A Novel? Padgett Powell's Book Defies Genre
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Padgett Powell's �The Interrogative Mood: A Novel?� is a book like none other. It's made up entirely of questions. Some are laugh-out-loud funny and some leave you pondering the meaning of life.
But for all the questions it asks - the book has many readers asking is it really a novel? And the book subtitle �A Novel?� suggests that not even the author knows for sure. So, NPR's Lynn Neary asked him.
LYNN NEARY: The narrator or should we say interrogator at the center of this book is someone of a certain age. You can tell this by some of the questions that he asks, like this one about a soda that has long since peaked in popularity.
Mr. PADGETT POWELL (Author, �The Interrogative Mood: A Novel?�): Do you miss Tab and do you fully understand its disappearance?
NEARY: The interrogator is nostalgic about the past and, one guesses, not entirely pleased with the way things are in the present. He's definitely a guy. That's clear from any number of questions he asks. Some of them not meant to be discussed in polite company. And he has a wicked sense of humor. But this is funny guy of a certain age who also seems to be contemplating his own mortality.
Mr. POWELL: Do you want something said of you, or nothing said of you when you go?
NEARY: This guy can make you smile one second and send you into a private reverie a moment later.
Mr. POWELL: Have you done any mountain climbing? Would you eat a monkey? What broke your heart?
NEARY: So, who exactly is this man of many questions?
Mr. POWELL: Well, let me use some of my rich French. (French spoken)
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. POWELL: Why be coy about it? That's me.
NEARY: Padgett Powell is both the author of this book and it's only character, though Powell says he never really thought of this book as a novel. He began writing in response to some emails he got at University of Florida where he teaches. The emails posed a series of questions which annoyed Powell. He decided to come up with a response.
Mr. POWELL: I sat down and wrote: Are your emotions pure? Are they the stuff of heroes? Or the alloyed the 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.
NEARY: Powell was hailed as a literary genius when his first novel was published in 1984. He has written half a dozen novels, but traditional fiction no longer really interests him. There's no real narrative structure in �The Interrogative Mood.� Powell's love of language and the nature of his obsessions is revealed through the questions themselves and through his odd juxtaposition of the whimsical and the profound.
Mr. POWELL: There's lightness and then there's gravitas and they're coming in cycles and in rhythms. So, those things are constituting a kind of substitute for narrative in the squarer sense of that word.
NEARY: At first, the book seems like a quick breezy read. But then some of the questions insist on being answered. The interior dialogue that results can be surprising.
Mr. POWELL: 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?
Mr. RICK MOODY (Novelist): 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?
NEARY: Novelist Rick Moody reviewed �The Interrogative Mood� for bookforum.com. Moody says as soon as he started reading the book, his fears that it would be too forbidding vanished.
Mr. MOODY: First and foremost, it's hilarious. You know, that's all true but it's also great that as in all Padgett's work, what's funny and what's deeply moving and deeply sad are all cheek by jowl. So the second you find yourself chuckling and going oh that's a good one, you know, then the next question is, you know, 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 mixed together like that.
NEARY: Moody says it doesn't matter whether you call it 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.
Mr. POWELL: It's very odd. People were reporting strange things. I had a guy write me very early after the Paris Review excerpt 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, oh, what have I done? What have I got here?
NEARY: Just a couple of more questions to contemplate.
LYNN NEARY, NPR News, Washington.
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