1993
Sunday, June 10, 2012 at 11:15PM
National Book Foundation

Operation Wandering Soul

By Richard Powers

Original and Current Publisher: Harper Perennial

Charles Yu writes: 

There are (1) books that I know I couldn’t have written, but I can understand how they were written. There are (2) books that I couldn’t have written but I can imagine understanding how they were written. And there are (3) books that I know I could never have written, but I can’t even imagine understanding how they were written, even with unlimited time and a dozen extra IQ points. Operation Wandering Soul falls into category (3). It is difficult, punishing, bracing, deeply compassionate reading; it scoured my insides, my brain, and my heart.

Powers uses literary allusion, history, draws upon the Pied Piper, the Children’s Crusade. His prose, the voice, can be incantatory at times, entrancing in its power, scriptural in its authority. But he can also be whimsical, experimenting with form from chapter to chapter:

QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER STUDY

What is the source of the allusion “into the valley of Death”? How does this irony contribute to the description of the evacuation?

Where, do you imagine, do the children disappear to at the story’s end?

Interview a contemporary who has had to live through a similar experience. Gather his or her life story, and tell it.

There are passages I had to read five or six times, not so much to understand what’s going on, but because I couldn’t believe the density, the consistency, the exactitude, language carved out of marble, in perfect proportion on the large scale, intricate and no less exact on the smallest scale, down to the sentence, to the phrase, down to the word. There is poetry:

Each scroll of paper carries its own miniature map. X marks the spot. He figures it out: the globe is packed full of other creatures, exactly like him, only in trouble. Through these notes, he learns about human society. And he sees that he is nothing more than this one lone figure in a tiny, open boat, looking out over the expanse of bottles spreading across the sea. More requests than even a god could read in a lifetime.

We have Kraft and Espera, working in the pediatrics ward at the edge of a continent, on the other side of what feels like a back-door apocalypse, the world having ended without anyone noticing or at least making a big deal out of it.

Treating children with cancer, children with no faces, children who are barely line drawings of their former selves, old people hiding inside of children, children hiding inside of old people. Kraft and Espera working in a blasted landscape of unrelenting suffering, know that this is not disease they are treating. After all, “pediatrics is not a discipline. It’s a default, a catchall.” No, this is not disease. Disease would be one thing. For disease, they have medicine, they have science. For these children, Kraft and Espera have to treat something deeper, and older, to treat something not treatable at all: the past, the present, the future. They have to deal with the impossibility of innocence in a destroyed world; and yet the brute fact is, there is still such a thing as an innocent. It is the virtuosity of Powers to make this brutal and tender, to tell the reader a story about the telling of stories and make us all forget about all of the theater, to take fiction about fiction and transform it into a world, transform it into the world.

…this cobbled, worn ministration, to show any of those stubborn enough to remember how they have been dropped down in the middle of a plot that is only waiting for them to follow the lead. You are going somewhere. You are going somewhere. Sound it out, exercise the phonetics, the rhyme, the muscular spasm, the shape of the storied curve—beginning, development, complication, end.

Narrative is what Kraft and Espera have to work with. Kraft who, at one point, “looked up from his reading above the dead center of the Pacific, realizing, suddenly, that he had outgrown fiction.” And although in the course of the story, Kraft may or may not come to change his mind about what fiction can or cannot do in the world, this is what he and Espera must use to convince their patients, their children, that there is an escape.

To be honest, Operation Wandering Soul is one of the more difficult books I have ever read. It took brain power, and heart power, and just plain stamina. But the reward is more than proportionate to the effort, and after reading it, I had the realization not of outgrowing fiction, but of myself growing into fiction, into this marvel of imagination.

Charles Yu was a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 selection for his short story collection, Third Class Superhero. His first novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, was a New York Times Notable Book and named by Time magazine as one of the Best Books of 2010. His writing has appeared in Harvard Review, The New York Times, Playboy, and Slate, among other places. He lives in Santa Monica with his wife and their two children. (Photo: Michelle Jue)

Fiction Finalists That Year:

Fiction Winner That Year: E. Annie Proulx for The Shipping News

Fiction Judges That Year: Phyllis Rose, Sven Birkerts, George Garrett, James A. McPherson, 
Wendy Steiner

The Year in Literature:

More Information: Powers won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2006 for The Echo Maker.

Article originally appeared on National Book Award Fiction Finalists (http://nbafictionfinalists.squarespace.com/).
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