The Interrogative Mood
According to Alice B Toklas, the writer Gertrude Stein's last words were: "What is the answer?" When no one spoke, she followed up with, "In that case, what is the question?"
The answer to life, the universe and everything might have evaded Stein as much as it does the rest of us, but in The Interrogative Mood, her compatriot and fellow literary experimenter Padgett Powell has done his best to discover what the question, or questions, might be. Powell's approach has become increasingly unconventional since his 1984 debut novel, Edisto. This, his seventh book, is by turns an interview, a therapy session, a market-research survey and an either/or game: "Do you keep up with popular music? Do you polish your furniture a lot, a little, or never? Wouldn't you like to have a grape arbor with beehives under it? Should politicians lie? Should mothers and fathers? Should children? Should I? Should you?"
After two pages of inquisitive prose in this vein, I felt the beginnings of a headache. After three pages, I'd grown accustomed to it. After five, I was hooked. The Interrogative Mood is made up entirely of questions: choices, homespun philosophical musings, hypotheses, jokes. The torrent of demands is partly amusing, partly provocative, partly exhausting, and entirely beguiling. This slight book could easily take as long to read as a fat novel, as the reader keeps getting snagged on particular questions. It feels a little like being handed a form and finding that it demands not only your name, age and immigration status, but also a full account of every detail of your life up to that point. Far from being an impenetrable experiment, it was ecstatically reviewed when first published in the US last year, and its warmth, wit and intelligence should earn it a similarly enthusiastic reception elsewhere.
There aren't many writers who would willingly assign themselves such a perverse task. Georges Perec's La Disparition comes to mind - a novel written entirely without the letter E and triumphantly translated into English as A Void by Gilbert Adair. Powell's self-imposed discipline is less technically tricksy, but could just as easily have veered into meaningless rambling. It's to his considerable credit that The Interrogative Mood is, above all, an entertaining read (not really something you can say of A Void, despite its many astonishing virtues). A few questions are laugh-out-loud funny, or at least satisfyingly surreal: "Would you say that you are pro peanut brittle, anti peanut brittle, or would you say 'I do not have a dog in the peanut-brittle fight'?" Elsewhere, the questions are wistful or even despairing, as if the one key question, the really important question, can't be formulated despite all these valiant attempts.
Note that the full title is The Interrogative Mood: A Novel? Is this, in fact, a novel, or simply an exercise in style, a throwaway experiment? Although there's nothing immediately recognisable as a narrative in the conventional sense, a guiding consciousness, perhaps amounting to a character, animates the stream of questions. The same subjects recur mysteriously: something about a tongue biopsy, a fogeyish favouring of the old-fashioned over the new-fangled, an awkward childhood scene. Unlike a more conventional literary character, though, this anonymous interviewer seems really, really keen to know what we think. It's testament to the book's power that it's unusually hard not to read its confiding voice as belonging to Powell himself, as if it were not a work of fiction but direct access to someone's thoughts. This is no small achievement: the fantasy of mainlining another person's consciousness has always been one of the novel's secret aims.
The book might start out as a literary game, albeit an especially artful one, but before long the reader begins inwardly responding to questions as if the answers were crucially important. Powell already knows this, and gently lampoons our fear of being exposed: "Is there anything you'd like to ask me? Are you curious to know what I'll do with the answers you've given me? Do you think I can make some kind of meaningful 'profile' of you? Could you, or someone, do you think, make such a profile of me from the questions I have asked you? If we had these profiles, could we not relax and let them do the work of living for us and take our true selves on a long vacation?"
It's a surprising move for a book made up of questions to suggest that the answers might not in themselves amount to much - but Powell is suggesting that the importance lies in the questions themselves, which are, as he puts it, "zombies of the interrogative mood". Any suspicions that this is pure whimsy, even gimmickry, quickly evaporate, despite Powell's light touch. This is a serious interrogation not only of the reader, but also of the means by which we construct our memories, opinions and experiences of the world. Its surreal non-sequiturs are probably as close as any novel has ever been to recreating the tangles of thought - much closer than, say, stream of consciousness, with its artificial, exhausting present tense.
The question, in its very indeterminacy, turns out to be the perfect vehicle for this journey through the mind. It can be a challenge or a retort, a plea or a demand, a sarcastic flourish or a sincere wish. Punctuation enthusiasts have been trying to differentiate its uses since at least the 16th century, when an enterprising printer Henry Denham invented the rhetorical question mark (an inverted question mark with its tail pointing away from the preceding sentence). It died a quick death, but many champions of clarity have followed in his wake. Earlier this year, a US firm patented the SarcMark, an item of punctuation designed to indicate when the writer is being ironic. Until it catches on, the elasticity of the question is both what makes The Interrogative Mood possible, and what makes it such a joy to read.
Questions of greater and lesser degrees of emptiness surround us every day. What brand of soft drink do you prefer, what kind of shower gel? In a 2006 interview with The Believer, Powell complained of modern US society, "We are to be a clan of choosers among our 'options', each of which to greater or lesser degree aggrandises us into more and more secure positions." The Interrogative Mood attempts to shake us out of these secure positions, putting a question mark over the importance and validity of these consumerist "options". It also riffs on the Californian Valley Girl habit, now a worldwide Anglophone phenomenon, of turning every statement into a question with a little upwards lilt at the end of the sentence. How perfect that this linguistic tic first appeared in California, the geographic apogee of western capitalism.
But all this makes the book sound more self-consciously political than it really is. In fact, the main characteristic of The Interrogative Mood is its warmth. This is something that Powell has in common with Donald Barthelme, the great American experimental writer whose work this closely resembles. Barthelme's playful explorations of language include a story made up of a single sentence and others in the form of interviews. Although fragmentary and theoretically complex, Barthelme's work is always accessible. Like Barthelme, Powell's desire to break the rules never overwhelms his desire to entertain: it's the American way.
This all-American charm might not be consistently charming to non-American readers, as Powell often throws in cultural references that will be lost on anyone who didn't grow up in the States. US culture might be global culture, but that doesn't necessarily mean that we all have an answer to, "For industrial hand cleaner, are you Gojo or Goop?" In the end this is only a minor caveat in this amazingly surefooted reimagining of the novel. In asking its many questions, The Interrogative Mood ultimately brings into focus the mechanisms of how we navigate our lives, and suggests that the complicated business of living goes beyond the simple formulations of either our questions about it, or our answers.
Hannah Forbes Black is a writer and artist who lives in London. Her work has appeared in The Gurdian and Intelligence Squared.