Richard Powers’ Orfeo became my book of the year in 2016, a title that did not exist, that I was not seeking entrants for, but had to award after coming across nothing like its kind in a full 12 months. Naturally I then began to investigate Powers’ back catalogue and discovered The Gold Bug Variations, an epic late-20th Century tome preoccupied with certain specialist tools to understanding life. There is love, of course, but each character is concerned with their own investigations to what they think is the cypher for life. Genetics, machine learning, composition, evolution; what do the repetitions, the references, the variations, the developments tell us and how to we unlock what they are saying? But it is an inexplicit exploration, crossing two timeframes, with four key characters and those that revolve around them. This bumbling and learning and loving and pain is living life while we grasp desperately to define it.
I feel like I haven’t given this book justice with that introduction. This is because it is a wide-ranging, informed, subtle work. Its characters, are sensitive and learned, concealing and passionate which over 639 pages builds and layers up a book with the same similarities. Narration in 1984 is lead by Jan O’Day, a librarian by both vocation and personal proclivity. Through an accident of geographical proximity she meets Franklin Todd in her branch, shyly desperate to find out more about his reticent colleague Dr Stuart Ressler. The parallel story, opening in 1957, is told of this young brilliant molecular biologist, journeying to Illinois, set to crack the genetic code. Emerges out a double love story, parallel but separated by 25 years.
An understanding of language, its limits, its codes, are woven throughout. Ressler is sidetracked by other more intractable codes that he had previously been able to avoid in his life – social, moral, musical, spiritual as he falls for another in the research team, Dr Jeanette Koss. There is a poetic mirroring as Jan and Todd themselves fall together while investigating why Ressler, the promising young star, disappeared from published scientific sight.
“At work, the routine that had taken me into adulthood came up short. I did not want my life. I wanted another thing, an analogy. I wanted to read Poe, all Poe. I wanted to read science, the history of science. I wanted to be back with those two men, listening to the language of isolation they spoke to one another…Was any grammar sufficiently strong to translate the inner grammar of another? Did anything in the cell, in the code itself, actually know the code?”
Romantic love is not the lone driving force here. The rhythm young Todd and elder Ressler find together over the nightshift supervising the machinations of computer systems and witnessed by O’Day is a love in itself; O’Day’s insightful tenderness for Ressler himself speaks to the importances of all nuances of human relationships. Another driving motif is that of genetic replication: in the bigger picture of survival of the fittest, in the tiny cellular level of the human drive to reproduce and what that means for a young woman, in whatever era, who cannot have children.
This is a dense book. And I don’t say that as code for boring, or dull, or lacking colour, but it is thick, and wordy, and long. It is worth it, for every breathless moment of revelation. There is a deep, intelligent passion underlying the narration, bubbling under the surface, but for the uninitiated the language may just be a little foreign. But there is nothing wrong with being challenged. The value and originality is immediately apparent; and when a plot is driven by characters whose curiosity and passion to learn is so important there is a solidarity as the reader as well gains and struggles with new knowledge.
But most importantly of all, for me, is the writing. Dear god, it is so beautiful. And to me that beauty is present because of its subtlety, its light and shade; combined with its obvious and deep-seated passion and knowledge. Powers possesses both book learning and emotional intelligence; the man knows how to feel and how to articulate it. Time and time again I was arrested with the immediacy of the moment he captures and the startlingly bright way he speaks of it.
“If the interplay of scale between variant population, selectable individual, and occasionally stray gene, I find counterpoint enough to create a trio sonata rich beyond all design, exceeding even his hero’s compositional ingenuity. All this from that hobgoblin Evolution, that drunk trapping the world into listening to its rambling shaggy dog story full of fabrication, revision, gaps, imploring every so often, ‘Correct me if I’m wrong.'”
It is eloquent and lush while also being informed and worthy. The Gold Bug Variations captures things I could only begin to fathom while also communicating how it feels to know these things. Scientist, librarian, composer, programmer: I am none of these things, but these completely foreign characters grasp to articulate life as I know it through their own means, filling the gap between us with empathy and joy. It is intellectual challenging, eccentric and brilliant; a beautiful read.