A national bestseller, voted by Time as the #1 novel of 1991, selected as one of the "Best Books of 1991" by Publishers Weekly, and nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Awarda magnificent story that probes the meaning of love, science, music, and art, by the brilliant author of Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance.
Powers ( Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance ; Prisoner's Dilemma ) is a recipient of a MacArthur ``genius'' grant , and it seems appropriate: this strange, overwritten, often infuriating, manically intelligent and sometimes deeply moving novel could hardly have been produced by a writer of mere talent. Powers has woven an extraordinary knowledge of music, of science (particularly of the search for genetic coding, and of computer programming), of the mysteries of language and art history, into a saga that is dazzling and wearying in almost equal measure. The novel jumps back and forth between the late '50s, when brilliant scientist Stuart Ressler is involved with an Illinois research team trying to break the mysteries of DNA coding, and the '80s, when librarian Jan O'Deigh and computer programmer Franklin Todd get to know Ressler, now holding an insignificant night job at a massive computer database operation in Brooklyn, N.Y., and try to figure what derailed his promising career. Not a great deal happens, in a conventional narrative sense. Ressler has an affair with one married fellow scientist and learns music from another; his scientific career is, in fact, aborted by his resulting passion for music. O'Deigh leaves her glib Madison Avenue boyfriend, takes up with Todd and is then abandoned by him in his vain search for information about an obscure 16th-century Flemish artist. Toward the end the three principals are involved in a massive computer scam to help a stricken colleague. Despite occasional bewilderment at arid patches of scientific jargon and interminable displays of arcane knowledge for its own sake, a reader persists with The Gold Bug Variations (the title, obviously, is a play on Bach's Goldberg Variations , which have a key role in the book's intellectual structure, and Edgar Allan Poe's The Gold Bug , about the solving of a puzzle). For there is a perpetual air of surprise about the book, of intellectual excitement, a passionate involvement with words that expands into delightfully witty dialogue and profoundly evocative description. Reading it is hard work, but it's also deeply enriching; the decade is not likely to bring another novel half as challenging and original. (Aug.)