Reflections: Galatea 2.2

A thirty-something man on the rebound falls in love with, in quick succession: the shadow of a colleague, a machine, a young graduate student, and the machine again. His vampiric id uses the privacy of his mind to drain the objects of desire of their individual qualities and assign to them qualities he loves, wants to love, or has loved about himself. Richard Power's Galatea 2.2 is a modern myth of Narcissus, as it would have been written had Narcissus been the narrator of his tale and known the power of words to veil faults.

In his fifth novel, Powers captures the beauty of, and nostalgia for,  one's first romantic relationship.  What he reveals is that when it ends, one misses the lover largely as the receptacle of formative experiences; it is hard not to mourn the loss of someone who made you into who you are. The main character, named Richard Powers, finds himself lost after C., the partner of his early years, leaves him.  C. breaks up the relationship because she cannot build her own life with his constantly at center stage. Stunned, Richard fails to take the next step in emotional development. Instead he wiles away a year in arrested development repeating the mistake of not allowing others around him the space to be anything other than what he has imagined them to be. Now, however, he is in an environment where others are already developed, thus his own ego-centrism makes him the target of ridicule from students and of experimentation from his new colleagues at the scientific think tank where he takes a visiting writer in residence position.

Reflections on his past with C. take up about half the narrative and are interwoven with the present-day plot of the novel; at the think tank, Richard has been recruited to train a computer to read literature. This is the side of the narrative that has received praise and raised interest in this novel. It does seem to have all the trappings of an AI narrative. However, to read it in this way is to dismiss (if not ignore) the simultaneous narration of the C. co-plot. The story line about Helen, the eighth version of the trainable computer network, receives its meaning from the framing romance. Reports of Helen's development are manipulated by the character Richard to the point that the reader can get no real insight into the "science" theoretically transpiring. Instead what we see is Powers projecting cognition, consciousness, and emotions onto the super-computer in his search for a replacement for C. Where C. finally rebelled from having her world seen and written by Powers, Helen has no other choice. Her limitations (no body, limited visual capacity, immobility) make her the perfect replacement figure for a human partner for the pathologically narcissistic writer. The center's scientists provide nothing except brief insights into the plodding nature of Helen's actual development and the increasing obsession of Powers. The reader can be fooled into believing Richard's version of the story because of the writer's literary training and the seductive way he has with words on the page. Thus the reader experiences the power that C. escaped.

This is not a work of science fiction; it is a worst-case, mock-autobiography about the ravages of love and ego. It is also both warning and celebration of the power of literature.


mimi said...

I'm not sure this one will make my reading list, but am entirely intrigued by your description. I love your observation that we remember our first relationships because they helped make us who we are, that they are, in other words, inseparable from our memories of ourselves at times that are frozen in memory. Interesting that you don't like memoir all that much. (t I entirely share the disinclination to read the contemporary "memoir of agony," by now predictable and, half the time, unbelievable. Then there are memoirs of funny, apparently indomitable people who make ordinary lives, whatever they are, out of the ordinary. I like those. You might.

Mille Feuille said...

Honestly, I wouldn't recommend it. It has the feeling, at times, of a rough draft. The connection among its various bits is left implicit, and not, I think, productively so.

Kevin Robert said...

I've only read one Powers novel, his first, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, which is something of a mixed bag, too (essays on WWI, photography, and the origins of American automanufacturing, intro to Frankfurt school crit theory, satire of the Boston echo of the Silicon valley boom of the 90s, and, yes, love stories). But I must say I loved it, despite the sweet time it took to converge its parallel narrativies, and despite all the ways it seemed to smack of the overreach you might expect from a very intelligent young author's first novel. Have you read anything else by him? Perhaps without meaning to, you have now peaked my interest in Galatea. That might just be my next Christmas holiday book.

B. Kern said...
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Mille Feuille said...

If you are going to read another Powers novel, I'd really like to recommend _The Time of Our Singing_. Like the others, it ranges over a lot of material (anti-semitism, intellectual responsibility, race relations, sibling relations, and, of course, love). In this novel, the scope is an asset rather than an obstacle. I wrote about it in October, if you want to hear more.It's an entry more Spectator than Onion.