One guesses he's not entirely pleased with the way things are in the present. Some of his questions are not meant to be discussed in polite company. He has a wicked sense of humor. But this funny guy of a certain age also seems to be contemplating his own mortality: "Do you want something said of you, or nothing said of you, when you go?"

He can make you smile one second and send you into a private reverie a moment later: "Have you done any mountain climbing? Would you eat a monkey? What broke your heart?"

Who exactly is this man of many questions?

The author himself answers, "Well let me use some of my rich French: C'est moi. Why be coy about it? That's me."

Custom: 'The Interrogative Mood: A Novel' by Padget Powell
The Interrogative Mood: A Novel?
By Padget Powell
Hardcover, 176 pages
Ecco
List price: $21.99

Read An Excerpt

Powell is both the author of this book and its only character. And he says he never really thought of this book as a novel. He began writing it in response to some e-mails he got at the University of Florida, where he teaches. These e-mails posed of series of questions which annoyed Powell, so he decided to respond in kind.

"I sat down and wrote, 'Are your emotions pure? Are they the stuff of heroes or the alloyed mess of the beaten? How do you stand in relation to the potato?' And it was a lot of fun and I kept going and woke up at some point in some horror that I had about 142 pages of this," he says.

Powell was hailed as literary genius when his first novel, Edisto, was published in 1984. Since then, he's written half a dozen novels and collections of stories, but he says that traditional fiction no longer interests him. So there is no real narrative structure in The Interrogative Mood. Powell's love of language and the nature of his obsessions carry the book, and are revealed through the questions themselves and through his odd juxtaposition of whimsical wonderings and more profound ponderings.

"There's lightness and there's gravitas and they're coming in cycles and in rhythms," Powell says. "Those things are constituting a kind of substitute for narrative in the squarer sense of that word."

At first the book seems like a quick, breezy read. But then Powell's narrator will pose a particularly intriguing string of questions: "Do you regard yourself as redeemed, redeemable or irretrievably lost? Do you find that the flavor butter pecan, as in butter pecan ice cream, sounds better than it tastes? What is the loudest noise you have ever heard?"

Suddenly, Powell's questions can insist on being answered. The interior dialogue that results can be surprising, and demanding.

Novelist Rick Moody reviewed The Interrogative Mood for bookforum.com. Faced with its premise, he says he was puzzled.

"I confess that upon opening it I did think, 'Is there any possible way that a meat and potatoes reader is going to be able to get through this book?'"

But Moody says as soon as he started reading the book, his fears that it would be too forbidding vanished.

"First and foremost, its hilarious," Moody says. "But it's also great that as in all Padgett's work, what's funny, and what's deeply moving and deeply sad, are cheek by jowl. So the second you find yourself chuckling and going 'Oh that's a good one.' Then the next question is some lacerating bit of self engagement that really makes the whole thing lift off the page, for me. And that's how you make the emotions stick in fiction is to have them all mix together like that."

Moody says it doesn't matter whether you call Powell's book a novel or not — that's just a way to sell the book. Instead he calls it "a bit of a masterpiece". As for Powell, he says he's been amazed by some of the reactions to his book of questions.

After an early excerpt of the book appeared in The Paris Review, Powell says, a man sent him an email, "Saying that he read the excerpt to his new girlfriend and had her answer all the questions. And he wanted to thank me because he thinks he knows her a lot better now. And I thought, 'What have I done? What have I got here?'">

Just a couple more questions to contemplate.

Excerpt: 'The Interrogative Mood: A Novel?'

Custom: 'The Interrogative Mood: A Novel' by Padget Powell
The Interrogative Mood: A Novel?
By Padget Powell
Hardcover, 176 pages
Ecco
List price: $21.99

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 sidewalk? 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 chart of periodic identities, or would you resonate all over the board? How many push-ups can you do?

Are you inclined to favor 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 hooves 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 jewelry? 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 color or colors 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 two hundred dollars 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 color? 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 favorite 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 favor a day of the week? Have I told you that I have taken refuge in and, verily, succor 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 about 1945 and are now on the brink of extinction? That they have been replaced by fakes and poseurs? That in ten more years, when everyone rides a Segway talking on cell phones imbedded 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 soupcon 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?

Have you heard the expression "the ragman," and have you any idea what a ragman does, or did? Is it still the case that you can buy build-your-own electronics kits from people like Heathkit and Lafayette Radio and Knight-Kit? Is a body catching a body coming through the rye regarded a good thing or a bad thing? Is there a reason that chlorophyll is green as opposed to, say, red, or is this another alleged instance of Darwinian accident? If someone said that a certain kind of guitar playing — I'm thinking of Clapton in Cream here — has a tubular sound, would this mean anything to you? Do you know that there are fightin kites? Can you imagine the fortune to be made were someone to genetically engineer a perpetual kitten? Can you see yet (I hardly mean to single you out: we will all look horrible and we will all look like old women) how horrible you will look as a very old woman? Would you rather have, in principle, fifty onepound bags or one fifty-pound bag? Is the universe supposed to be running out of steam, or somehow is it getting new steam, or is it just holding the steam it has?

Excerpted from The Interrogative Mood: A Novel by Padget Powell. Copyright 2009 Padget Powell. Published with permission from Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Books Featured In This Story

The Interrogative Mood
The Interrogative Mood

by Padgett Powell

Hardcover, 164 pages | purchase

close

Purchase Featured Books

  • The Interrogative Mood
  • Padgett Powell

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: