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Would you like to read this book?

Latest novel from the whimsical Padgett Powell is a series of sublime, intimate and outragous questions. Are you game?

"Are you happy? Do we need galoshes? Are bluebirds perfect? Do you know the distinctions - empirical or theoretical - between moss and lichen? Is it clear to you why I am asking you all these questions? Should I go away? Leave you alone? Should I bother but myself with the interrogative mood?"

Padgett Powell presents his readers with a whimsical and entertaining new book - The Interrogative Mood: A Novel? - best described as a 164-page meditation composed entirely of questions. This sublime collection ranges from the deeply personal ("Do you have any friends? Do you remember the last time you wept?") to the purely trivial ("Can you hit a golf ball? Do you like lizards?").

Powell, once called one of "the best American writers of the younger generation" by Saul Bellow and "one of the top five writers of fiction in the country" by Barry Hannah, has created an audacious and stylistic mash-up for his fifth book that is enjoyable to read, though slightly puzzling. Some questions are interrelated - Juicy Fruit gum, ornithology and chocolate surface again and again - yet the vast majority of the questions have nothing to do with each other. It is difficult to read more than 10 pages at once; I read a few pages before bed for a good two weeks. But this novel is worth the struggle, as each section of questions offers strange insight into vivid snapshots of life, forcing the reader back into the minutia of his own memory: "Have you ever seen sparks issue from a wall socket?"

The Interrogative Mood comes as a pleasant surprise in the aftermath of Powell's previous work, Mrs. Hollingsworth's Men, which lacked a true plot and conflict and read as the author's personal thoughts and self-indulgences instead of as a novel. Though Powell is obviously a fine writer - his novel Edisto was nominated for a National Book Award - his strength lies in his humor and playful use of language, not in his ability to construct a plot or weave a narrative.

The Interrogative Mood has no pretenses about being a "real" novel. Even the subtitle, A novel?, questions the form Powell uses. By abandoning plot, character and other novel "necessities," Powell offers us his finest work - a rambling meditation about life, language and the subtleties of human interaction.

I approached this novel with skepticism - an entire book filled with questions? How interesting could that be? Somehow, miraculously, the book transcends what could be an incomprehensible mess in the hands of a less adept writer. By asking questions, Powell admits that he does not have the answers, thus overcoming the pitfall of sanctimonious speech that often accompanies experimental writing. By treating the human experience with exuberance and a touch of humor, Powell offers a novel that is both entertaining and unforgettable.


Published November 19, 2009 in Arts and Entertainment, tableau

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