"I suppose that something vaguely like that loss of recognition has happened to me and many of the people I care about, since the terrorist attacks and America's subsequent response," the 49-year-old Powers, cited Wednesday night at the awards' 57th annual ceremony, said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.
"The familiar seems strange, and the strange has become familiar. We still live in precisely the same country. But nothing about it will ever feel familiar again, in the way it once did."
Also Wednesday, Timothy Egan's Dust Bowl history, "The Worst Hard Time" won for nonfiction; Nathaniel Mackey's musical and mystical "Splay Anthem" took the poetry prize; and M.T. Anderson's "The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. I," a multi-formatted epic in 18th century prose, was cited for young people's literature.
Winners each received $10,000, runners-up $1,000.
Powers' book refers often to the news of the time, setting his narrative against the shock of Sept. 11 and the determined path to the Iraq war. Two fiction finalists were equally topical; Jess Walters' "The Zero" and Ken Kalfus' "A Disorder Peculiar to the Country" were both set around the terrorist attacks. The other nominees were Mark Z. Danielewski's free verse, time traveling "Only Revolutions" and Dana Spiotta's "Eat the Document," a story of 1970s radicals hiding their past.
The increasingly distant past was a theme in the acceptance speech of Egan, a New York Times correspondent in Seattle who recalled interviewing Dust Bowl survivors, many in their 80s and 90s.
"We are a storytelling nation. We need to inhabit a narrative as a nation," said Egan, adding that he hoped his book would serve as a "bridge" to the Dust Bowl once those who lived through it were gone.
Other nonfiction nominees were Taylor Branch's "At Canaan's Edge," the last of his celebrated civil rights trilogy; Rajiv Chandrasekaran's Iraq war report, "Imperial Life in the Emerald City"; Peter Hessler's "Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China's Past and Present"; and Lawrence Wright's best-selling Sept. 11 investigation, "The Looming Tower."
The award for Powers honors a widely respected author with a small but passionate readership and a fascination with science, evident in "Galatea 2.2" and other earlier books, and in his current novel, with its detailed passages on neurology and clinical psychology.
Powers' award also continues a tradition of literary prizes for publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux, which in recent years has won numerous Pulitzers and National Book Awards with such works as Jonathan Franzen's "The Corrections" and Marilynne Robinson's "Gilead."
"I am deeply indebted to FSG for encouraging me to work in total freedom for the last 12 years, writing books that have not always been easy to market or classify," Powers said in his acceptance speech.
Anderson, the young people's literature winner, also cited the indulgence of his publisher, Candlewick Press. He thanked Candlewick for taking on a long and unusual book by a "neurotic who rarely leaves his house or gets dressed."
Like the fiction category, the young people's nomination featured a variety of styles, including Anderson's "Octavian Nothing"; Gene Luen Yang's "American Born Chinese," the first graphic novel to receive a National Book Award nomination; and Patricia McCormick's "Sold," another story told in free verse. The other finalists were Martine Leavitt's "Keturah and Lord Death" and Nancy Werlin's "The Rules of Survival."
Poetry finalists besides Mackey were "Averno," by former U.S. poet laureate Louise Glueck; H.L. Hix's "Chromatic"; Ben Lerner's "Angle of Yaw"; and James McMichael's "Capacity."