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The Interrogative Mood: A Novel? BY Padgett Powell. Ecco. Hardcover, 176 pages. $21.

The cover of The Interrogative Mood: A Novel?

Yes, it’s true. Padgett Powell’s new “novel” is a highly allusive prose work composed entirely of questions. Many reviewers of this book, I suspect, will attempt to admonish the questioner with further questions, wondering at the gumption of the thing. But it might be useful instead to answer some of the questions posed. In this regard I have chosen questions at random, at intervals of about twenty pages, in the hopes of giving the flavor of the whole, while, at the same time, attempting some context for this offhanded, witty, original, and altogether unique book.

Q: Are your emotions pure?

A: This very first inquiry in The Interrogative Mood suggests the possibility that the book is in the accusatory second person, which, historically, is not a second person at all, but a crypto–first person. With attention, however, one recognizes that this second person is, rather, a particular narrator genuinely pleading. With an interlocutor known to him. Identities unclear! As regards the facts, there is nothing more that we are going to know certainly. Because this narrator’s emotions are never entirely pure, nor are his literary motives innocent. Purity? Innocence? Certainty? You kidding?

Q: Does the notion of heresy strike you as serious or laughable?

A: Powell, at the time of his first novel, seemed to be a writer of a certain southern cast, a phenomenally successful one at that. For good or ill, in certain quarters he will always be remembered as the author of 1984’s Edisto (as Frank Conroy is always the author of Stop-Time, and Frederick Exley is always the author of A Fan’s Notes). And yet almost before the reputation was fully minted, Powell began double-crossing critics, beginning with 1987’s A Woman Named Drown, but more thoroughly with the collection of stories that followed four years later, Typical. (Full disclosure: I worked on that book back when I was in publishing.) This volume of short fiction, and a 1998 collection, Aliens of Affection, proved that while Powell was a southern writer with some of the baggage pertaining thereto, he was much more besides, a keen student of language and style who was unwilling to hitch his wagon to conventional storytelling in order to prove his worth. He was restless and heretical, he was deadly serious and most comical. Indeed, though his later work included Edisto Revisited (1996) and a novel called Mrs. Hollingsworth’s Men (2000), it is in his shorter prose works that his mastery of voice and his love of experimentation are apparent. Here, he’s less a writer in the school of John Casey or Peter Taylor than he is a member of the badass gang of Barry Hannah. The Interrogative Mood, serious and laughable, extends this legacy.

Q: . . . oh let’s forget this question and try another: would you say that American rock music and American cars have their classic periods in strange synchronization, and that the two hottest periods were around 1955 and 1969?

A: To reiterate, it is composed only of questions, and if you imagine that this will somehow change after page 10, you are in for a rough ride. Because reading this novel requires the patience that we associate with contemporary poetry, the patience that holds meaning and dramatic movement in reserve. One question doesn’t necessarily lead to the next, at all, though some do (see the Jimi Hendrix sequence, of which the following is but an excerpt: “If Jimi Hendrix walked in your room and said, ‘Sit tight there, popo, I shall play you one’ and affected to get out his guitar, what would you do? Would you say, ‘Wait. Jimi. You’re dead lo these forty years,’ or ‘Wait, Jimi, let me call up a friend or two not a big party, mind you, but this is a special thing for me and I want to share it with others if it’s okay with you—is that all right?’ or ‘God, no, Mr. Hendrix, that shit would split my head open now,’ or ‘Lay some weed on me before you rip it, bro’”). On occasion, a question is asked only to be followed up thirty pages later, as with the ongoing questions about squirrels, or about the cedar tree out the window of the narrator’s office. There is history implied in the questions, but there is also a brutal falling away from history, a proverbial twisting in the breeze, a sense that the important moments may have already passed, and in this way the relentlessness of the questions becomes, in time, elegiac, wistful, and, though funny, more often sad.

Q: Do you ever devote yourself to making a cake and then sit down and eat it?

A: And when I say sad and elegiac, what I mean is there is an implied aloneness to the inquisitor. He is not a theological inquisitor, and he is not a military inquisitor, and he is not a constabulary inquisitor, he is a man who is, to use William Gass’s memorable phrase, “in retirement from love.” Thus a preponderance of questions relate to aloneness and to failure and isolation: “Is all of life clueless, or is most of it clueless with momentary bursts of clueness, or is it a spectrum of cluelessness to clueness on which people reside at various points, and are the points at which people reside on the spectrum of cluelessness fixed or variable?” Thus, the cake is made solitarily and solitarily consumed. Whereas the experimenters of Oulipo might have made possible a book composed only of questions, Powell manages, ingeniously, to imply narrative and context, and in this way to make the life outside the margins of the page particularized and deeply felt, and this effect grows richer as we work our way through the text, and thus the form is not a constraint so much as it is the only way for this narrator to tell this particular story.

Q: If you had to threaten someone with either “I’mone slap the taste out of your mouth” or “I’mone knock you into next week,” which colorful expression would you prefer?

A: Observe the dialectical precision. Observe the vision of the masculine that is central to its construction (you can imagine some beer cans getting crushed on some foreheads). Even more darkness is apparent with some of the blunt up-or-down questions throughout, among them “Q: Do you enjoy taking narcotics?” As if the narrator really needs to know before he is willing to proceed. If you are not the narcotic-taking type, perhaps you will not mind if the narrator is. At least for the duration of this needy inquiry. And then just when your guard is down: “Q: Can you say for sure that you have loved?” Oh, for sure!

Q: Are you leaving now?

A: If I say it’s a bit of a masterpiece, what I imagine I mean is that there are just a few books that resemble The Interrogative Mood (Gilbert Sorrentino’s Gold Fools is the only one that leaps to mind), and that if I were to imagine myself writing this book, which I wish I had, I would not have been able to be this clever and this heartfelt, this funny and this disconsolate, and to make/efface so effectively a narrative that tells its tale only through the process of selecting the seemingly impulsive material. Moreover: This book is produced in a moment of revanchism in American fiction, in which books that don’t conform to quaint standards of plotting and characterization, that don’t feature (in the main) sympathetic or explicable characters, are considered less reliable by a jittery publishing industry. All the more bold is Padgett Powell! And in this context, it’s again worth asking, who is it he imagines is leaving on the book’s final page? Discerning reader, decamped to the wilds of the Internet? Lost love? Both? What we do know, based on the evidence, is that the compact between text and reader is intimate, and that the writer of the text often wishes he could address his most fervent inquiries directly to the buyer in the aisles. I didn’t know I would be able to make it through The Interrogative Mood with the burgeoning admiration I felt as I proceeded through its layers, both whispered and shouted, its gradual revelations, but then how could I have known? What would it mean to know? Is it a novel? And what is a novel anyway? Is a novel always genuine? And is the interrogative mood just a mood? Or is it much more?

Rick Moody’s novel The Four Fingers of Death will appear next year from Little, Brown.