Awareness and Endings
“I can name that song in three notes,” says Ressler in the last quarter of Power’s novel, The Goldbug Variations. His ability to do so surprises and frustrates his listeners, who wonder how he can extrapolate a song out of so little information. Ressler’s ability to do so comes from his talent at detecting patterns. Patterns are important for interpretation, but they also carry their own problems.
One of the key concerns of The Goldbug Variations is not only interpretation of comprehensible information (which is a challenge in itself to obtain), but the ability to detect patterns in the face of overwhelming amounts of stimuli which constantly surround us. To some extent, this is the problem with current research on the human genome. We understand the basic building blocks, which are simple, but these simple base pairs and amino acids combine in unpredictable ways to produce objects of incomprehensible complexity. Beings, in short, who are capable of making music or writing a novel.
In college, a professor trying to explain how DNA was capable of doing all this used Mozart’s Requiem as the summa of human musical complexity, and in general I think that piece is more appealing than Bach. But Bach’s variations reproduce a key aspect of patterns and pattern detection in my mind which the novel and the character Ressler also reproduce. Specifically, the ability to understand a pattern only after the pattern has passed. While listening to a variation, the patterns of the music were in some general way understandable in the beginning and middle, but only as a variation comes to a close do I detect the recapitulation and reformation of the melody which the piece as a whole undergoes. In short, only when the piece finally ends do I get it.
The same is true of the structure of The Goldbug Variations. Only in the last quarter of the novel did I understand the triplet time-story of Present–Ressler in the past–Stuart, Todd, and narrator structure. Only at the end did Ressler’s abandonment of his research make sense. Only at the end of Ressler’s relationship with his would-be lover does he understand how to decode the genome. The novel ends with a promise of ending, “Who said anything about lasting?” with a relationship which seems like it will never produce children. It as though patterns of human behavior themselves only become perceivable as they end. Only special individuals like Ressler are able to extrapolate the entire pattern out of a piece like three notes, but even so, the knowledge does not bring any real control over the operations of the pattern. As a part of the pattern, no single character in the novel is capable of upsetting or escaping or changing the larger pattern of the work, similiarly to how no single base pair can change the expression of amino acids without altering or ending the pattern of DNA.
Is this a question of fruitless intellectual endeavour at understanding ourselves? Does the owl of wisdom always fly at twilight when it comes to genetic understanding? Well, yes and no. It may not generally aid us to extrapolate the whole from the tiny part, but occasionally reproducing the infiitely complex whole (as Todd and Stuart do with their computer program) can allow someone, even if it’s someone relatively insignificant like Jimmy, to be aided. Reproducing the whole pattern in an operating and living thing like a computer program or a child or a song is one way of allowing for complexity while also deriving individual benefit.