Richard Powers routinely tackles subjects few of his fellow literary novelists would touch with a 10-foot pole. Molecular genetics, corporate commerce, pediatrics and artificial intelligence are but a few of the arenas his fiction has explored. And Powers doesn‘t merely use these subjects as fictional backdrops, but transforms them into leading players in intricately knotted narratives that reek of erudition and wit. Over the course of six novels, he has persistently grappled with the architecture of human thought and behavior, and his efforts have been rewarded with a MacArthur “genius” grant and a 1999 Lannan Literary Award, as well as superlative-drenched reviews and a host of nominations for national book awards.

Plowing the Dark, Powers’ latest novel, takes on the slippery field of virtual reality — not with the sci-fi writer‘s flair for imagining futuristic scenarios, but with the concerned eye of a contemporary social historian. Set in the late 1980s and early ’90s, it interweaves alternating storylines that are — at least until the very end — only thematically related. The bulk of the book follows the unfortunately named Adie Klarpol, a former SoHo idealist whose disenchantment with the art world‘s marketplace machinations has led her to abandon her early success as a painter and earn her living as a commercial illustrator. Summoned by an old college friend, she heads out to Seattle to become the resident artist in a virtual-reality lab, joining an international crew of cyber-dweebs, disgruntled mathematicians and orphaned engineering whizzes, all of whom share a penchant for engaging in pun-laden arguments over the philosophical nature of their undertaking.

While Adie enthusiastically constructs a virtual version of Rousseau’s 1910 painting The Dream (itself an emblem of our imagination‘s power to transport us), Taimur Martin, an ESL teacher from Chicago, lands in Lebanon hoping to escape his memories of a nasty relationship back home. Instead, he finds himself kidnapped by a group of Islamic extremists. Paralleling Adie’s ascent into disembodied virtuality, Taimur descends into a physical and mental hell: Isolated, tortured, chained and half-starved, he sustains his sanity by drawing on the hard drive of his memory, conjuring up visions of his ex-girlfriend, half-recollected novels, detailed journeys through his old neighborhood, and even a visit to the Art Institute of Chicago to look at van Gogh‘s famous portrait of his cell-like bedroom in Arles.

But shortly after realizing that he’s passed his 1,001st Arabian night in captivity, Taimur suffers a harrowing software crash. Assaulted by bodily pains and despair, he runs short of the stories that have kept him from sliding over the edge. Smashing his head to a bloody pulp, he trades in his hallucinated existence for the free fall of oblivion. Written in the second person — “You look down into the abyss, give up your grip, and drop” — this is relentlessly brutal storytelling.

Powers‘ twin tales are rife with echoes and allusions that reinforce their shared concern with the ways in which we reinvent our worlds. Adie re-creates that same painting of van Gogh’s bedroom so that goggle-wearing visitors can experience its most intimate textures and sounds, while her ex-lover, an avant-garde composer, loses his physical grip on the world as he dies of multiple sclerosis in Lebanon (natch), Ohio. Other characters appear entrapped in the memory chambers of unresolved separations and unrequited dreams. And to give it all a global perspective, Powers‘ Seattle cast watches on TV as the Berlin Wall crumbles, a prelude to the spectacle of the Gulf War, whose showcase of computerized fireworks prompts Adie’s abrupt change of heart about her role in the lab‘s “out-and-out frontal attack on electronic transcendence.”

To Powers’ readers, the book‘s back-and-forth structure may seem familiar. His previous novel, Gain, alternately chronicled a divorced mother’s losing battle with ovarian cancer, and the rise, over two centuries, of the multinational conglomerate whose products may have caused her disease. In that novel, Powers‘ vision of the corporation as a picaresque character, making the best of whatever fate throws its way, offered a supremely confident and subtle retelling of the economic history underlying American culture. But with Plowing, disappointingly, his forays into art history as well as symbolic thought and the metaphysics of VR are often unengagingly pedantic and overly earnest, lacking any trace of the playfulness or humor that leavens the sprawling epics of, say, Thomas Pynchon.

Powers’ considerable literary dexterity, meanwhile, is held hostage to some extent by a labored attempt to make Adie‘s virtual environments seem imaginatively engaging. We are told that the Cavern (as the VR lab is platonically dubbed) represents “humanity’s final victory over the tyranny of matter,” “the zoom lens of the spirit” and “a thing that rivaled even speech in its ability to amplify thought.” But Powers‘ lengthy and deftly worded descriptions (nearly every page boasts turns of phrase that exude intelligence with the seeming ease that a star radiates charisma) fail to make the immersive experience of VR seem even remotely compelling.

The novel’s most serious flaw, however, occurs in its final pages, when the two stories briefly intersect. Taimur awakens from his blackout to find himself walking inside an ancient Byzantine mosque — Istanbul‘s sublime Hagia Sophia, which Adie has worked up into a life-size virtual model on the other side of the world. And for a moment, the two characters come face to face.

In a cyberpunk fiction by William Gibson, this kind of thing wouldn’t raise an eyebrow. But in the context of Powers‘ modulated realism, it stands out as a contrived gimmick that undermines the tenor of the preceding 400-odd pages. Even worse, it gives the lie to the terror of Taimur’s collapse, which is meaningful, ultimately, only in terms of his mental isolation. For Powers to suddenly suggest that the mind has a built-in modem capable of linking it to realities outside its experience — a theological notion, essentially — seems like a cheaply dramatic attempt at resolution.

It leaves you wondering whether this immensely intelligent author somehow succumbed, at the last minute, to the heady, transcendent rhetoric of virtual reality‘s promoters. In any case, rather than a provocative meditation on the uses and misuses of imagination and our irrepressible impulse to remake reality, Plowing the Dark ends up as little more than an intellectual arcade game of flashy surfaces and meager substance. It feels less like a novel, ironically, than a mere simulation of one.

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