Padgett Powell’s The Interrogative Mood is many things, but probably not a novel. Still, it asks us to consider the question of what makes a novel. Not that this is the only question it asks.
For the book is composed solely of questions. Every single sentence it contains ends with a question mark. So, more fundamentally, it asks us to consider what makes a question–and if some questions are more questioning or more questionable than others.
Powell tells us that the motivation for exercise was the fact that he continually received, as director of a university program, a series of email messages phrased as questions:
Is it time for the director to have a chat with the provost? Do we recall what the dean promised us last spring? Would it be prudent to assume that history will not repeat itself?
Whatever else these missives were–gentle cajoling, injunctions that feared to reveal their disciplinary status, the sign of a boss who had drunk the management-speak kool-aid–they were surely not really questions.
And so it is with The Interrogative Mood, which interrogates the very act of interrogation, without of course (as in the best interrogations) ever giving up any easy answers.
There are sentences that are open-ended investigations of a theme, attempts to resolve some kind of mystery: “Is there charity? Can there be reason?” (112); “Is semaphore still used at sea or has it been displaced by the digital age?” (113); “Could Oswald have done it alone?” (148). But these are very much in the minority. Very many more of the text’s questions are more like the prompts found in an examination or interview: “Do you know what the longest military siege in history was?” (57); “How fast do the fastest birds fly?” (123); “Have you read much philosophy?” (26); “Can you read music?” (66). And of course: “Is there anything you’d like to ask me?” (69), a question that usually expects no reply.
But the questions soon take on the tone of an examination gone wild: “Is it correct to say that an orange is eponymous? Why is a banana yellow and not banana?” (67); “Is life better or not better now that for the most part we live it without a daily concern with ramparts?” (70). They frequently indulge in wordplay and logical games: “What color is your crowbar?” (92); “Are you more at ease in a veneer of civilization or a true hardwood of barbary?” (114); “At what point is a gosling a goose?” (133). Sometimes, moreover, the questions seem to reveal more about the questioner than they ask of the person questioned: “Isn’t wool a marvel?” (9); “Are you as fond as I of cobalt glass?” (59).
Above all, what the questioning reveals is that a pronounced nostalgia suffuses this interrogative mood. We’re often asked about the past, and about memory: “Do you recall, and did you ever try to use, all-metal roller skates that strapped on over your shoes?” (25); “Doesn’t it seem as if the boardgame called Chinese Checkers was once popular and has now disappeared?” (116). One of the book’s longest sentences concerns the long-vanished roller skates and laments that childhood toys now involve “some Kevlar/Teflon-ey wheels, a microchip gyroscope, a laser level, a GPS, a twenty-four-hour customer-service hotline” and so on (65).
No wonder that it goes strangely unquestioned that there must be some “kernel” to “the demise of the world as we knew it” (117). It is as though this book, so full of questions that turn out not to be questions, ultimately despaired of the very grammatical or linguistic shift on which its existence depends. It is as though it rebelled against its very condition of possibility.
I sympathize with the disquiet that Padgett evinces with the new voice in which bureaucracy speaks: all apparent concern and solicitousness, questioning and asking us to question ourselves, encouraging self-correction as though denying the very existence of a power that could impose resolution from above. But I’m not sure that there is anything very new here.
Language has always been both a means by which power simultaneously operates and disguises its operation. But it has also always provided the possibilities for excess and contradiction that, as this book wryly exemplifies, subvert power’s presumptions and show how precarious is its grip on language. Don’t you think?