A national bestseller, voted by Time as the #1 novel of 1991, selected as one of the "Best Books of 1991" by Publishers Weekly, and nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award--a magnificent story that probes the meaning of love, science, music, and art, by the brilliant author of Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance.
This novel is basically a love story set against the backdrop of the quest to solve the mysteries of genetic coding. Music also plays a prominent theme; in fact, the blueprint of the novel itself is patterned after the structure of Bach’s Goldberg Variations for piano. Reading this one is unlikely to be a relaxing experience--in fact, it might feel a whole lot more like investment than consumption--but it is well worth the effort.
I can't imagine that many people would get this book. The target audience would presumably be (molecular) biologists, or at least scientists of some description, with an interest in classical music, possibly art, and a reasonable knowledge of computer programming, not a particularly wide demographic. Without fitting this description the reader would struggle to understand half the book, the jokes, or to be interested enough in the themes that run throughout to force themselves to finish reading it. This, alongside the abundance of literary and scientific references that would challenge any well read reader to pick up on, puts the book in the top bracket for obscurity and abstrusion.
I would say that I fit into this target audience fairly well, I have just finished a degree in cell biology, I listen to classical music, and have an A level in computer science, surely I am one of the few people who this book was written for. Yes, the book is clever, and yes it is one of a kind, and for the majority of the text the authors fluidity of consciousness shines through, but he doesn't make the blatant display of erudition that he attempts seem natural or subtle as easily as the intellectual benchmark Eco can. In fact I feel rather guilty about criticising the author for trying to be intellectual, as he genuinely doesn't do a bad job of it, and it is no fault of his own that he is writing for a niche, the world does deserve more books like this. He really does write some genuinely aesthetically and technically brilliant passages, but just somehow seems unable to realise that there are some absolute rotters in there too. It seems hit and miss, trial and error, and I can't understand how the same man who is capable of writing so brilliantly and so badly is capable of doing it within the same book. The quality parts are in the majority though, so it is easy enough to forgive the author, as he does provide something so startlingly complete in this book that it is worth reading through the bad bits. If it wasn't for the fact that the parallels between DNA and genes and the music of Bach had been picked up on before (in Hofstadter's GEB), then this book would have been genius.
Something, apart from everything else, that isn't immediately apparent is that the book loosely follows the structure of the alluded to Goldberg Variations, having thirty chapters, each of which is meant to mirror the themes of their counterparts in Bach's composition, for example the sarabandes are supposed to correspond to more energetic chapters, and the slower variations are represented by the more introspective chapters. In fact the parrallels to baroque music in general seem to run far more deeply than the author probably intended, the over-decoration, flamboyant exaggeration, drama, intricacy, and emotional hyperbole, everything that makes baroque good, along with everything that puts people off it, is present in huge quantities in this book. But what leaves this novel being memorable for the right reasons, on the whole, is that it does wrap up rather nicely in the end, ending in a satisfying tonic key. Almost nicely enough to leave the impression that this was a fantastic book.
Sometimes it's not directly two different story lines but different times in the same story, but times so far removed that they seem irreconcilable. Gold Bug Variations is a good example of this.
Sometimes he takes the same story and emphasizes different aspects of it. Well, okay, here I'm thinking of The Time of Our Singing and the themes of music and race, but this one could also fall into either of the preceding categories.
So he makes you see how disparate ideas and seemingly unconnected stories all work together.
I sometimes feel as though reading his work enriches my life because he gives words to intuitions that I've had that I haven't had words for. Sometimes I think he has identified emotions or responses that I felt but couldn't articulate. So I actually believe that I am a more whole person emotionally than I was before I started reading his writing, and that is an extremely unusual experience for me with respect to a novelist. I think mostly what I get from books is recognizable and known emotion, or imparted intelligence/knowledge. I don't think any other writer has actually enriched my life in this way.
I can see why those who praise it like it. It's ambitious as hell, and sometimes the metaphors and wordplay are very apt and clever. But the book assumes that you either are a novice when it comes to the more technical material covered, and that you'll learn more about these things, or that you already have some expertise, and you're going to enjoy being lectured to. Neither is the case. The more you know, the more you're going to find the pages-long expositions tedious. And the less you know, the more you'll be lost in a less-than-clear literary muddle of fact, metaphor, and speculation. If you're in the latter camp, and you want to learn more about these subjects, I recommend the "...For Dummies" books.
However, I've heard Powers criticized for his characters being cyphers. I think that's a bit unfair. For me, the book flew along nicely when it dealt with the non-technical aspects of the lives of Jan, Todd, and Dr. Ressler, none of whom is in any way average, and none is indistinguishable from another, personality-wise.
I enjoyed the Q and A part of Jan's job. Trivia lovers will find a lot to enjoy in those segments. And it must be said that, when you finally get to them, there are a couple of very sexy set-pieces, although this book is by no means a bodice-ripper. This book was a literary sensation when it came out in 1992. I appreciate the ambition behind it, but its notoriety, I can't help but think, was only because there was little going on that year.
"If you don't get the title, or
if you don't want to get the title,
In The Gold Bug Variations, author Richard Powers perspicaciously composes a novel with themes of puzzles (Edgar Allen Poe's The Gold Bug), music structure (Bach's Goldberg Variations), romance (two love stories that intertwine across twenty-five years), computer technology, art history, and DNA genetic codes. I remember reading this book when it was first published, maybe twenty years ago, feeling like I'd plunged into the deepest and most bewitching lake on earth, hopelessly unable to surface for 638 pages, desperate for a breath of air, powerless to return to the top of the water, smitten with the sparkle of the words all around me, bewildered by the enigmatic story, in awe of the intelligence of the writing.
This book is an intellectual challenge that can impart joy from its uses of language as well as its uses of science . A snowstorm produces "spectral trees glazed with lapidary." A pianist shows "less than gershwinning ways." Evolutionary selection can be summarized as "weed it and reap." Thanksgiving offers "a plenitude of pies, pride of drop-in guests, brace of hams, corsage of table settings, parliament of mashed potatoes, supplication of network sports, clatch of conversation, covey of vacation days, school of parades, volume of preserves, brood of read-alouds, keepsake of snapshots: everything running at glut, at glorious surplus." Like the helix itself: poetic, recursive, emergent, capable of inspiring wonder. Highly recommended!