Academic journal article Style

The Hobson Family System in Richard Powers's Prisoner's Dilemma

Academic journal article Style

The Hobson Family System in Richard Powers's Prisoner's Dilemma

Article excerpt

Prisoner's Dilemma appears to be a story about an unremarkable American family, the Hobsons, as they confront a family crisis. Eddie Hobson, Sr., husband to Arleen and father of four young adult children, suffers a progressive but undiagnosed illness that has physically and mentally affected him for years, but now it has progressed to the point of causing him acute dysfunction. He is a man who loves his family, and his family loves him. A WWII veteran who joined the military after his older brother's stateside death, he served at Alamogordo, New Mexico, for a period of time during his military career. He is a man with a passion for knowledge, teaching, and story; consequently, he rives his children to distraction, turning minutiae into elaborate interrogations, and he has for thirty years recorded on a Dictaphone a verbal collage of personages, places, and events, that includes Bud Middleton, the World's Fair in New York City, Hobstown, Walt Disney, Mickey Mouse, and the incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII. His wife and his children are aware of his ramblings--Aileen, Lily, and Rachel attempt story journals of their own--but they do not know what to make of Eddie Sr.'s electronic retreat.

It is not until we are brought to understand that the Dictaphone recordings are one of the manifestations of his long-term illness that we understand their critical importance--they represent the pathos and irony of Eddie Sr.'s own awareness of his condition. He is a brilliant man who hangs on to whatever coherence he can, and his Dictaphone narratives, at least for him, are the means by which he makes sense of his life. By the time we are brought into the story, Eddie Sr., who has previously refused to seek medical diagnosis of and intervention for his illness, has agreed to seek such help.

Key reviews at the time of the novel's publication in 1988 describe it as "magnificent" (Howard 682), "well-crafted" (Wilhelm 180) and an "accomplished narrative" (Steinberg 69) providing a "[d]azzling display of wit" (Wilhelm 180). Reviewers remark upon the significance of the family in the novel (Horvath 222; Steinberg 69; Howard 681-84), and they identify Powers's incorporation of the narrative voice or voices of the novel as a "third person anatomy [and] first-person musings of a family" (Wilhelm 180) or as "skillfully alternating lively colloquial dialogue with Artie's fluid, elegiac recollections" (Steinberg 69).

Arthur Saltzman writes one of the earliest and most substantial critical responses to Prisoner's Dilemma in his The Novel in the Balance (1993). He captures the importance of family dynamics in the novel, describing the work as an "extended transcript of family echo-location" (104). He discusses the Hobstown narrative in depth, explaining that Hobstown is Eddie Sr.'s "refuge from the nightmare of history" (107), a place where he "hoards all the Fairy Dust for himself" (107). Importantly, Saltzman recognizes the dual nature of Powers's narrative structures through Eddie Sr.'s autobiographical intrusions into their fictional works. Just as Eddie St. replaces Bud in his imaginary film, Powers "himself makes a cameo appearance, filling the autobiographical circle that serves as the innermost ripple of the book's concentric fabrications" (111). An article by Jim Neilson published in Review of Contemporary Fiction introduces readers to Powers's fiction and briefly summarizes the novel. In the same issue of Review of Contemporary Fiction, James Hurt elaborates on the complexities of Powers's writing, including a section on Prisoner's Dilemma, in "Narrative Powers: Richard Powers as Storyteller." Hurt describes the narrative architecture of the novel as nested narrative lines (28). Like Saltzman, he characterizes the story as a "study in family dynamics, in the way the members of a family construct complementary identities and in the way they confront a family crisis" (29). Then he remarks on the family's secrecy and isolation, and further tells us that the family's strategies for coping include "denial, repression, exaggerated caretaking, clowning, and acting out of inadequacy" (29). …

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