Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

"Militant Expectations": Childhood's End and Millenarianism in Richard Powers' Operation Wandering Soul

Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

"Militant Expectations": Childhood's End and Millenarianism in Richard Powers' Operation Wandering Soul

Article excerpt

I sent him my draft, to see if he might somehow be able to save it too from its inevitable end. My best intentions had failed to disperse the bleakness of the real.

--Operation Wandering Soul

Conclusion, then, is something Richard Powers would likely only come to in a beginning. But endings proceed inevitably from beginnings in Powers' estimation, making what has come before unavoidable and determinative. Best then to get the ending out the way first just in case we can outrun it. Against that backdrop, Powers doggedly tracks the exigent relationship among violence, the disappearance of childhood, and millenarianism in his novel Operation Wandering Soul, published in 1993. (1) With its mix of magical realist narrative devices (children who literally vanish or appear at different junctures of history) and social realist settings (the crumbling infrastructure of a dystopian Los Angeles), Powers' novel serves as a useful reference point for contemporary debates about violence, religion, and social welfare in America. In a sequence of moves, Powers also attempts to connect disparate cultures and eras by exploring the ways in which childhood is a social/historical construct. (2) But he also relentlessly situates the abuse of children as a problem outside space and time; a foundational eschatology; the beginning and end of all narratives; and as a metanarrative that intertwines with the development, telling and effect of stories. Powers treats stories not only as inadequate to tell, but also as inextricable from their millenarian subject. The cure is part of the disease; surgery would kill the patient.

Set primarily in a children's hospital in a violent section of the city, the novel treats the status of children's wards as indices of the ultimate sickness and social trajectory of a society. Associating childhood story-telling with childhood illness and millennial decay, Powers reminds us that J. M. Barrie's "Peter Pan bequest" went to fund the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children in London (118). From his vantage in viewing sick and abandoned children, most of whom are orphaned, displaced or exiled, Powers' nearly pseudonymous narrator/protagonist, Doctor Richard Kraft, (3) situates history as a contest between abused children, or abused childhood, and the adults who have "redefined" childhood out of existence:

   Childhood is not that parade of vibrant kids teaching the world to
   sing. That's a new one: as far as [Linda] Espera has read, the
   product of the last fifty years. She knows the histories from
   school. Time was when domestic theory wrote the whole batch off as
   changeling babies, perversely truculent sub and semihumans. The
   prescribed treatment was to beat the devils out of their tiny, ripe
   habitations. No wonder childhood is just waiting for her to turn
   around and leave the room so it can retaliate for the running
   lancet sores inflicted on it by ages of adulthood. (190)

In this novel, childhood is under constant siege by adult violence: "If the class [at the hospital] stayed amazingly sedate and violence-free throughout [the talk of the young Thai girl Joy], it is the stunned silence of islanders unable even to see the first-arrival masts on their horizon" (33). These "children of god" are the latest generation to be colonized by a violent adult world: "The traffic of juvenile misery drifting through his [emergency room] office begins to mirror the freeway's aimless lane changes.... disturbances out on the edge of the crumbling empire.... [Pediatrics] provides the quintessential, unexpurgated view of just where Western Civ's whole project is really headed in its third thousand years" (347, 22). The notation of Western civilization's third millenium encapsulates the apocalyptic time that governs the novel as a whole, and the waiting that Linda Espera--part physician/nurse/counselor, pretend believer in the story-cure, and as close to a love interest as Kraft comes to having--embodies in her name. …

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