“I Want to Burn Every Novel I’ve Ever Written” — Read Richard Powers’s New Essay, “What Does Fiction Know?”

Places has published a new essay by novelist Richard Powers. “What Does Fiction Know” is kinda sorta about Berlin. A good read. From the essay—

Jane and I are in the aerospace hall, swept along from the 18th-century balloon fantasies to the Berlin Airlift, when I see it: the Rheintochter. I recognize it even before reading the tag. It’s a surface-to-air missile, one of the offspring of the V2, tested successfully but cancelled at the very end of the war in a power struggle between Göring, Speer, and Himmler. The romance of the name stops me: Wagner’s Rhine Maidens, guarding the gold that holds the secret to world dominion. The level of technology is stunning, years beyond the Allies’ similar efforts. But it’s the rocket’s gesamtkunstwerk — the total artwork of it — that does me in.

The thing is made of dark wood and bright chrome, shaped and polished like some loving piece of Amish furniture, as carefully crafted as anything out of the Museum of Decorative Arts: a lovely sculpture with a hint of Jugendstil. And it stands as just the simplest precursor to our infinitely more Wagnerian productions, those armed, unmanned drones right now winging through the Swat and Korengal valleys, the Predators and Reapers, controlled by satellite and coordinated by pilots at terminals on the far side of the planet. I stare at the Rhine daughter, seeing all the things she will yet grow up to become. Even a novelist can see that much; it does not take rocket science.

I feel like I’m having an asthma attack in a sealed coffin. Every guardedly optimistic, would-be redemptive human story I’ve ever shepherded into print has missed the point. We are built for this plot, shaped by evolution for it, and our steadily expanding mastery of the materials will not stop short of a magnum opus. No other craft that we put our hands to can hope to keep pace. By the time my wife and I find the exit through the labyrinth of machines, I want to burn every novel I’ve ever written.

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