What if I told you Padgett Powell’s new book, The Interrogative Mood, is nothing but questions? Would that intrigue you? Or would the mere mention of the idea give you cause to keep your distance? For the people remaining, would you still be interested after learning the questions don’t necessarily relate to one another, at least not in a traditional narrative or linear fashion? Would you stick around with The Interrogative Mood for 164 pages? Can I stop now?
The book’s spine asks, “A novel?” rather than declare the form. It’s a fair question. Flipping through the slim volume, The Interrogative Mood is both hard to define and easy to dismiss. You’re likely to land on questions such as “Can you change a tire by yourself?” or “Would you eat a monkey?” It looks more like experimental poetry inspired by Facebook personality tests than a novel. Even worse, it has the faint odeur of imitation Dada — work that might have been clever if it had been performed at a café in Switzerland 90 years ago.
People who judge books by covers or cursory glances, those poor suckers, will dispatch The Interrogative Mood in mere seconds. They might even call Powell a has-been while they’re at it. When was he supposed to be the greatest writer of his generation? Twenty-five years ago?
But they’ll be wrong. So, so wrong. After falling into the rhythm of The Interrogative Mood's pages, preconceived notions quickly disappear. Between unassociated or banal-seeming questions such as “How many push-ups can you do?” conspicuous confessions start to emerge. “Did you know that I would like to have an early-model Ford and live on a dirt road and almost never check my mailbox for there would be, in this simple life I don’t have, almost never any mail in it? Would you like to have such a red-checkered-tablecloth life too?” The book’s inquiries come from the carefully honed voice of a narrator, a character as unique and memorable as any in recent memory. The interrogator, as he might as well be called, is bent on the substance of masculine America: big cars, loud rock music, mortal fears and carnal urges. He’s aging. He’s talking to “you.”
The Interrogative Mood trusts the reader. The obvious lack of answers allows the reader to engage the text, rather than observe it. It isn’t a wild idea — reading provokes responses whether it’s in the pages of literary fiction or weekly newspapers. Powell brings reader response to the focus of his book instead of letting it linger in the background. It’s a risky but profound gesture.
When the risk pays off, the reader becomes the unwritten “you,” welling up with fevered memories to match the interrogator’s mesmerizing revelations. Without that successful connection, however, The Interrogative Mood would resemble a literary gimmick or twisted parlor game.
Powell knows how to tell a story. When he wants to, he can do it in a single breath: “If you were part of a couple living in a three-story wooden Victorian house with a bad paint job outside and shabby interior, to the extent that some of your rooms were lit by bare lightbulbs on swinging cords effecting heavy glare on the beadboard walls, wouldn’t you consider it an appropriate diversion for the two of you to play Norman Bates and his mother at least sometimes?” The Interrogative Mood transcends its own assemblage of fleeting stories or leading questions to achieve a vision of America written through that distinctly American form — the riff. Powell’s questions take off on little flights, kind of variations in melody a 1960s Duane Allman might have pulled from his guitar. Like those memorable tunes, The Interrogative Mood will leave you humming for days.
The Interrogative Mood by Padgett Powell. Ecco Books. $21.99. 164 pp.
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