Prisoner’s Dilemma

Richard Powers | Fiction,  1996

348 pages


Eddie treats every encounter with his four children as a learning opportunity.  At breakfast, there is a line from Shakespeare.  At dinner we contemplate what happened at Dachau.  And, of course, one evening there is the presentation of the Prisoner’s Dilemma ... intended to play with the brains of all the Hobson family members.  Actually, many of his statements and queries have to do with game theory.  His behavior has created a generation of thinkers, but his offspring at times talk in the same riddles and well-turned phrases Eddie does. One night he says to his eldest, Artie, “calamine.”  It is up to Artie to figure out what his father is saying. And the Hobson family, consisting of Eddie Sr., his wife, two sons and two daughters, is not only bright, but also humorous. The family car, a Pinto, is named Mr. Nader.

And Eddie is ill. He vomits, passes out, becomes non-lucid.  And then he bounces back.  He has been this way for 30+ years and refuses to see a doctor. His children, now age 18 to 30(?) are worried about him.  But he finally decides to go to the VA hospital ... the only institution he can maybe trust.

The love of these grown children for their father is astounding.  They keep circling back to the family home, despite their busy lives, especially when Eddie Sr. seems particularly ill.

This is my third Richard Powers, and my least favorite of the three. A profoundly excellent writer, this Powers novel is cerebral, and can be a challenge to read. At times, amazingly engrossing, interesting, and insightful. At other times, simply confusing in pure Hobson-talk and Hobson-recollection.  And at first, I enjoyed the Walt Disney flashbacks.  But later, they became too much.

I recommend this book if you are in the mood for something articulate, intelligent, thought-provoking.  Or if you are simply on a path to explore this legendary author.  One reviewer on Goodreads was reading or rereading one of Powers’ 12 novels every month for a year.  This is not a beach read.  There will be times you will pause and reread a section, musing.  If you do choose to read this, please help me understand the ending.

(p.s. I just ran across an article about this book and Family Systems Theory.  The article did explain the ending to me, but now I wonder ... how did I miss this during my reading?  And, what else did I miss?  Huh.)


2 responses on “Prisoner’s Dilemma

  1. Mary Cary Crawford

    Was there any reference to the Hobson’s Choice? Google that phrase. When I read the family name, this came to mind immediately. I am familar with it through the play by the same name. Our local theater group presented it many years ago and it’s one our theater groupies recollect on. From what you describe about the book, I wouldn’t be surprised if Powers had this in mind when he selected this family name.

    1. Andrea Sigetich Post author

      That is interesting! I looked it up .. the phrase is 500 years old, and it means (Wikepedia): “A Hobson’s choice is a free choice in which only one thing is offered. Because a person may refuse to accept what is offered, the two options are taking it or taking nothing. In other words, one may “take it or leave it”. I don’t believe this ever came up in the book, though how could it not? He certainly may have had it in mind…