rereading “Steady Stream”
I mentioned Richard Powers’s email story, They Come in a Steady Stream Now, last week, enjoying it but not being very impressed. Nick, on the other hand, likes it very much. He has several interesting points in his post at GtxA. For one thing, he got to the end of the piece. I didn’t. While I appreciate Nick’s findings (his insights make me see the work better, which is what I love about reading good criticism) I’m still not really enamoured of the piece. (Spoilers follow – that’s not a common remark in literary criticism, is it?)
I hadn’t managed to finish reading “Steady Stream”, so was particularly pleased that Nick’s walkthrough explains this. The way in which you receive the conclusion of the work is a nice (though annoying) touch. The narrative is about spam, and as you read, it assaults you with spam that you have to read, or at least click on and look at for two seconds, before you are presented with the next fragment of Powers’s text. Instead of the final, promised email from Powers, email seven of seven, you’re asked to register by giving your email address. The first time I used an address that wouldn’t take attachments. The second, I used my university account, which has an excellent spam filter and anti-spammed the email – or rather, delayed it by half an hour by which time I’d already gone through the piece a third time and given it my mac.com address where I instantly received an email from “Richard Powers”:
Thank you for registering.
Please read attatched document for the conclusion of “They Come in a Steady Stream Now”.
Attached is a two page PDF which gives the whole text of the emails presented as from Powers, all joined up into a very short, very linear short story, or personal essay, really.
It’s a nice twist, in theory: You have to trust this narrative about spam which has already assaulted you and you have to trust it enough to give it your real email address, which is exactly what the whole frame of the story has been warning you NOT to do.
But I was so disappointed to receive a linear essay as the final email. It makes it so obvious that Powers wrote a short essay for Ninth Letter, and Ninth Letter’s excellent team dressed it up. It seems like a cop out to conclude by delivering the linear essay. Why not stick to the concept and send the last paragraph as a direct email? Perhaps because the last paragraph is even less like an email than the rest of the essay:
And that is all you can remember about him. No other detail. You scan down the list of available enhancements. What would you pay for? What would you take? Out the window, just behind the screen, something like July is glinting off the gutters. Today shines just like the light on that lost day, a ravishing light that glances off the whitecaps of that mossy-smelling water, the polo ball you toss arcing across a sky that you‚Äôd swear is as yet untouched by a single cloud, only the amnesiac sun shining like nothing could ever blow across it, and all of you simply swimming, calling.
Nick is a wonderful reader. He notices details like the “something like July”, against the emails that are dated in December. My instinct is to grumpily note that this shows the disjunction between the linear essay Powers presumably wrote and the electronic layer the designers dressed it up in, but Nick reads this as a comment on memory, and, well, I’m not sure he says more than that, but his approach is more generous than my instinct, and probably more productive.
To me, seeing the full text in the PDF makes the un-emailness of the essay shine out. Who are the emails to and from? Is the conceit that the emails are sent out in the same way as spam? That a story is little different from spam? OK, that’s interesting, in a way, but why not follow through and send the last email as email? The form and the content seem too disconnected to me.
The designers of the electronic aspects of “Steady Stream” have done a great job given the limitations of the linear text. The art directors, Jennifer Gunji and Joseph Squier, and the designer and Flash programmer Jessica Mullen with the assistant designers Jennifer Gunji, Lauren Hoopes, Chad Kellenberger and Val Lohmann have put together a beautifully designed and intriguing concept. Ultimately I think it doesn’t quite work, or rather that it works well as a layer on top of Powers’s essay but not as an integrate part of the essay. Nick mentions that the pop ups advertising the magazine are an admission that writers advertise their own work, but all the ads are for the magazine, not for Powers at all.
Nick writes that he actually read the spam. Actually, he had to read it, or at least click on it, or nothing would happen. The narrative would stop. There are no options in this piece: you either click on the one spot the interface will allow or you wait endlessly. I’m curious as to whether Nick found the spam particularly apropos, though, or intriguing? Nick also notes that the connection of spam to memories ties in with the rest of Powers’ work, which is interesting.
As for the quality of the writing, well, yes, Nick’s right, it’s good:
Viagra–already ancient history, by all accounts. You need Levitra, Cialis, Dostinex: the big guns, the weekender arsenal, the stuff that lasts for 48 hours straight. By next year, they’ll have perfected the fortnight special, and the year after: perpetual desire. You take a quick peek down the list, before hitting the delete keye. It must be a decade at least, since sex seemed particularly urgent. How finely can they tune the neurotransmitters, boost the serum levels of mystery in your spinal fluid? Do they sell one that can trick your body into thinking, after half a century, that there’s still something left about itself to discover? If not now, soon.
This is good, it’s intriguing, there’s a lyrical quality to it and it to some extent turns spam around into something to wonder about rather than simply delete. The passages later on about memories are also well-written. Nick challenges my probably too-fast comment that while the piece was well-written, the writing wasn’t extraordinary, asking me to provide examples of better electronic writing.
OK, so lets look more closely at the writing. This is from letter five of seven:
You hear from someone who has the name of someone you will probably meet next week. Full genetic screening now available. You owe it to yourself and those you love to plan for your future with eyes wide open. For just half a month’s salary, you might pay confidential physicians to remind you what you keep forgetting: Am I dying? Yes, but not yet. How long do I have? Not long. What happens next?
OK, that’s interesting. Is it really that much better than this passage from Ruthie’s Double, a blog sadly now gone?
I am doing temporary work, which is quite fitting; I am temporary. Everything about me is temporary; a quivering form of jello that slips out of any tupperware container, an extreme-escape artist.
Today I’m a receptionist. Dress: business casual. Which means: no jeans or tank tops. I cross my legs, trying to affect the correct character; something sweet, efficent and competant, like smiling while typing quickly.
Is it necessarily better than this?
The woman behind the counter was tanned the sort of deep brown that would have been admirable in a cake, but is worrying in skin. Blue eye-shadow, blonde hair. She was on the phone, ignoring me, which suited me just fine.
“Oh, it’s all over, weeks ago now.” she said to the person at the other end of the phone, “He’s now going out with someone who eats tofu.” There was a pause. “Well, exactly. Did I tell you how he offered to pay me five hundred dollars to quit smoking? I told him there was no way. We stopped seeing each other shortly after that.”
Or even this, brief as it is:
They stopped talking to let me pass between them, as though their words were impenetrable terrain.
Perhaps what sets a great novelist apart from good bloggers is their ability to sustain wonderful language. It’s true that while much of the best writing I read these days is in weblogs, it’s in glimpses more than in the chewy safisfaction of a novel.
I regret saying the writing’s not “excellent” in Powers’ short piece – it is, in parts. In fact, reading the piece again, I see that part of the appeal of his writing in this piece is that it does, at times, fit the brief fragmented style that I love in blogging, despite apparently having been written as a linear essay:
She had a tropical fish tank, and she loved Chopin. She read strange books and knew the Latin names of every fish she raised. Cheriadan axelrodi. Betta splendens. And she lived next door to hte house where an itinerant snake charmer once brought a wicker basket full of cobras and coaxed them out across your lawn. Fifteen years old, she played the Nocturne in E minor like she was ready to die. It would make a difference to you now, to learn whether she ended up as graceful as she began. But your on the far side of the world, and her name is too common to Google.
Perhaps you would take something: oh, not a desire pill. Haven’t you satisfied desire 10,000 consummate times already in your life? But you might order something if it could make you feel what it must have felt like, to be her, and wanted so hopelessly by you, and never even touched.
I like that.
I wonder how much of Nick’s apprecation of “Steady Stream” is dependent on his knowledge of Richard Powers’ other work. I’ve not read anything else by Richard Powers and living on the other side of the world from him I hadn’t actually realised he was one of America’s greatest writers until I read about this email story. I’ve since been told that in addition to eight best-selling and critically acclaimed novels, he’s actually been given the “genius” award. I had no idea there were genius awards. Very un-Norwegian concept, that. Actually the genius moniker is just the award’s nickname: Powers won one of 20-40 yearly fellowships from the MacArthur Foundation, in 1989, for Americans who “show exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work”. It’s a really prestigious award to win. Google has over 3000 hits for “Richard Powers” and “genius”, and they seem to mostly be saying that he’s a genius. There are actually 784 hits for “Jill Walker” and genius, but unfortunately they’re mostly written by me, and they’re all about the idea of the romantic genius and about other peoples’ work and stuff, so I guess I’ll have to wait a while for that award.
I bet that if I had known to think of Powers as a genius, it would have changed my reading. Checking out his Norwegian reception, I see only one of his novels has been translated and from reading Google’s top hits for Norwegian language sites mentioning Powers, which usefully enough are the reviews his translated book received in the biggest mainstream media outlets, half of the reviews hated the book (this one’s really caustic) and half were thrilled by it. Maybe it’s a cultural thing.