Plowing The Dark is nothing if not a novel of ideas. Set in the 1980s and 1990s, Richard Powers’ novel juxtaposes two parallel narratives – one concerning the rise of virtual reality, computer generated simulation that reached to become indistinguishable from reality – and the other concerning Taipur Martin, a American taken hostage and held in the Lebanon. These narratives may seem incongruous at first, but both concern the same thing – the nature of reality.
For Adie Karpol, the technophobe artist called on to give visual shape to the computer realities generated by the immersive environment known as The Cavern, fooling her own senses into believing the simulation in front of her is real becomes her daily quest. For Taipur Martin, the American teacher held hostage in solitary confinement for a length of time so long he cannot even measure it, trying to stay sane amongst almost total sensory deprivation becomes a contest of wills with himself. Flickering behind these two narratives are the epoch-changing events which dominated and dictated the last two decades’ world history – Tianamen Square, the collapse of communism and the first Gulf War. Plowing The Dark is the sort of novel you soon realise will repay a second reading even before you’ve finished the first.
Karpol’s grappling with the hideous complexities of computer code that live under the bonnet of virtual reality gives Powers the perfect device to trace the arcane history of its geek genesis, which in turn brings in discussions of mathematics, economics and, well, the structure of the universe itself. In a similar way to Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs, Powers takes the computer as the single most important artefact of the last two decades and examines its impact upon our reality as much as our creation of new realities using it.
Traditionally art has fulfilled the function of creating new realities, and Powers namedrops a vast array of classical artists in conversations describing the nature of art and its irreducibility to a binary sequence. Powers’ peripheral characters are clearly ciphers to embody certain viewpoints, while the central characters in both narratives grapple with a tsunami of thought of which they can never fully gain control. Indeed, the novel has this effect on the reader as well as its protagonists – Powers’ prose is easy to read, but the density of ideas packed into each page demands frequent pauses to digest what is being said. Whereas most novels take a central premise and string it out over a couple of hundred pages, it feels as if Plowing The Dark only just keeps the lid on its own complexity.
Like Pynchon and Delillo who are namechecked as Powers’ peers by several reviewers on Plowing’s bookcovers, Powers’ prose has a certain cool authorial, distinctly American, detachment to it. This in turn gives the effect of looking at his characters through a microscope rather than moving amongst them – even the Taipur Martin narrative, which uses the second person throughout, seems strangely removed even as it provides an exhausting empathy with the horror of being held hostage. This detachment also provides a more subtle sadness for Adie Karpol, where life is nothing but work and making love is without real thought for one’s lover. Some of Powers’ sentences on the emotional lives of Karpol and her friends seem almost like asides and yet always hint at a melancholy for those characters, a fundamental loneliness and an absence of happiness with no idea of where to look for it. These moments in the book are perhaps all the more noticeable for being moments of emotional vulnerability or longing amongst so much intellectual abstraction.
Plowing The Dark, then, is unashamedly intellectual and decidedly demanding of its reader, a near-riot of ideas and imagination that crackles with the electricity of new thoughts emerging from the old. It feels like a third millennium novel – synthesising and distilling histories of events, of ideas and of people, reshaping and retracing new threads through them, cutting its own furlong for what a novel should do.