"To the Measures Fall"
by Richard Powers
Originally published in the October 18, 2010 issue of The New Yorker.

Another story only for subscribers. Perhaps The New Yorker is tightening up. I liked this story a lot: first, for its humor; second for its subtle sadness. The story begins in the Spring of 1963. “You” are riding a bike through the Cotswolds during a slight break from a semester abroad in York: “Year One of a life newly devoted to words. Your recent change, of course, has crushed your father.” During this bike ride you find an old book in a junk shop. It is To the Measures Fall, by Elton Wentworth, whom Churchill once called “This island’s Balzac . . . our much revered, much imitated national asset.” I should note, here, that besides being in the second person, this is also a type of “choose your own adventure” or some type of interactive story:

You are, by the way, female. Lots of folks think you shouldn’t be out biking alone, even in the Cotswolds. See pages 214 to 223 of Mr. Wentworth’s epic. How much would you have offered for the book had you been male?

You carry the book for sometime, never fully reading it in college.  You look up Wentworth and find out that “[h]e wasn’t England’s Balzac; he was the James Michener of the Midlands.” Later you ask yourself this question: “And what was Wentworth doing, bringing out a book wrapped in Edwardian nostalgia three years after Dachau?” You get married and start graduate studies. Unfortunately, all of that goes down hill, though you have, by now, read the Wentworth, and it has a strange pull on you. You can’t determine whether it is brilliant or drivel. But the times they are a-changin’.

You get a job adjuncting at a nearby college, intros and surveys. But drumming up enthusiasm for Wharton and Cather is murder. These days, it’s all Pynchon and Barthelme, Coover and Gaddis and Gass. The canon goes up in smoke. You realize, belatedly, that you’re a co-opted, false -consciousness servant of Empire, a kapo of privileged heteronormative white paternalism, but it’s too late to retool.

I found your progress from lover of words to adjunct professor very sad but very funny too, because it is very familiar. Powers is really satirizing the academy, but what he shows is a generalization that is often true. Here’s the fate of To the Measures Fall when its popularity starts to upswing:

A modernist at New Mexico State proves that “To the Measures Fall” was really written around 1928, suppressed by Wentworth for two decades, then published, despite his objections, in a form he didn’t want. A Barnard associate prof proves that half the novel was the work of Wentworth’s longtime mistress. A graduate student at Indiana proves that the book is riddled with historical error. Scholars of all ranks show how Wentworth was the product of a thousand horrific cultural blindnesses and Eurocentric brutalities. Write a brief letter to no one, about what you once thought the book might mean.

You ultimately get out of the academy for good and end up being an attorney. Here is Powers poke at the reading group when you finally get your way and have them read Wentworth:

How are we supposed to care about these characters? I just wanted them all to get a life.

All of this is told in a clever tone, and I was chuckling throughout. But this story has a deeper aspect, a touching and unsettling current that runs beneath the humor and the form. A reader might feel for You, but mostly we chuckle or cringe at the familiar life path. But when You have children, Powers lets in a clue to what he’s doing in this story.

Your children become the heroes of their own plots, timeworn narratives in unrecognizable new bindings.

The story’s ending is very nice, slightly nostalgic and slightly bitter. I recommend it.

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By |2016-06-20T18:13:36+00:00October 13th, 2010|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Richard Powers|Tags: |19 Comments

19 Comments

  1. Trevor Berrett October 13, 2010 at 10:45 am

    New fiction forum up.

  2. mitch nelin October 13, 2010 at 11:43 am

    The story is worth reading, if you’re a reader.

  3. Roland Wulbert October 16, 2010 at 4:37 pm

    A short story about a forty-year relationship between a woman and a novel.

  4. Trevor Berrett October 19, 2010 at 12:25 pm

    Finally got my thoughts up on this story. I finally know what Mitch’s comment above means :). But I do think the story has many other levels than simply a woman’s relationship to a book. It’s a narrative about real-life narrative and the powers that govern that narrative.

  5. David Orrell October 20, 2010 at 4:16 pm

    I had never tasted a truffle until I saw one I could afford wrapped in golden foil at my favorite sweet shop. I was disappointed to learn that the chocolate confection I was eating was not that touted epicurean fungi mentioned in my cook books. I have yet to sample the real thing.

    Reading “TO THE MEASURES FALL” I thought I had found an author considered by Winston Churchill to be Britain’s Balzac. Now admittedly, I have not read much of Balzac, but that was good enough recommendation for me to have thought “Eureka!”

    I have a new author to explore! Then I realized that I had been reading a work of fiction. But not before I had my wife lay down the book she was reading and check out what Google had to say about Elton Wentworth. That brought me to this site. Has Richard Powers thought of a nom de plume?

  6. Trevor Berrett October 21, 2010 at 11:34 am

    This has certainly been the most popular spot on my blog for the last couple of weeks, despite the Giller and Booker prizes. The last New Yorker story to register this amount of traffic was Claire Keegan’s “Foster.” That has since become one of my most popular posts of all time (surely thanks to the great comments), and this one is on track.

    But where are the comments??

  7. D Bruce Peterson October 21, 2010 at 2:53 pm

    Here’s my comment – A friend sent me a reprint of this story – What a wonderful gift. Glad I found your site too.

  8. Trevor Berrett October 21, 2010 at 6:37 pm

    Thanks for indulging me, Bruce! And welcome!

  9. Ken October 23, 2010 at 4:39 am

    I thought the story’s melancholy was appealing but the (in my opinion) tired post-modernism of the quizzes ending each section, some unnecessary summaries of the historical events which the character lives through (which should have been shorter) and some rather clichéd satire of academia jarred with the sadness and melancholy which I liked. I enjoyed the idea of how we react differently to a book at different ages and see it differently and also how an author’s public reputation can shift over the years.

  10. Trevor Berrett October 23, 2010 at 3:06 pm

    I didn’t particularly like the quizzes either, Ken, but I think because of them I focused on the interesting way Powers was reducing the subject (“you”) to a narrative. I felt the story, more than being about a relationship with a book, was about the type of tragic reduction the book, the author, and the subject (“me”) suffer in life.

  11. John Domini October 24, 2010 at 10:59 pm

    The story strikes me as achieving, for Powers, a significant new level of formal invention, one that doesn’t sacrifice the emotive power of the ending. The quizzes function as an intensification of the 2nd-person p-o-v, a stinging reminder of how we all search for answers to our identity, “a meaning for our lives,” in words & sentences that create imaginary identities & meaning.

  12. Jane October 25, 2010 at 8:30 am

    Evidence of how much I admire the story: I have now read and then reread 5 times. I searched for Powers on the web (and did, of course, double-check that no Wentworth ever wrote a novel entitled “To the Measures Fall”). I’ve gone to the local library to put holds on the books in its holdings by Richard Powers. I’ve sent info about the story to my sisters and friends who live far away. I’ve made copies of the story to pass out to MY book group tonight, and now will pass along with the link to this page!

  13. Trevor Berrett October 25, 2010 at 10:50 am

    Thanks for you comments, John and Jane. Glad you liked the story as much as I did!

    I feel I should note, though, that not everyone thinks highly of it. Here is Mark Athitakis’s write-up of the story (and he knows much more about Powers than I do, this being my only exposure to him).

  14. Frank October 26, 2010 at 9:29 am

    I read it last evening. It is very well written and thought-provoking. Does it relate the story of an obsession, or are our lives already described someplace else?

  15. Deborah October 26, 2010 at 11:28 am

    I love Richard Powers as a writer and this story is very wonderful.

  16. Andrew November 4, 2010 at 2:54 am

    It was a well crafted story and a great pleasure to read. Among its many likeable qualities are its subtlety: the use of numbered list first appears to name “the time-honored system of three piles” before sneaking up at us as section-ending multiple choice questions; its sweeping ambition to portray life and how we read books from 1963 to now; its humor and sarcasm. A few people have criticized the section-ending questions and the second person voice. The questions are directed at different audiences: some at the narrator’s younger self, some at her book-loving daughter, some at nobody, some at us. The second person voice is the only device that lets the narrator survey her life on her deathbed and pause now and then to talk to her different audiences.

    What was most striking about the story is that it appeared in the same issue of the New Yorker as an irritating article called “Search and Destroy.” Twice as long as “To The Measures Fall,” it profiles as the next publishing mogul a nihilistic online gossip merchant who traffics in pictures of Favre’s penis. What a vivid contrast: we are plunging into a world in which “[more] words get posted in five years than were published in all previous history,” a cynical Internet-driven world that cares mostly about images and gossips; here’s Richard Powers, against odds crafting sentences like “late-fifties spy novels with cardboard covers worn as soft as felt” and striving for sweeping stories that aspire to transcendence. So however we choose to read “To The Measures Fall,” let’s enjoy it and be grateful that it has been written. Grumbling too much about the second person voice is like someone in the Ark complaining that the food needs salt.

  17. philip wagner January 4, 2011 at 1:04 pm

    i really didnt want to read the book, mater of fact the new yorker story put me to sleep, but i really did want to see the Movie with the hallucinatory sequence depicting suicide and the torrid sex on the heath.

    Tell me there really is such a film under another name perhaps

  18. Trevor Berrett January 4, 2011 at 1:19 pm

    Hmmm, philip, I’m not sure what book or movie you’re talking about.

  19. Donna Boyle January 14, 2011 at 1:33 pm

    Interesting concept, but I lost interest in the story because it felt so inauthentic. When he has to tell the reader – in so many words – that the protagonist is female, he reveals his lack of success at adopting a feminine point of view. I was shocked by that statement, having assumed all along the young student was a man (actually, a boy). The fractured voice made me distrust almost everything that was said.

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