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If you're reading a novel which endeavors to link the lives of a Midwestern family in the late-1970s, World War II-era homefront politics, and Walt Disney, then you're going to want someone competent at the helm. On a superficial level, Richard Powers must be the man, since he's got a genius grant from the MacArthur foundation. Furthermore, he's adroitly constructed even grander Novels of Ideas like Galatea 2.2 and The Gold Bug Variations. His name inevitably comes up when critics are discussing the important young writers responsible for narrating our foray into the next millennium, along with William T. Vollman, David Foster Wallace, and Rick Moody-the "tall white male writers," as Wallace once put it.
But it took me a while to see what makes Prisoner's Dilemma the sprawling, history-rewriting novel of ideas it's been hailed as. For the first fifty pages or so, it reads like a comfortably traditional family novel reminiscent of Anne Tyler-which it is, on one of its multiple planes. But then Powers starts throwing in pseudo-factual flashbacks to the forties, with Walt Disney making wartime propaganda films (which he actually did, though not in the scope this novel suggests) and young Eddie Hobson (Sr.'s) eventual appearance in this surreal historical thread.
In less capable hands, Prisoner's Dilemma would probably come off as very, very formulaic, and just plain all-been-done-before boring. What rescues it? Well, for one, Powers' prose is beautiful and compelling. This alone should save the novel from complete damnation. The language during the italicized wartime passages is omniscient and confident, assuring us we're in capable hands as we struggle to understand-via Artie, via Eddie Sr., via ... Mickey Mouse?-the monstrosity that was the Great War. The language during the chapters set in 1978 is, by comparison, rather objective, but it still has plenty of intrusive third-person commentary inserted, lending an existential lushness to such simple acts as setting the table or playing catch in the backyard. This refusal to take for granted the mundane characterizes Powers' treatment of the Hobsons' dilemma, and, in turn, Eddie Sr.'s life. The mysterious illness that ravages Eddie and confounds his family is a physical manifestation of the ongoing battle within Eddie-a relentless tension between the Big Picture and the plight of the individual. The universal struggle to understand how one little person can matter in the midst of an incomprehensibly vast cosmos-a dilemma we all experience at some point-is magnified and played out continually in Eddie to such an extent that it precludes his ability to function adequately in the "outside" world.
The question of how humanity copes with the mounting onslaught of technological chaos is addressed repeatedly throughout Powers' narrative. During World War II, Powers recognizes that one of the greatest curative forces for Americans dealing with the war was, as it still is today, entertainment. In this case, the salve is Mickey Mouse and the whole Disney enterprise, enjoying its original heyday during the late thirties and early forties. Whole chapters are devoted to the role Disney played in the war, especially in the plight of the thousands of Japanese Americans interred Stateside. More generally, Powers describes Disney's function as a very early incarnation of the white noise in which we swaddle ourselves, in an attempt to keep out the horror we know is occurring out there: "[Mickey Mouse's] immense popularity must come from our learning, in a few years, how to ignore things that would have frozen previous generations with total horror" (98). Personified, as it is here, by such a congenial persona as Mickey Mouse and the rest of his Disney pals, it's hard to see how white noise could be all that bad. And Powers makes it clear that our relationship to the noise is ambivalent. We need it, and as much as we might decry it in attempts to elevate ourselves to more enlightened planes of world-awareness, we like taking refuge in Disney movies, or any incarnation of the entertainment noise we prefer. If the escapist quality of entertainment blossomed with Disney, and continued to grow throughout the seventies, when Artie is speaking, we in 2001 hardly need to be reminded how powerful and pervasive a mixed blessing it is now. Think of the samizdat in Infinite Jest that entertains its viewers into comas. Or, more immediately, consider the ways in which our country will-and already has-use pop culture as a psychological salve for the trauma of September 11.