Book Review: The Interrogative Mood: A Novel?
by Padgett Powell
Ecco/HarperCollins, 2009ISBN 978-0-06-185941-0. $21.99
Reviewed by Julie Cline
If I told you Padgett Powell’s new book is a quick, pulsating heart torn from a beautiful body, and that it is also a live bomb—a simple one using mostly manure found in your own backyard—would you hold it against me? Or would you read it with me? Better yet, would you allow me to read it to you, cover to cover, over the telephone, person to person, in an afternoon? I ask because every time I open up The Interrogative Mood, this is how it ends—me on the horn with my closest friend, demanding he either “wait,” “get this,” or “listen.”
But that is just the way Powell’s novel, composed entirely of seemingly random questions, demands to be read: not piecemeal, but whole. Like a good old-fashioned sit-down interrogation. Although, if you relented to my telephonic reading, I would not pause for your answers to the questions “Are you with me here?“ or “Isn’t wool a marvel?” but to let you laugh big here, sob a little there, and to give you room to silently wonder why you are everywhere confessing to a crime you didn’t commit and, for the life of you, cannot name.
The Interrogative Mood begins with questions that, for all their strangeness, possess a familiar ring: “Are your emotions pure? Are your nerves adjustable? How do you stand in relation to the potato?” Indeed, much of the book reads like a Marx brothers bit, or like the Vitameatavegamin episode of I Love Lucy: “Are you tired, run down, listless?” she asks the home audience. “Do you poop out at parties? Are you unpopular? The answer to all your problems is in this little bottle.” But we will not find the answer to all our problems in Powell’s little book, though we may find the problems. The questions continue:
Should it still be Constantinople? Does a nameless horse make you more or less nervous than a named horse? In your view, do children smell good? If before you now, would you eat animal crackers? Could you lie down and take a rest on the sidewalk? Did you love your mother and father, and do Psalms do it for you? If you are relegated to last 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?
So goes the novel’s first paragraph.
If we believe Chekhov’s assertion that a writer’s job is “to ask questions, not answer them,” then there is little question that what Powell is doing is writing. The interrogation begins, however, before we ever get to the first page. The book’s subtitle both slyly and self-consciously asks, “A Novel?” So if at any point a reader wants to shout “You call this a novel?” or, “Whose business is it? You don’t know my life!” well, the form in question is already prodding the same dead horse. To trouble, you might say, is this novel’s business.
Still, some readers will find The Interrogative Mood a lighthearted, amusing descent into a long Facebook quiz, one of these Which-Ninja-Turtle-Are-You tests in which one discovers nothing other than having lost an hour. But if this book reads like certain newfangled time wasters, does that mean we ought to read it like one, and be done? Or might we seize the opportunity to ask, “Why the long Facebook…?” (Though, depending on your proximity to, fondness for, and pronunciation of the potato, the answer will vary.)
One reader has said, “Powell’s book is a nice experiment, but it’s not a novel; there is no Chekhovian gun on the wall.” In fact, there are about fifty Chekhovian guns on the wall—grenades and other explosives, too—in questions like “Do you have a steady hand for bomb making?” ; “Offered a pair of wool socks or a pistol, which one would you take?” and “Have you ever found live ammunition on the ground?” And if you count the hundreds of other questions, each undeniably loaded, Powell’s little red book is tantamount to a Chekhovian arsenal. The guns do not go off in plain view, but there is a trail of evidence suggesting the guns have long been going off, and will continue. Crazing throughout the novel’s system is an increasingly menacing vein of questions involving the color red.
The first “red herring” in the line-up is a leading one, one that does not name the color but places it on our minds, on our lips. We forget we are in the hot seat when the narrator frames it as a simple matter of individual taste—just one of several fun possibilities: “If you could design a flag for a nation, what color or colors would predominate?” That’s an easy one, we think. Red. Perhaps the interrogator sees something red in our future? In our past? What on earth is being unearthed here? A page later he asks, “Will you put the traditional 200 dollars in the red envelope and give it to me?” which is followed up, to use the expression loosely, with questions about “the sporty red fox,” “red carpet,” “a fat red hose,” and “hot gritty radishes fresh from the ground.” He then asks, “Do you appreciate that an oyster has, among its other organs, a heart?” And later: “If you could assign colors to days of the week, what color would you assign Tuesday?” Also: “Do you wear red?” and “When you wear white, do you insist it be spotless?” I can’t help but take this last question to mean, Do you foolishly insist on your innocence?
Later questions more openly insinuate red-handedness on the reader’s part, which could be why the narrator preemptively asks, “Would a small red balloon cheer you up?” This balloon becomes the red button on what is maybe a time machine, maybe a bomb, and turns up again in a question about a red clown’s nose, which leads to a game of jacks and its omnipresent little red ball. But this is all fairly harmless stuff until we are asked, “Must the ball be red?” (Did I say already that the book, underneath its white jacket, is bright red?) You see, at a certain point, these rapid-fire questions do not ask. They report. And when they are no longer questions but incredibly powerful suggestions, we are no longer responding but reading—even chanting—statements like “The ball must be red.” There is no question, then, what the reader is thinking when fed the following lines: “If you own a crowbar, do you sometimes like to just pick it up and get the heft of it, admire the heavy hex shaft and the claw and the wedge? What color is your crowbar?” Seems our collective crowbar, in the spirit of Macbeth, is “breech’d in gore.”
In many ways, The Interrogative Mood is a postmodern detective novel, the classic “whodunit” reinvented as a kind of “now-we-dunit” mass regret mystery. But damned if it isn’t also the feel-good kind. Or the feels-so-bad-it’s-good kind. Take the following questions—please:
Would you like, right now, some pancakes with real maple syrup on them? Would you like to send a love letter to anyone? Have you ever mounted insects on a board with pins through their thoraxes? What aspect or adventure of your life strikes you now as the biggest waste of time or energy or resources?
The book is teaming with nostalgia, often coercing a reader into “returning” to pain he or she has never felt, to these very specific, primal scenes in what can only be the narrator’s development.
After all, what could be more specific than:
When you trap a rat in a spring trap, do you feel triumphant or bad? Have you ever knelt down and said to the rat, aloud or not, “It was a mistake, I regret what I have done to you, I wish you could now go on about your business, it’s just that your eating my shit was at the time pissing me off, but now I see that you just had to do it, and what really kills me is how clean and innocent you look”?
Powell puts these loaded questions to the reader like a home invasion robber, and in the process takes humanity—in all its beautiful, moronic iterations—to task. There is a universal gut response to questions this particular, and part of that is nervous laughter. It goes back to the question we’re asked at the beginning of this interrogation, the one about our nerves being “adjustable.” Can we feel what a stranger feels? Is there still a lifeline between author and reader? Between reader and reader? Or are we too far gone?
If The Interrogative Mood points to some great systemic crack-up, a shared crime, a large-scale mistake, it is also evidence, to my mind, that something is altogether good and right. When I read it (which I have done several times now), I think, “You’ve got my number, Powell. You’ve got the right man.” And I’m not even a man. This is novel territory, then. And by that I mean, this is nothing new.
But the question remains: If the ball must be red, must the little red book be read? Or perhaps I should ask, in Padgett Powell’s words, “Is there a set number of rings you like the phone to ring before you pick up?”
Oh, I guess I mean: “Do you still answer the phone?”
Julie Cline is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at UC Riverside. Currently at work on a nonfiction book about buying dead people’s things, she lives downtown with her cat Emile -- and all the ghosts that have followed her home from estate sales.