A playful and provoking clutch of stories that forces words and themes into unfamiliar territory.
In 2009, veteran literary gamesman Powell (You & Me, 2012, etc.) published The Interrogative Mood, a novel told exclusively in questions. Two of the 44 (usually brief) stories here are sequels of a sort. In “The Imperative Mood,” demand piles up on demand (“Prepare your backpack. Line up all the Velcro closures in your environment”), in time suggesting the flimsiness of advice and of the demands we make on others. Similarly, “The Indicative Mood” layers factual statements to reveal the hollowness of information without context. Many of these stories can be read as satires of common literary tropes, though Powell’s language is so slippery and spiky they don’t usually qualify as outrightly comic. Stories like “Horses,” “Dusk,” and “Wagons, Ho!” dismantle Western themes, and “Spy” is a brief sendup of espionage tales narrated by a man whose teenage daughter works for the CIA (“Trying to find out where she has been on a Saturday night may be a breach of national security”). Powell’s loopiness can be fun: the narrator of “Change of Life” contemplates buying a “Government Cookie Flyer,” and while the nature of that contraption is never explained, the critique of irrational covetousness gets over. But many of these stories are so slathered in non sequiturs that it can be hard to find a toehold. A sketch about “meat-shirt-making monks”? Janis Joplin and Charles Dickens imagined as high school classmates? Powell’s given fair warning—“We are not in the zone of logic”—but puzzling out his rhetorical feints is often more exhausting than rewarding.
Powell has great fun with abstraction that harks back to Barthelme and the Modernists, though not every riff registers.