Tuesday, 7 September 2010

The Interrogative Mood

Padgett Powell's The Interrogative Mood: A Novel? consists entirely of questions. 164 pages of questions. Line after line, page after page, chapter after chapter, questions are piled on top of questions without a declaration in sight.

In general, the book reads like a stream of consciousness interrogation where every non sequitur that pops up - in whatever order, with whatever frequency, with whatever gravity - is immediately suspended, concatenated, and catechized. The mood is light but uncomfortably insistent. A sample:
Are you sure of yourself? Do you use the word coordinates? Does a snifter of brandy - swirling, amber, bright, piquant - strike you as a handsome thing? Is there trouble in Paradise? Do wheels have fun? Can there be surcease in the pursuit of charity? Would the number of snake teeth there have been in time exceed or equal or be less than the number of human teeth, do you think? Will you ride a pony? (150)
The questions tend to have one of two effects: (1) asking for facts, they plumb your ignorance, or (2) soliciting opinions, they show by way of sheer volume how trivial your opinions are.

Ignorance and triviality loosen the straight-jacket of the self. Both give us room to breathe.

In part, Powell has just this effect in mind:
Is there anything you'd like to ask me? Are you curious to know what I'll do with the answers you've given me? Do you think I can make some kind of meaningful "profile" of you? Could you, or someone, do you think, make such a profile of me from the questions I have asked you? If we had these profiles, could we not relax and let them do the work of living for us and take our true selves on a long vacation? Isn't it the case that certain people are already on to this trick of posting their profiles on duty while simultaneously living private underground lives? Can you recognize these profile soldiers by a certain dismissive calm, a kind of gentle smile about them when others are getting petty? Is in fact the character of the profile-facade person not that which is called wise? And is the person who is congruent with his daily self and who has no remote self not regarded as shallow? (69-70)
Questioning, the self comes loose but doesn't go away.

Something similar can happen with our compulsion to achievement:
Do you know what famous person complained famously that many men produce only excrement? If a man completed building a model airplane and ordered a subscription to a newspaper on a given day, would he have been more productive than if he had only produced excrement? Would he be better than they if he wrote a beautiful piece of music that was listened to by hundreds of men or even thousands as they produced only excrement? What if a couple of them or even hundreds annoyed by the music turn it off as they produce only excrement? What if the excrement producers regard as holy more or less that production and admit no distraction from their mission? What if they yell from their chamber where they ply their industry "Turn that crap off!" speaking of the music that someone has thoughtlessly left playing at too high a volume for their comfort? What if they have one of those German shelf toilets that allows the inspection of the feces and as they inspect the feces it is established that no one is so inspecting the music to ascertain its quality? Things are a little different now that we have some quality control going down on the excrement end and no quality control going down on the productive-genuises-live-better-lives end, aren't they? (104-105)
Living in the interrogative mood, we just might learn what to give (and not give!) a crap about.


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