Deciphering the Code in Richard Powers's the Gold Bug Variations

By Thomas, J. T. | Notes on Contemporary Literature, November 2006 | Go to article overview

Deciphering the Code in Richard Powers's the Gold Bug Variations


Thomas, J. T., Notes on Contemporary Literature


RLS CMW DJP RFP J?O CEP JJN PRG ZTS MCJ JEH BLM CRR PLC JCM MEP JNH JDM RBS J?H BJP PJP SCB TLC KES REP RCP DTH I?H CRB JSB SDG

As a preface to The Gold Bug Variations, this codon-like string of letters not only mirrors the genetic sequencing found throughout the narrative; it also troubles the unsuspecting reader who engages Powers's novel for the first time. Is there a hidden, encoded message? If so, can it be deciphered using the coding techniques found throughout Gold Bug? Or is this cryptogram something else entirely?

Although Luc Herman and Geert Lernout refer to these thirty-two letter groupings as a "motto" (Mosaic 31.4 [Dec. 1998]: 162), it seems more realistic to assume that these four lines function as an "acknowledgements page." In an interview with Jim Nielson, Powers states, "I have always tried to write my personal landmarks directly into my books in some way, if not in an acknowledgments page, then by some quotation or homage or identifiable theft that brands the book's indebtedness" (The Review of Contemporary Fiction 18.3 [Fall 1998]: 21). Although "motto" seems to be a misnomer, Herman and Lernout do, in fact, suggest that the "clue" to this arrangement "lies in the last two triplets, which represent the initials of Johann Sebastian Bach and of Bach's motto: Semper Dei Gloria. The triplets do not contain coded information. Instead, the letters may well be the initials of sixty-three different names, of which Bach's is the last. The proliferation of P's in the final position may be explained by the presence, in the potential list of initials, of family members of Richard Powers, and the question marks probably represent unknown middle names" (162). I am not exactly sure how Herman and Lernout arrived at the number "sixty-three," instead of thirty-two, but four of Powers's seven other novels--including the two books published before Gold Bug--contain dedications to different personages (Marcel Proust, Anne Jardin, T. E. Lawrence, and Emily Dickinson, to name a few), suggesting that Powers might have done the same with this text.

Furthermore, a closer investigation into the "family members" hypothesis proves fruitful. In his Understanding Richard Powers, Joseph Dewey names Powers's parents and explains that Powers was "the fourth of five children, two older sisters and a brother and one younger brother," and that he "spent ... five 'eye-opening' years in Thailand when his father accepted an appointment with the International School of Bangkok" (Understanding Richard Powers. …

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