I Like __ A Lot
“Have you ever been bitten by a blue jay?”
Imagine yourself for a moment a laundry basket. A duffel bag of laundry, a black trash bag of laundry. Whatever. You’re one. Is there not, in the terrifying accumulation of our lives, a distinction between giving yourself away and asking to try someone on? Let’s say I ask if you’re okay. If you’re much pleasured by the current sky. Curried rice. Jim Carrey or ice cream. In so asking I’m digging in, hand in your basket, to take and pull a little cloth of yourself over a naked me-bit. Which is not always aggressive. Sometimes you do want me to ask you things; sometimes you’d rather I didn’t. I don’t want to talk about 2009, Facebook surveys, Michael Bloomberg’s polling strategies, focus groups for salsa commercials. It’s all relevant, but what I most want to say about Padgett Powell’s eye-twist of a novel (and I mean novel, like damn that’s novel) The Interrogative Mood is that its one-hundred-sixty-four pages of questions and question marks remind me that I am afraid of people, in love with people, hungry to know people, and made (bye laundry metaphor) mostly to be dispensed: what I mean is all that water.
A whole book of just questions isn’t a new idea. One example I know for sure is Ron Silliman’s Sunset Debris, a thirty-page section of his larger work Age of Huts. And Modernism and Oulipo probably thought of doing this, somebody in those huts, and somebody was probably audacious enough to actually do it, which is of course more interesting than thinking of doing it. What’s great about Powell’s The Interrogative Mood is that it’s more interesting than even doing it. Because where Sunset Debris explores the idea of question as social contract, syntax as power, blah blah, The Interrogative Mood swashbuckingly forgoes thinking too much about its own project and simply tries to think of the most interesting and poignant questions it can. Over and over again. For 164 pages. And it works. Here is the first paragraph:
Are your emotions pure? Are your nerves adjustable? How do you stand in relation to the potato? Should it still be Constantinople? Does a nameless horse make you more nervous or less nervous than a named horse? In your view, do children smell good? If you before you now, would you eat animal crackers? Could you lie down and take a rest on a sidewalk? Did you love your mother and father, and do Psalms do it for you? If you are relegated to last place in every category, are you bothered enough to struggle up? Does your doorbell ever ring? Is there sand in your craw? Could Mendeleyev place you correctly in a square on a chart of periodic identities, or would you resonate all over the board? How many push-ups can you do?
What makes The Interrogative Mood more than a great exercise in sentence rhythm or a manic party game is that it’s 1) more emotional than intellectual and 2) restless as hell. Like, legitimately curious. Because curious is a feeling, right? Not a state of mind? And questions give us: secrets, sharing, trivia, memory melding, pressure on the imagination, philosophic dialogue, and what Jakobson called the “phatic function of language,” that perpetual tapping of the microphone that uses language just to ask if we’re being heard, if we’re coming across. Also, as you can tell from the excerpt, this book’s secret velocity is that it’s really noun-y, full of funny and surprising shit. So if you don’t want to worry about what a gambit the project is, you can just be taken by the voice, which is happy to entertain.
Powell’s other books (Typical and Edisto are two good ones) are feasts of language and feeling, but this book feels like his most ambitious thus far because it feels like a thing someone really wants to do. Like sometimes we don’t want to tell a story. Sometimes we don’t want to make a witty linguistic construction. Sometimes we want to ask people questions, that’s all, like Goddamn, are you out there, are you okay—and it’s a feat of what I’m going to go ahead and call with a totally straight face Artistic Integrity to realize this need and to realize it in the form of a lonely and brilliant satellite of lifted-tone sentences, which Powell does in The Interrogative Mood. Here’s an answer for you: you want it, yeah.