Tuesday, February 2, 2010

“Would you rather play a board game with a child all day or go over Niagara Falls in a barrel?”: A brief review?

This past week I have been enjoying Padgett Powell’s The Interrogative Mood: A Novel? The book is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a novel told entirely in questions. The NYT already posted a nice review in kind, so I’m afraid I’ve been beaten to that particular trope. Instead, I’ll just say that I think this book might be the perfect gift item for all sorts of people.

Want to get to know someone better? Get them to answer question streams such as, “If your house was to be painted either ‘arsenical green’ or ‘cupric yarng,’ which would you pick? Do you synchronize all your clocks? If so, are they set correctly, fast, or slow? Have you ever taken a beating? Would you like one?” You will certainly learn things you did not know before.

Facing a long car ride with a small complaining child? Suggest: “Would a small red balloon cheer you up? A dog?”

Want to start a conversation with David Ives? Ask him: “Do you know anything at all about the circumstances by which Leon Trotsky, in exile in Mexico City, happened to be assassinated with an ice ax?”* Surely he will be glad to tell you the answer.

Encounter a time-traveler and find yourself curious about what the world’s like in the future?: “Are you peculiar about your socks these days, or at this point are socks socks?”

Attempting to come up with an essay for a theory class?: “If we were told that Einstein secretly carries a very small pet in his pocket, would we seek to discover what it is? Do you feel all right? Would you be embarrassed or rather thrilled by yourself if you were caught by Einstein with your hand in his coat pocket? Would you prefer to explain yourself in such a moment to Einstein, to Freud, or to Picasso?”

(Personally: Yes. Yes, thanks. Yes. Picasso.)

The novel is not just a list of questions (though of course it is also that). It’s the ramblings of a crazy mind, which keeps returning to certain (and sometimes worrying) themes: the ice-cream man, the rape of a candy striper, the presence of a pearl-handled gun. The book is told by an unreliable narrator—except he’s not withholding information from you so much as asking you to provide it yourself. It’s a bit like engaging in a game of questions with the master. It's a bit dizzying. “Is you stupid, do you think?” he queries. Maybe so.

*Look up this play if you get a chance. It is hilarious.


  1. buh. I'm pretty sure that all those questions would make me very annoyed at the book/narrator