The Interrogative Mood

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“Does integrity lie in failure?” asks the narrator of Padgett Powell’s new novel. He hopes that it does.

No. No. I am for it. Maybe consult Jimmy Kennedy? More nervous. No. Yes. Sometimes, I could. Yes, and no. Not really. It’s broke. Not at the moment. Correctly, in a square on periodic identities. On a good day, thirty and change.

The above are my answers to the first paragraph of questions in Padgett Powell’s The Interrogative Mood. The novel contains one hundred and sixty-four pages of questions, with an average of about six per page, making it just under a thousand-question book. A brief sampling:

Wasn’t there a day on earth when not every soul was possessed of his or her own petty political and personal-identity agenda?… Are you a sweater person?… Will you believe me if I tell you that I am a little fragile, psychologically speaking and that there is an eagle over the woods out my window, and every day that I see him gliding around, with his white head and his big white tail, even though I have come to appreciate that he is as much a bird of carrion as a buzzard, or more—will you believe me if I tell you that seeing him gives me a small but palpable lift, and not seeing him a small quickening of depression?… If you find an unopened stick of Juicy Fruit gum on the sidewalk, will you chew it?… If one man suggested to a second that he resembled Ted Kennedy and the second in protest said, “I ain’t got no outside gorilla,” what would his remark mean?

Socrates would be proud.

I propose there are three cardinal approaches to reading this book. The first involves simply enjoying the questions, which are probing and profane and insightful and ornery and pleading and whimsical and serious, and which suggest varying degrees of amateur expertise on the part of the interrogator, such as TV watching and ornithology and auto mechanics and philosophy and fumbling romance, and which also suggest wide vistas of delightful and curmudgeonly ignorance. The second involves formulating answers to the questions—this might be developed into, say, a co-ed drinking game or, if one inclines to that sort of thing, kept on a more cerebral level of Oulipian textual experiment. The novel moves pretty fluidly along the continuum from highbrow to lowbrow.

The more controversial approach would seem to be the third, something Powell acknowledges by designating the book a “novel?” I’m not particularly interested in testing any particular definitions of the novel (we would never agree on one, anyway), but here are a couple which fit:

“Take a supportable idea and carry it out for one hundred and fifty pages or so.” –Padgett Powell

“A novel is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it.” –Randall Jarrell

And there is a narrative here. There is a character: the interrogator. There is an I. We know things about him. He does some of the things we expect a character to do in a novel. He changes. He wonders why he is asking all these questions. He is not completely unlike the narrator of David Markson’s This Is Not a Novel, but his conceit is a different conceit: where Markson’s narrator is trying to write something, Powell’s narrator is trying to get to something—though what it is we’re not sure. Both narrators doubt their project in general, and their attempts in particular, sufficiently to engender a reader’s sympathy.

All of Powell’s work is moved along by language: No one else talks to you this way. No one else asks you questions like this. But more brilliant than the sentences are the novel’s variations in rhythm. The questions accelerate and then coast, oscillating from profound to pedestrian:

Page ten: “Is survival enhanced by man’s looking more and more like an elephant as he nears his grave? What is your mother tongue? Do you like to party?”

Page ninety-six: “Do you know the location of Albemarle Sound? Is ‘Philosophy by Kant, Bag by Vuitton’ funny? Have you ever registered a dog or other animal or otherwise dealt in animal registry? Are any of your teeth loose, or are perhaps all of them loose? Do you use the word befitting?”

Page one hundred and one: “Do you regard yourself as redeemed, redeemable, or irretrievably lost?… Have you done any mountain climbing? Would you eat a monkey? What broke your heart?”

The Interrogative Mood counters these tonal shifts with sustained digressions. There is a several page riff on excrement and art; Powell spins out a lovely little anecdote to discredit the idea that the art-maker is superior to the excrement-maker. The topic of desire also comes in for repeated, sustained riffs that examine its ebbs and flows, its justifications and perversions. Cheerleaders recur at great length: “Is the thing you notice about cheerleaders,” the narrator asks,

that while they do have those tight stomachs—I suppose by fashion one should say tight abs, they have no fat on their bellies—and it is arresting and interesting to see them, and this firmitude leads you right up to the breasts and your speculations thereupon, you notice how cheerleaders always seem to be refreshingly modest in that department, not amped out on silicone (I refer to the college girls, the professional sideline tramps are another matter), and you are on to the painful-looking perpetual smile that cheerleaders must maintain, and she is bouncing or otherwise celebrating the joyous routine, looking finally rather dumb, the whole thing rather dumb, not really her fault, or their fault, though you do fault her male consorts for being cheerleaders and not on the football team, what the fuck is the matter with them, and so there she is all hot and trim and bouncy and pert and full of vim vigor cheer and goodwill for your benefit, and you are supposed to want her a little and more than a little want your team to do well but you are nagged by this fact: you do not want her at all, and that not wanting has abrogated your wanting the team to do what she ostensibly wants you to want the team to do, and there you sit, a lost fan and a lost man? Do you see now what I mean when I say ‘gassated cheerleader’? Can the feeling of not properly wanting a cheerleader be expanded, not unlike a gas as it were, to express your entire purchase in the world, your total stance on desire and life?

There is a potential storyline here even Oprah, if she could forgive all the above, might find moving. There is at least some evidence that the interrogator is overindulging in pain pills because of a tumor, which may or may not prove benign, a possibility which lends some urgency and personal investment to these questions. Our interrogator may be dying. He may have failed in life. He may have failed even in this interrogation.

“Does integrity lie in failure?” he asks. He hopes it does.

He is complicated and manages to capture, in one man’s pose, an entirety of human experience. Isn’t that what makes a novel?

I’ll come back to the great interrogator of Western culture again in saying The Interrogative Mood may be the first 9/11 novel—maybe the first great 9/11 novel—that really nails it: The narrator is a redneck Socrates who has been given the green light through the chain of command to abandon the questions and waterboard. But he has refused. Instead, he will ask the questions and only the questions. It’s the most honest thing to do at times of great, wholesale uncertainty.

Jeff Parker is the author of the novel Ovenman, published in 2007 by Tin House Books. His collection of short stories, The Taste of Penny, has just been published by Dzanc Books. More from this author →