What if somebody wrote a book that consisted entirely of questions — 164 pages of nothing but questions? Would reading it feel like an exercise in the Socratic method? Or would it be more like getting caught in an endless round of Facebook quizzes? Or like spending several hours with a relentless psychiatrist? Or like staying up all night with a new lover passionate to know everything about you? Or like spending all day with a 3-year-old?
Or would it just be annoying as hell?
I'm happy to report that, in the case of Padgett Powell's The Interrogative Mood: A Novel? the last is not the case. All the rest apply, but none entirely captures the peculiar and mind-popping experience of reading this book.
Powell, a professor of creative writing at the University of Florida who will be a featured author at the Times Festival of Reading on Oct. 24, has published half a dozen other works of less interrogatory fiction, including Edisto, Typical and Aliens of Affection.
The Interrogative Mood sounds at first like a gimmick, an exercise, an experiment, and I'm not sure what the answer is to its subtitle's question — is it a novel?
In the strict sense, it's not — it doesn't have a traditional plot, nor much of a setting. It seems at first to have only one character, the interrogator who fires off the questions, one after another, at first disconnectedly.
"Are your emotions pure? Are your nerves adjustable? How do you stand in relation to the potato?" he begins.
But those random questions soon coalesce into patterns, recurring themes, even obsessions that tell the reader something about the person who asks them — his probable gender and age, a certain irascible viewpoint: "Are you comforted by the assertion that there are yet people on Earth who know what they are doing? Or, like me, do you subscribe to the notion that people who knew what they were doing began to die off in about 1945 and are now on the brink of extinction? That they have been replaced by fakes and poseurs? That in ten more years, when everyone rides a Segway talking on cell phones imbedded in their iTeeth, the clueless world will be painfully immanent?"
In other moods he is solicitous (asking on Page 2, "Do you have a headache?"), or objective, or nostalgic, or tender — but always interrogatory, always asking the reader for answers. And that is the brilliant trick of this book: Its other main character, dear reader, is you.
What could be more irresistible? We are trained all our lives to answer questions, from parents, children, lovers, teachers, employers, advertisers, Web pages. So when our narrator wants to know "Do you favor peanuts, cashews, or nuts more exotic?" we can't help but answer, and be a little flattered that he cared enough to ask. And by the time the questions get more personal, and they do, we're hooked.
As an incorrigible know-it-all, I was helpless before his "Did you know . . . ?" queries. If I did know, I was momentarily ecstatic: Yes, I do know what "defibrillation" means, and "pipe dope," too. If I didn't (the location of Albemarle Sound, oh, I should know that), I could hardly keep myself from running off to Google for the answer. Only the prospect of more questions kept me reading.
But yes-or-no and factual questions are just part of this interrogation. The narrator wants to know your personal opinion on all manner of things, from the aesthetic (whether girls look better in dresses or slacks) to the politico-philosophical: "Do you comprehend exactly how more casualties on a battlefield can be said to render previous casualties on a battlefield not to have been in vain? Is the argument beneath this logic not that the losing dead are worse off than the winning dead?"
As much fun as it is to be asked for your opinion, perhaps most intriguing of all are those personal questions, some of which carry an emotional depth charge that may follow you after the book is done, like "Which of your parents would you say was the more selfish?" or "When people are weeping and fretting about you, do you console or attempt to move away as politely as possible?" Why? Maybe because your answers to those questions make you ask yourself why you gave them?
Most novels take us away from ourselves, into the lives and minds of other people. The Interrogative Mood goes boldly in the other direction — and really, wouldn't you like to talk about yourself?
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.