Genetic Coding and Aesthetic Clues: Richard Powers's 'Gold Bug Variations.'

By Herman, Luc; Lernout, Geert | Mosaic (Winnipeg), December 1998 | Go to article overview

Genetic Coding and Aesthetic Clues: Richard Powers's 'Gold Bug Variations.'


Herman, Luc, Lernout, Geert, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


The goal of an encyclopedia is to present the totality of knowledge, and while the result may be aesthetically pleasing - especially when substantial amounts of time and money are invested in production - artistic intentions are not a primary concern. It might, therefore, seem somewhat ironic that quite a few creative writers have sought to emulate the encyclopedia. Examples include Melville's Moby-Dick and Joyce's Ulysses, and more recently William Gaddis's The Recognitions (1955) and Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow (1973) - a work which led to the coinage of the term "encyclopedic narrative" by Edward Mendelson. By processing an enormous amount of information from a variety of fields, such novels produce the illusion that they have encyclopedic proportions, an illusion that is greatly abetted by an effort to bring together (high) culture and science/technology. Long considered one of Pynchon's trademarks, the construction of a narrative bridge between what C.P. Snow has called "the two cultures" has perhaps come to represent the apex of (intellectually oriented) novel writing, precisely because it greatly impresses the often non-scientifically inclined public, general reader and critic alike. The success of this type of encyclopedic novel, however, rests on its capacity to join culture and science/technology in a relatively seamless whole, for whereas an encyclopedia can suffice with alphabetically juxtaposing information on science and the arts, the "two cultures novel" must at least show its reader the way to deeper knowledge that supposedly results from the combination.

The Gold Bug Variations (1991) by Richard Powers deserves to be hailed as one of the foremost instances of such an encyclopedic endeavor. The novel focuses on a promising molecular biologist, Stuart Ressler, who for personal reasons renounces science at the moment of an important breakthrough in DNA coding, and whose life and work are subsequently being investigated and presented in a semi-biographical format by Jan O'Deigh, a young reference librarian, and by Franklin Todd, a junior computer operator. O'Deigh and Todd begin a troubled relationship, and thus echo Ressler's tragic affair with his research colleague, Jeanette Koss. The book moves between three periods: 1957-58, in which Ressler makes much scientific headway by closely listening to Bach's Goldberg Variations; 1983-84, when Ressler, Todd, and O'Deigh become friends; and 1985-86, when Ressler has died of cancer, Todd has gone off to do his own research, and O'Deigh (after quitting her job) spends a lonely year studying molecular biology and music in order to come to terms with these shattering events. The title of the novel derives from the name of Bach's composition for harpsichord, Goldberg Variations (1742), as well as the famous detective story by Edgar Allan Poe, "The Gold-Bug" (1843), in which a Mr. Legrand discovers a fantastic treasure by finding the solution to a "cryptograph" found on a parchment. These allusions immediately suggest the role that music and literature are going to play in Ressler's research into DNA but in addition Powers also gives a substantial place to painting in the guise of Herri met de Bles, a 16th-century Flemish/Dutch painter about whom Todd tries to write a doctoral dissertation in Art History.

Central to Powers's combined concern with the working of DNA and how several areas of research can be connected is O'Deigh's library-inspired idea of "circulation," but another important metaphor for the productive exchange of knowledge between otherwise mostly unrelated domains is "translation," a term that O'Deigh comes to feel is the most totalizing signifier: "the world is only translation, nothing but" (491). As Jose Van Dijck has noted, translation here is not mere transliteration (159), but rather the continuous expansion of the signifier through metaphor. Thus in this essay we wish to explore how the arts in The Gold Bug Variations enable and stimulate the translation that lies at the root of the novel, arguing that readers come to understand abstract scientific knowledge through a representation of the arts, and that science in turn informs the interpretation of several works of art. …

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