The Interrogative Mood: A Novel?
By Padgett Powell
Whoever said it's art's job to ask questions, not answer them, probably didn't mean it this literally: The Interrogative Mood, by Padgett Powell, is 164 pages of prose in which every sentence is a question. The questions are too varied to encompass here, but for starters they're nagging ("Should it still be Constantinople?"), personal ("Have you had very many venereal diseases?"), universal ("Do you want to be buried beside your parents?"), incidental ("Is Santa Claus in your view essentially a pedophile?"), existential ("Is belief in Santa Claus, or disbelief, a kind of primer for belief, or disbelief, in God?"). There are big questions and small questions, juxtaposed to humorous effect ("Are you prepared for the end? No? Will you wear fur?"). Some paragraphs—there are paragraph breaks for breathers, line breaks for bathroom trips—propose elaborate hypotheticals; questions reference earlier ones, or solicit your opinion on the interview itself.
The book can be read aloud, as the perfect cocktail party ice-breaker, or in a day-long sit-down, like taking the bar. Reading in chunks, your own answers accrue, composing a second novel of personal preoccupations, experiences, hopes, fears. Something like a story also forms around the speaker: some questions address a listener with a shared personal history, but they're all entreaties, open-ended and implicitly anxious as they are. The questioner seems in mourning for a more immediately physical world—it comes up directly ("Do you subscribe to the notion that people who knew what they were doing began to die off about 1945 and are now on the brink of extinction?"), and allusively, in nostalgia-tinged questions appealing to distant memories ("Have you eaten hot gritty radishes fresh from the ground?"), or testing esoteric knowledge and obsolete skills ("When was the last time you gapped a spark plug yourself?").
But that's just one shape The Interrogative Mood might take; the book is a scatter plot, with the reader charting his own curve of best fit. One question Powell doesn't have to ask, because he does, really, on every page: Is there truly such thing as a rhetorical question?