Richard Powers' people are ideas and his ideas are people; and so, right away, he sets himself apart from writers who sketch an engaging intellectual path but don't find characters to tread it.
"Galatea 2.2" is about a man who programs an artificial intelligence system only to find it is more human than he is. Powers' characters and ideas are all over the place. Their engagement is whole-hearted, the results are uncertain. Frequently a glittering insight will be thrown up from the dust and the skirmishing, or a shard of human sadness or wicked enjoyment. Other times the ideas submerge just as they are about to crystallize, or characters tire and blur.
At the end the reader may well be unsatisfied, but that is not the same as dissatisfied. It is closer to art to be left unfilled and wanting more than to be sated and wanting less, as tends to happen in our pile-on culture. I finished "Galatea" not totally sure of the destination but with a vivid memory of points along the way.
Galatea was the mythological statue who came to life because the sculptor, Pygmalion, fell in love with her; the result, in some versions, was poor. In Powers' book, the results are melancholy but instructive. His Pygmalion, who has the same name as the author, as well as his ruminations and some of his biography, learns quite a bit. He ends up with a chastened idea of what it means to be a person, what it means to be a machine, what it means to use a person as a machine and, finally, how art teeters on a perpetual edge between using and being.
The narrator's story consists of two sections told in alternating passages. One is retrospective; it recounts his life as a critically esteemed but not quite celebrated author, and the disintegration of his 12-year marriage to a woman identified only as C. All this has led to a mid-30s identity crisis. An offer to spend a year as "token humanist" in the scientific research center of a big university seems like a deliverance. The book's second section, told in the present, relates what happened there and what he learned.
The retrospective section--it is the weaker one--is substantially autobiographical, though technically a fiction. The present-day section is autobiographical in a different way: It is a speculation about the impasse reached by the author and the character, or the author-as-character. The year with an artificial brain project is a fictional journey that will end up illuminating a real one.
Son of a large-spirited father destroyed by disappointment and drink, Powers (from here on I refer to the character while thinking of the author) drifts. An inspiring English teacher--the evocation is more emotional than effective--moves him toward teaching and writing. He falls in love with C, his student; they live aimlessly in Boston, where he works as a computer programmer, until an old photograph gets him started on his acclaimed first novel. "Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance" is the result (as it was for the author).
While Powers is being fulfilled, C wavers between celebrating his fulfillment and contemplating her own emptiness. He tries to come up with solutions. Each time she breaks down they move, ending up with a five-year stay in a rural part of Holland, where C's parents live. There are some fine passages about a nervy, self-centered young American's life among the Dutch. He finds them emotionally provident, slow to savor or to dismiss, and a people of the word.
"Things meant what their telling let them. The war, the mines, the backbreak harvest, legendary weather, natural disasters, hardship's heraldry, comic comeuppance for village villains, names enshrined by their avoidance, five seconds' silence for the dead: the mind came down to narration or nothing. Each vignette, repeated until shared. Until it became true."
The marriage collapses; Powers tells us it is because he killed both passion and freedom by trying too hard to take care of C. He does all the telling; C is a figment of his self-regard. It sinks our sympathy--until the story of Powers' effort to teach literature to an artificial intelligence begins to percolate. We see that his successful and infinitely sad project is precisely a commentary on his life as an artist and a man.
Blocked trying to start a new novel in his gleaming, computerized university office, Power is approached one day by Philip Lentz, a cognitive neurologist who works on trying to reproduce the human brain by building a series of computerized neural networks. Lentz wants a spectacular demonstration: He enlists Powers to feed his system so much literary information that it will be able to compete with a live subject in taking a master's exam in English.