Like all novels, this one is about the representation of reality. But not like all novels, this one takes that question head on. This is another of Richard Powers’s novel where the main narrative is interpolated by a secondary narrative with mostly thematic connections to the story. The novel is about the creation of a simulated space called the “Cavern” in which users are surrounded by elaborately LCD screen, wear augmented eyewear, haptic gloves, and other features and in habit vividly drawn and rendered rooms. Think more so holodeck than virtual reality. The main storyline takes place in the mid 1990s where Adie, a visual artist, has been recruited by the project lead, an old friend, to help consult on the version of reality that the cavern offers. Adie finds herself living within the very uncomfortable space that the hyperreal, but also not real experience of the cavern. There’s not really a plot (as most good novels again don’t focus on that) but about process. We don’t end up with any kind of multiverse and no one gets sucks into the new reality unable to escape or anything like that. Instead, the novel explores the ways in which the representation of reality through technology and through art (visual art, music, and literature especially) have been shaped and shaped our understanding of the world around, or worse, given us the false impression of understanding. It’s also about the digitization of the analog, and the ways in which this process is unsatisfactory to experience.
The secondary story is a second-person account of a youngish American with Persian heritage running away to collect himself after a bad break-up. He decides to take a post teaching English in a Middle Eastern city just on the precipice of some kind of war. It’s the mid-1980s. One day he goes for a walk in the city where he is kidnapped by a terrorist group and then help captive in a series of rooms, but primarily (for 1001 days/nights) in a white, plaster, bare room with almost no furniture, chained to a radiator. Through his torture, beatings, neglect, and emotional abuse, we trace the progression of his brain as it gives up on the wider world to holly inhabit the space of this one single room, and the limited number of occurrences that can happen within it. Also, because it’s written in second person, all his tribulations happen to you. This narrative is tied only thematically to the main narrative as a kind of extreme representation of the possibilities contained within a single room, separate from wider, shared reality.
At times, many times even, this novel absolutely sings.