Children: Experiment and Exploration in The Gold Bug Variations

While The Gold Bug Variations may be a supremely intricate novel primarily concerned with aesthetic play and scientific endeavor, there are moments in Richard Powers’s work when more quotidian human emotions and urges are thrust forcefully to the foreground.  Perhaps one of the most striking examples of such an interruption occurs towards the beginning of the novel, when the young hotshot scientist Dr. Ressler meets “little Margaret,” the precocious daughter of his next-door neighbors.  During this interlude, Ressler is brought to tears by the seven-year-old’s rote recitation of a poem her parents have taught her.  Struck dumb with wonder, as if he had only just discovered what a child is (as, arguably, he just has), Ressler’s fascination with Margaret prompts his own childhood reminisces (despite, as he recalls, his mother’s assertion that he was “never a child” [178]).  Superficially, parts of this extended personal meditation seem to be more of the same from the hyper-focused, no-nonsense scientist—Margaret is, to his mind, initially a “machine,” and it is her cells that speak, not the girl herself.  However, Ressler unequivocally moves beyond this clinical assessment of vivisecting the girl down to her constituent parts (all the way down to her DNA): “Margaret’s virtuosity denies objective treatment” (177).  For all his scientific training, he is stymied by the girl’s linguistic dexterity.  His own linguistic prowess promptly capitulates to this demand for subjectivity—little Margaret gets classified as a “self-delighting, self-affrighting library.”  Confronted with her inherent complexity and skill, the scientist can only quote poetry, Yeats’ “A Prayer for My Daughter” in this instance, implicitly casting himself in the role of rather awestruck father. 

Of course, Ressler does not leave his taxonomic endeavor there; he goes on to label Margaret an “exploration,” a “trial run,” and “the helix’s experiment.”    This language would seem to recall his initial impulse to reduce Margaret to components—to mechanize her as merely “machine.”  However, there is in fact a key difference: while she “is not a little girl,” she is not an object either.  She is action and process, both regimented an controlled (“experiment”) and chaotic and unknown (“exploration”).  In this moment, Powers would seem to offer up a striking example of what Jay Clayton refers to in Charles Dickens in Cyberspace as the ideal novelistic blending of human time and “genome time.”  By reconceiving of children as cyclical, endless processes, the scientist invokes what Clayton refers to as “genome time,” which is unconcerned with the existence of the individual; but by emotionally breaking down at an encounter with an individual child, Ressler (and by extension Powers) privileges the human as well. 

This hybridized conception of childhood goes on to inform the remainder of the novel, as the notion of conception itself becomes extended from physical copulation and gestation to scientific and artistic work (such as Ressler’s experiments Franklin’s dissertation, and Jan’s diary).  Ressler’s focus on Margaret’s linguistic precocity (her “linguistic preknowledge,” as he once refers to it) proves strangely prescient—in a novel full of sexually barren and/or creatively blocked characters, the only “baby” made is purely linguistic—the book we readers hold in our hands, fashioned “yours, mine, and ours”-style from the work of Franklin and Jan at the very end of the narrative.  In genetics, literature, art, and life, the governing syntax stands as the all-in-all, and thus, at least in this novel, maybe the boundaries between the terms aren’t as solid as previously thought—maybe one can partially stand in for, or at least provide viable commentary on, the others.  



~ by Heather on March 12, 2009.

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