Book #61: The Gold Bug Variations, by Richard Powers

Let me preface this by saying that I’m a firm believer in the fact that there are far too many good things to read and watch for you to spend time reading or watching something you don’t like. When I find myself in that type of situation, after a bit of internal argument, I give up, and am usually happy to move on to better things.

Unfortunately, The Gold Bug Variations is required reading for my Studies in American Literature class this fall, so I didn’t have the option to quit reading, even though I really, really, really wanted to. Not only was I forced to suffer through a novel I really disliked, it was 640-page novel. Not so easy to breeze through, unfortunately.

The book, which won several “book of the year” awards in 1991, covers two basic, interweaving storylines, one in the mid-1980s, and one in the 1950s. The 1980s are narrated by Jan, a librarian who finds herself involved with a young man, Frank, who wants to know more about his coworker, middle-aged Stuart Ressler. When the book flashes back to the 1950s, the story centers on Ressler as a scientist working on learning more about the nature of DNA. 

Though the framework is simple, the content of the book is anything but. In many ways, The Gold Bug Variations reminded me of The Marriage Plot, which I read and reviewed earlier this summer. The similarities between these novels aren’t really to their benefit, in my opinion. Like The Marriage PlotThe Gold Bug Variations goes on for pages and pages about scientific complexities that mean nothing to me. Unfortunately, Powers also takes on the topic of music and Bach’s Goldberg Variations as well as a good chunk of art history. When I’m reading a novel, I’m not really looking for histories of various academic subjects. Unfortunately, that’s a very large portion of what makes up Powers’s novel. I was often bored beyond belief, skimming until I could find something worth reading again.

There were also several rather minute details about The Gold Bug Variations that irked me as well, including: Powers’s repetitive use of certain vocabulary, paragraphs that served no real purpose in furthering the story, the idea that religion and science are completely opposed, and the unnecessary and bizarrely dirty sex scenes. (For the record, I’m rarely bothered by sex scenes — I do watch “True Blood” and “Game of Thrones,” after all — but the handful found in this book took strange turns into graphic and rather disturbing imagery that I found gratuitous. 

I’m sick of talking about this book, though I could certainly go on longer about how much I disliked it. My plan had been to start Moby-Dick now, but I’ve decided to reward myself with a few fun reads in my last free week before starting grad school. I’m more than ready to erase the bad feelings The Gold Bug Variations left me with.


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