by Jesse Garon
The protagonist of Richard Powers' fifth novel is Richard Powers, the author of four novels, who, after the breakup of a long-term relationship with a woman named C., finds himself in U., the university town where everything began for him. As a visiting scholar, he finds himself alone, emotionally cast off from the rest of the campus. He begins to explore the worlds within his computer:
I browsed the world web. I fished it from my node on a building host that served up more megabits a second than I could request. By keying in short electronic addresses, I connected to machines all over the face of the earth. The web: yet another total disorientation that became status quo without anyone realizing it.
Soon enough, however, a purpose begins to emerge in Powers' year in U. He encounters Philip Lentz, a cognitive neurologist who develops sophisticated neural networks in his office. Soon, Lentz and Powers have entered into a bet with some of the other faculty at U.; by the end of the school year, Lentz claims, they will be able to create a neural network that not only can pass a comprehensive exam in English literature, but can do so in such a way that would render its answer indistinguishable from that of a human being.
Lentz does the programming, and Powers reads to the machine from the great works of literature. As he does, he confronts his own relationship to literature, and the memories of his decade with C. As the protagonist's present and past interlock and play off of each other, Powers fills his narrative with streams of breathtaking, lyrical prose:
Associations of associations. It struck me. Every neuron formed a middle term in a continuous, elaborate, brain-wide pun. With a rash of dendrite inputs and handfuls of axon outs, each cell served as enharmonic point in countless constellations, shifting configurations of light, each circuit standing in for some new sense. To fire or not fire meant different things, depending on how the registers aligned at a given instant and which other alignments read the standing sum. Each node was an entire computer, a comprehensive comparison. And the way they fit together was a cupola itself.
As the computerized neural network becomes more sophisticated, it begins to ask Powers difficult questions: What is its name? What gender is it? Why does it exist? Helen, as Powers christens the budding consciousness, becomes increasingly confounded as she begins to realize the boundaries of her existence, and her plight is rendered in a touching and powerful manner, as is Powers' attempt to find meaning and purpose in his own existence as a writer and a reader. Richard Powers' previous novel, Operation Wandering Soul, was nominated for the National Book Award; by all rights, Galatea 2.2 deserves to win that award this year.
Galatea 2.2 Richard Powers (Farrar Straus Giroux, $23.00)