The writer is following up his postmodern 'questions' novel, The Interrogative Mood, with a book-length dialogue
When Padgett Powell was a boy, he knew little of the settled life. With a trucker father, his family was constantly on the move and he reckons that he attended ten different schools and lived in 17 houses during his perpetual-motion upbringing. Perhaps this has helped to establish his own worldview as an outsider, an opinion shared by critical observers, one of whom stated that ‘anywhere he is, he doesn’t fit in’.
‘Every other year I was the new boy,’ recalls Powell, talking from his Florida base. ‘I found that the only way to survive was to embrace it, make a little fortress on the outside and to pretend to blend in but not to invest too much because you’ll be somewhere else next year. Military brats have this toughness; they’re almost like orphans or foster children, they develop little mechanisms. It sets you up to look at things a little differently.’
In his literature, Powell certainly provides readers with an alternative mindset. In 2009, he broke a decade-long absence from being published with The Interrogative Mood, a ‘novel’ made up entirely of questions. A typical sequence of posers might go like this: ‘Are you familiar with the viscosities of the various common oils and greases? Have you ever used a torque wrench? Do you have any friends?’ That book was inspired by a curiously passive-aggressive email he was sent by a colleague at the University of Florida where he teaches writing, to which he replied with a series of questions which he couldn’t stop bashing out. It piled up quickly and an original work of fiction was born.
He has now followed this up with a book which, in contrast, has been the product of 20 years’ scribbling. You & I is written entirely in dialogue between two unnamed, undescribed people, as they chatter on about Jayne Mansfield’s decapitation, the mysteries of the desert and how you would actually live your last day as though it were your last. Though the pair’s identity largely remains a mystery, we can probably conclude they are two gentlemen of advanced years, a fact which has led critics to dub You & I an updated Waiting for Godot.
‘The issue of Godot has certainly come up in America. They want to put that on the jacket but is it fair to say that this is reminiscent to a specific Beckett play when at best it might be called Becketty? Aren’t there other plays of Beckett in which two people talk for a long time? It’s a label and handy enough, but probably injurious in the long run.’
If you want to slap a label on Powell’s recent works (earlier publications like the National Book Award-shortlisted Edisto were certainly more conventional literary affairs), you could happily fire off the P word at him. ‘I know what “postmodern” wants to mean,’ he notes before recalling the postmodern fiction guru who inspired his shift. ‘I met Donald Barthelme when I was 30 and it’s fair to say that before that moment I was pre-modern and after I met him I was nudged rather forcefully towards this other end of the spectrum. My whole career has been a not-deliberate march from one end to the other. The Interrogative Mood went past the end point that I had envisioned was possible. So postmodern doesn’t upset me. Certainly, no one is calling me a cuddly realist.’
For his next trick, Powell does have a project under way, but he’s not too sure it will ever see the light. ‘I’m playing with something that is so silly and so bad that shortly after 100 pages I had to put it into the gestation drawer which is where it may remain forever. Or maybe it will be rescued as soon as I am debilitated enough to pretend that it’s any good to pick up again.’ That sounds harsh. Is Padgett Powell his harshest critic? ‘Actually, I’m pretty happy-go-lucky, but when I’ve written something, look at it and deem it a piece of shit I’ll put it away. If I see it again sometime later and say, “this part here is not that bad and actually the whole thing works: who wrote this? Where did it come from? What is this?” That’s a good set of emotions for me.’
You & I is published by Serpent’s Tail on Thu 10 Nov.