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Powell enjoys the mix of profound, funny in a book of questions

| Sunday, Oct. 18, 2009

Padgett's Powell's "The Interrogative Mood" opens with the question "Are your emotions pure?" The book closes with three questions: "Are you leaving now• Would you• Would you mind?"

In between, every sentence on the 164 pages is a question, ranging from "Can you cook?" to "Would you expect if you have not been there that the town of Hershey, Pennsylvania, is predominately brown?"

What in blazes is Powell, the author of the novels "Edisto" and "Mrs. Hollingsworth's Men," up to?

"I can't say that it is deliberately about anything or responding to anything," says Powell, who teaches writing at the University of Florida in Gainesville. "It's a book I wrote needing a place to go after I put my pants on as a writer. ... There's some flap copy about it being in tune to America, but that's all news to me. I don't write that stuff. If you're asking do we think more than we react, or if we react more than we think, that's on a certain level demonstrable, but not by me. I don't know that I have a dog in that fight."

There are absurdities -- "What is your position on yard raking?" -- and sublime queries such as "Wouldn't it be handy to have a life average affixed to a person, so that a homeless person might be hitting .171, Lance Armstrong, might be hitting .338, Michelangelo maybe hit .401?" The book was inspired by e-mails Powell received from various department heads and officials at the university that included irksome queries such as "Are we recalling what was promised last spring by the dean?" or "Are we going to be content, again, to let history repeat itself?"

"These would go on and I started wanting to have an answer," Powell says. "I sat down and wrote 'Are your emotions pure• How do you stand in relationship to the potato?' I couldn't stop. I never used them, never sent any, but they were fun. It was a fun idea, and, of course, it has certain applications beyond a rejoinder to an annoying stimulus like that. You can let it get a little bit broader in its scope as you write these things."

As Powell compiled the questions, it didn't occur to him to answer them himself. But he learned that after an excerpt ran earlier this year in the Paris Review , some people began taking "The Interrogative Mood" seriously. One man reportedly asked his new girlfriend to answer all the questions to get to know her better. Another person told Powell a group was hosting a parlor game based on the book.

This surprises Powell, although he can surmise why people are taking to "The Interrogative Mood."

"I think what maybe people are liking about it is there's profundity, an element of seriousness creeping along with the jocularity of it, within the comedy of it," Powell says. "I think they like being brought up a little bit. ... A girl asked me how do you not just be silly and not just be heavy. It's just one of the editorial governors that operates when you write these questions. You want to stay away from both extremes."

There is a fine absurdist streak that runs through the book that is in some ways similar to Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot." There are readers who will leaf through "The Interrogative Mood" looking for answers, only to get more questions. And Powell understands some readers will be stumped by his work in the same way there are people who don't get the classic sitcom "Seinfeld."

"You want to say, what's wrong with you," he says of those who fail to grasp the intricacies of "Seinfeld." "So I could see how you can approach this book in that way."

There is one question, however, the Powell can readily answer. How did he know when "The Interrogative Mood" had run its course?

"I just ran out of gas," he says. "There's a limit to anything. ... Like any book, there comes a moment if you're lucky and paying attention, you know you've done it. You're done."

Additional Information:

Capsule review

'The Interrogative Mood' will undoubtedly perplex many readers who, after 164 pages of unending questions posed by author Padgett Powell, will ask one of their own ?perhaps in the imperative mood • such as 'What the hell is this?'Powell poses thousands of questions, ranging from 'Do you do yard sales?' to 'Are you familiar with a certain sort of hard-drinking woman who insists on driving nothing but the largest and heaviest car that can be had at the time?' The questions are sometimes garrulous, sometimes achingly personal or heavy with portent. There might be rhyme or reason to Powell's literary experiment, or there might not be. It all depends on the question one is trying answer.

• Rege Behe

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