The Gold Bug Variations

( 1 )

Overview

A national bestseller, voted by Time as the #1 novel of 1991, selected as one of the "Best Books of 1991" by Publishers Weekly, and nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award—a magnificent story that probes the meaning of love, science, music, and art, by the brilliant author of Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance.

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Overview

A national bestseller, voted by Time as the #1 novel of 1991, selected as one of the "Best Books of 1991" by Publishers Weekly, and nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award—a magnificent story that probes the meaning of love, science, music, and art, by the brilliant author of Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Powers ( Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance ; Prisoner's Dilemma ) is a recipient of a MacArthur ``genius'' grant , and it seems appropriate: this strange, overwritten, often infuriating, manically intelligent and sometimes deeply moving novel could hardly have been produced by a writer of mere talent. Powers has woven an extraordinary knowledge of music, of science (particularly of the search for genetic coding, and of computer programming), of the mysteries of language and art history, into a saga that is dazzling and wearying in almost equal measure. The novel jumps back and forth between the late '50s, when brilliant scientist Stuart Ressler is involved with an Illinois research team trying to break the mysteries of DNA coding, and the '80s, when librarian Jan O'Deigh and computer programmer Franklin Todd get to know Ressler, now holding an insignificant night job at a massive computer database operation in Brooklyn, N.Y., and try to figure what derailed his promising career. Not a great deal happens, in a conventional narrative sense. Ressler has an affair with one married fellow scientist and learns music from another; his scientific career is, in fact, aborted by his resulting passion for music. O'Deigh leaves her glib Madison Avenue boyfriend, takes up with Todd and is then abandoned by him in his vain search for information about an obscure 16th-century Flemish artist. Toward the end the three principals are involved in a massive computer scam to help a stricken colleague. Despite occasional bewilderment at arid patches of scientific jargon and interminable displays of arcane knowledge for its own sake, a reader persists with The Gold Bug Variations (the title, obviously, is a play on Bach's Goldberg Variations , which have a key role in the book's intellectual structure, and Edgar Allan Poe's The Gold Bug , about the solving of a puzzle). For there is a perpetual air of surprise about the book, of intellectual excitement, a passionate involvement with words that expands into delightfully witty dialogue and profoundly evocative description. Reading it is hard work, but it's also deeply enriching; the decade is not likely to bring another novel half as challenging and original. (Aug.)
Library Journal
If you don't get the title's allusive pun (to Robbins's Goldberg Variations), you won't get far into this long, densely textured, multi-referential, and brilliant novel. It demands that a reader make connections between such diversities as the genetic code and musical notation, Flemish art and biological nomenclature, the logic of computer systems and the Dewey decimal classification, cartography and chemistry. Making such connections--deciphering the encrypted messages of our world--is the great single quest in this novel of multiple searches. There is a rudimentary plot: a pair of love stories, separated by 25 years, entwined one round the other, but the real story here, its great treasure hunt, is the search to break the code unlocking the secret of life. This won't be one of the summer's hottest best sellers, but it is one of the year's best books, a grand encyclopedic novel akin to Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow or Joseph McElroy's Lookout Cartridge . A previous novel by Powers, Three Farmers on the Way to a Dance ( LJ 9/15/85), was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award.-- Charles Michaud, Turner Free Lib., Randolph, Mass.
Kirkus Reviews
Triumphantly true to form, Powers continues the densely layered and intricate plotting found in his earlier novels (Prisoner's Dilemma, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance) in this stunning epic that delves into molecular genetics, music, and information science, eloquently combining the mysteries of love and the passionate pursuit of knowledge. In a manner reminiscent of A.S. Byatt's Possession, a capable young reference librarian renews her sense of purpose as she and a computer technician/art-historian come together in seeking to recover the past of his co-worker Stuart Ressler, a brilliant older man wasting his talents as the night supervisor in a Brooklyn data- processing facility—and soon unmasked as one of the brightest hopes in genetics in the 1950's who vanished from the field after a promising start. The interweaving threads of narrative reconstruct a tragic affair between Ressler the scientist and a married colleague; a similarly electrifying and devastating relationship between the two sleuths; the perilous path of science as it grapples with the fundamental patterns of life; and the librarian's own obsession with the secrets of genetic coding, initiated in despair after learning of Ressler's death from cancer. Ranging in detail from genetic formulas to musical ones (with the title a typically witty reference to both Bach's variations and the Poe short story), replete with scintillating characters, especially the oddball team of scientists gathered to crack the code on a midwestern campus in the 50's, and structurally as well-tempered as a Bach fugue, the harmonious interplay between personal and scientific drama is both challenging and exquisite. A formidablemasterpiece, deeply vital and sparkling in its many facets, whimsical in its prose yet precise in its elucidation—rewarding in every sense but, in particular, a profoundly moving love story.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060975005
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 12/28/1993
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 640
  • Sales rank: 238,736
  • Product dimensions: 5.39 (w) x 8.03 (h) x 1.55 (d)

Meet the Author

RICHARD POWERS is the author of ten novels. The Echo Maker won the National Book Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Powers has received a MacArthur Fellowship, a Lannan Literary Award and the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Historical Fiction. He lives in Illinois.

WEB: RICHARDPOWERS.NET
FACEBOOK: RICHARD POWERS

Biography

It isn't easy to characterize Richard Powers in a single sentence. The MacArthur grant recipient and award-winning novelist suffers from what Powers himself, in a Salon interview, called "a restlessness of theme"—his books feature everything from molecular genetics and neural networks to soap manufacturers and singers. What they have in common is something Powers refers to as "the aerial view": a perspective that sees humankind as one small element in a complex universe.

As a child in Chicago's northern suburbs, and later as a teenager in Thailand, Powers had no thoughts of becoming a writer. He believed he was destined to be a scientist and explored paleontology, archaeology, and oceanography before he finally enrolled as a physics major at the University of Illinois. But an honors literature seminar helped inspire him to change fields, and he ended up earning his M.A. in English. Powers then moved to Boston, where he found work as a technical writer and computer programmer. He embarked on an omnivorous, self-directed reading program and spent his Saturdays at the Museum of Fine Arts, where he came across a photograph titled "Young Westerwald Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, 1914."

"The words [of the title] went right up my spine," he later told an interviewer for Cultural Logic. "I knew instantly not only that they were on their way to a different dance than they thought they were, but that I was on the way to a dance that I hadn't anticipated until then. All of my previous year's random reading just consolidated and converged on this one moment, this image, which seemed to me to be the birth photograph of the twentieth century."

The photograph also engendered Powers's career as a novelist. His first book, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, was followed by Prisoner's Dilemma and The Gold Bug Variations, which was chosen as a New York Times Notable Book and as Time magazine's Book of the Year for 1991. Gerald Howard, writing in The Nation, called Powers "one of the few younger American writers who can stake a claim to the legacy of Pynchon, Gaddis, and DeLillo." The Gold Bug Variations, which includes the story of a Bach-obsessed scientist who abandons his quest to crack the genetic code, established Powers as a writer who could articulate questions about science and technology—which emerge again in novels like Galatea 2.2, about a writer trying to teach literature to an artificial-intelligence program named Helen, and Plowing the Dark, which explores virtual reality and the human imagination as different means (or possibly the same means) of escaping the physical limitations of life.

Powers's works are packed with puns, parallels, and allusions; as Daniel Mendelsohn noted in The New York Times Book Review, each novel is "a kind of literary installation in which art objects, theoretical musings, plots and subplots, disquisitions on intellectual and literary history, histories of countries and corporations" illuminate an underlying theme. For some critics, Powers's brand of literary gamesmanship can be too much of a good thing: "He is quite capable of fluent sequential narrative, and readers will be relieved when he lapses into it after all the self-conscious brilliance and endlessly impressive allusion," noted a Publishers Weekly review of Operation Wandering Soul. But for his fans, part of the pleasure of a Powers novel comes from its dazzling and unexpected fusions of intellect and imagination. "It's instruct and delight, right?" Powers asked in the Salon interview. "You gotta give both."

Good To Know

Powers holds the Swanlund Chair in English at the University of Illinois, where he has taught classes in multimedia authoring and the mechanics of narrative.

On the Internet, he has been the subject of several hypertext essays, along with a hypertext vignette titled "Richard Powers Eats Peanut Butter Sandwich."

Several of Powers's novels have been finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award, including Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, The Gold Bug Variations, and Galatea 2.2. Operation Wandering Soul was a National Book Award finalist.

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    1. Hometown:
      Urbana, Illinois
    1. Date of Birth:
      June 18, 1957
    2. Place of Birth:
      Evanston, Illinois
    1. Education:
      M.A., University of Illinois, 1979

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