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Operation Wandering Soul by Richard Powers
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Operation Wandering Soul

by Richard Powers

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The interest of this book, I think, is an antagonism between determinedly inventive language and overspilling emotion. It's a problem that dogs books that were probably influenced by this one, including some of David Foster Wallace's, and current writing like Sergio De la Pava's "Naked Singularity."

1.
About the language: it seems that every single sentence in the book was interrogated for clichés: except for brief exclamations and short bridging sentences, almost no line in the entire 352 pages is a report of ordinary speech or standard description. Sometimes that results in deliberate awkwardness. In one passage, a doctor, Kraft, is being invited to go dancing at the Pasadena Women's Club. He ruminates:

"Well, so be it, if that's the last bastion of fox-trot in this fifteen-million-souled nation flying point for westward expansion's cliff-dive into the Pacific." (p. 204)

Sometimes this tweaking and pinching leads to dense apostrophes, crowded with alliterative sequences, puns, intentional solecisms, and chained awkwardnesses, as in this description of the dance hall:

"This place, this heartbreaking, magnificent, annihilating, imperialist, insecure, conscience-stricken, anarcho-puritanical, smart-bombing, sheet-tinned, Monroe Doctrined place... The searing, seductive, all-palliating, caramel curative of the been-through-the-Mills Brothers (sure, who else? you always hurt the ones you love) do their painted, slowed-down, lip-simulated, bastard-son-of-Dixieland instrumental interlude, returning only to insist that you're nobody. Till somebody. Cares." (p. 210)

Most of the time it produces an effect of lexical hysteria, a kind of frantic search to escape ordinary language. This is a description of an annoying person who is assisting the doctor in an operation:

"He hears the Millstone wind-tunneling in his ear, doing his geriatric Driver's Ed teacher a month before retirement thing." (p. 268)

In many passages, on many pages, this kind of obsessive tinkering produces momentarily confusing and slightly enlightening twists in ordinary usage. Of a woman who wants to throw away a collection of milk cartons, Powers writes "She wants to rush the receptacles." (p. 280). Of the universal habit children have of torturing insects, he writes "Boyhood trains for this... in every country he had ever barnstormed." (p. 268)

I read this because David Foster Wallace said somewhere that it was his favorite. It is easy to see one of the reasons why: Powers is determined not to write an ordinary sentence, but that determination produces a strange awkwardness of the kind that Wallace alternately relished and despised. The effect is definitely not simply "brilliant," "scintillating," "eloquent" or "magnificent," as reviewers tend to say. It is a condition, like the medical conditions of the characters in the book. As Wallace knew, this kind of virtuosity is an illness. Some passages early in this book remind me forcibly of Sergio De la Pava's "Naked Singularity": I think "Operation Wandering Soul," which was published in 1993, is one of the points of origin for certain practices of hypertrophied eloquence in books like De la Pava's, and in some McSweeny's authors.

2.
About the overspilling emotion: the book is about a hospital ward for children with chronic, rare, debilitating diseases and deformities, and their two principal caregivers (the doctor and a therapist), both of whom are emotionally pithed. Some of the children are presented briefly, and one is a sort of black comic relief, but mainly the book is about their suffering. The central character is a little girl who needs to have her ankle removed, and then, when the disease spreads, half her body. She ends up in intensive care, with her legs amputated, bruised by the breathing tubes, knocked out by sedatives, knowing her life is over. In that state, she writes her doctor a love letter.

The emotion is wild, gushing, hot, and nearly unbearable, and -- this is the connection with the first point about language -- it is made that way by the straightjackets of language.

What seems so odd about the book, so unsatisfying, is that it is clearly hopeless to disguise torrential emotion by torturing language. It doesn't work even from the first pages of the book. I think the idea was to produce more intense emotion by tying it up in knotted language games, and letting it squeeze out, drop by drop, in some ultra-purified form. But the result is that the emotion leaks out all over, spilling over every sentence, soaking the "brilliant" prose in bathos, a bath of tears, saline fluid, and blood. I don't think this would have been half the book it is if Powers's strategy had worked, and he had contained unspeakable tragedy in its Procrustean hospital bed. The book is about the excesses of excess: pain that leaches out in every overworked metaphor, every mangled image, every twisted, hypercomplex sentence. ( )
1 vote JimElkins | Oct 16, 2012 |
One of Powers' early novels, this is set in a Los Angeles hospital pediatric ward. It has a bit of a strange ending, but getting there's most of the fun. ( )
  wanack | Jul 3, 2010 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 006097611X, Paperback)

Highly imaginative and emotionally powerful, this stunning novel about childhood innocence amid the nightmarish disease and deterioration at the heart of modern Los Angeles was nominated for a National Book Award.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:19:47 -0400)

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