Tuesday , February 27 2024
What? A book composed entirely of questions?

Book Review: The Interrogative Mood: A Novel? by Padgett Powell

Who is Padgett Powell? He’s written four novels, and been published in Esquire, Harper’s, and the New Yorker. Portions of The Interrogative Mood first appeared in the Paris Review. Have you heard of this book, full of questions?

Some years ago, Saul Bellow commented: “When asked for a list of the best American writers of the younger generation, I invariably put Padgett Powell at the top.” Bellow is gone now, and what would he think of a book composed entirely of questions?

Much of Powell’s ruminations in The Interrogative Mood resonate with those of us in mid-ife, and are highly entertaining. Remember collecting pop bottles for a few cents? Remember the “rag man’s” place in society?

It’s the random nature of this book full of questions that is astonishing.

“Were you a thumb sucker? Would you rather agree with people or not? Can you think of a musical instrument useful in murder other than piano wire? If you came upon a party celebrating something or someone with a yellow sheet cake and white icing, would you partake happily?”

Other questions are more thought-provoking. “If something could happen right now that is not likely to or impossible but that would really cheer you up if it did, just light you up like a child again, what would it be?”

Can you call this a novel? A book of questions hardly seems to have a plot. Yet, it is compelling and if it does tell a story, it is the story of America, with all the random thoughts we hold in our head. Take Jujubes: “Do you have any idea how the name Jujube came about or what it might mean, if anything, apart from the eponymous candy?

The Interrogative Mood might send you off to research all the mundane facts Powell stirs up. I’m more intrigued by his ability to write 165 pages of continuous questions in a highly readable and entertaining format.

Among all the questions, only a few concepts are sustained for even a paragraph. For example:

"Is there enough time left? Does it matter that I do not specify for what? Was there ever enough time? Was there once too much? Does the notion of 'enough time' actually make any sense? Does it suggest we had things to do and could not do them for reasons other than that we were incompetents?"

That is about the longest riff Powell manages on a single topic.

From one sentence combining a question about blue jays and Napoleon’s army, the book is one long non-sequitur. So is it tough to review? Indeed, but it’s loads of fun to browse, ponder and enjoy. Why not?

The Interrogative Mood is sweet and the author’s streams of questions seem to come from a very active mind. “Are you comforted by the assertion that there are yet people on Earth who know what they are doing? Or, like me, do you subscribe to the notion that people who knew what they were doing began to die off about 1945 and are now on the brink of extinction? That they have been replaced by fakes and poseurs?”

“Does the noise made by corduroy pants irritate you? How many screwdrivers do you think is necessary for able-bodied normal household maintenance?”

Is this the most original book I’ve read this year? What’s wrong with The Interrogative Mood? Nothing? Can I stop reading it? Why is this book so much fun?

About Helen Gallagher

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