You and I by Padgett Powell

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You and I by Padgett Powell

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A wide-ranging literary experiment, as usual, from this author, that doesn't quite go where I feel it should - as usual, from this author...
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 160 Date: November 2011
Publisher: Serpent's Tail
ISBN: 9781846688164

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I've often wondered how men and women of letters can pack it all in. People churn out a career of fiction, as well as reading all the classics, and offering pages and pages of diaries and letters on their death. Padgett Powell can get to be a professor of books, and therefore I assume is duty-bound to read and write lots, but still find time to knock out novels, however short. It was only a few months ago I was reading The Interrogative Mood for a review elsewhere, and here is another new release from him. Serpent's Tail will cheat in 2012 by giving the British audience Powell's debut novel, almost two decades old.

The Interrogative Mood was designed purely as a list of questions. Some were of dubious grammatical correctness, but mostly by their randomness and thoroughness in exploring some odd quirks of life, there was a plot of a kind to be discovered, and whatever you thought of the experiment definitely a different kind of read. You & I offers a similarly unusual book, for the entirety of it is dialogue.

Yes, there is not a hint of a beginning of a word to describe either character in the dialogue, nor are there any speech marks. It seems to be two blokes talking to each other, and we seem to pass some time beyond the couple of hours it takes to read. They seem to drop into black vernacular at times, and they refer to going to the liquor store, or out for a walk to a creek, which takes them past a house which triggers memories of a game of doctors and nurses in one.

With the dialogue split into sections, we cannot begin to work out which person (don't forget, they're not even labelled You & I, or A and B) says what, without dissecting who has the memory, who had the dog, etc. I think if there is an emblem in the gap there's a continuation in the speaker, if not then it's the regular alternation, but there is one speech regarding some broken kitchen item where the second person ends the conversation with the knowledge of the first. Is this a mistake? Is it deliberate, to prove it doesn't matter who says what because that's not the idea at all?

I can't say. What I can say is that with this unique, OuLiPo type of premise (look them up) one gets a book that is quite distinctive. It's not just the title that reminds me of Nicholson Baker, as he published a very different U and I. Lines like I am terribly becalmed by a washing machine. Is everybody? are definitely Baker-esque. We're also hitting the Pinteresque with exchanges such as

I see.
No you don't.
You're right, I don't.
So why say you see when you don't see?
All right, there's nothing for me to say either.

(Insert one's own Pinter pauses - no stage directions here, remember?)

Before then, even on page two one of the biggest references can be Beckett.

...What are you, we, supposed to do, exactly?
Live until we die, without any more pondering than a dog, is my guess.

But finally we're strictly in the world of Powell. One 'chapter' evokes Hitler and Tarzan in the same beat. One character suggests I'd like to see some flying dogs.

So, this is zanily themed, oddly structured and individualistic, however much it borrows from elsewhere. But does that make it completely worthwhile? Is all this just too odd for its own good? Can you picture a book that while being unique in one regards is still quite mediocre? Is it that the uniqueness is designed to disguise the mediocrity? Will you believe me that it might be a matter of style over substance?

Well, I was thinking the same after The Interrogative Mood and you don't have to be a genius to see that's stuck with me somewhat, several months on. Powell books may be slender, short things based on a singular, greatly intriguing premise and not offering anything like such greatness in the reading, but they're not to be dismissed either before or after reading them.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

If this does appeal then you really should try The Interrogative Mood

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Buy You and I by Padgett Powell at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy You and I by Padgett Powell at


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