Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Generosity: An Enhancement, by Richard Powers

Generosity: An Enhancement is the fourth Powers novel I have read. Two--The Time of Our Singing and The Gold Bug Variations--are massive and insanely complex books that blend science, music, and a variety of questions about life and human nature. I loved The Time of Our Singing but found The Gold Bug Variations went a bit farther into the science than I wanted to go. Generosity: An Enhancement is more akin to The Echo-Maker--smaller scale but still focusing on science as a way into important questions, in this case: What accounts for happiness? If happiness is genetically determined, what are the implications if genes can be manipulated to make everyone happy?

Generosity has two narrative threads. One involves Russell Stone, a sad-sack failed writer who edits a crowd-sourced journal and is teaching a creative nonfiction course at a local college; Candace Weld, a counselor at the college who becomes involved with Russell; and Thassadit Amzwar, a young Algerian woman and student in Stone's class. Amzwar is preternaturally optimistic, even when recounting horrible experiences in her life. She is upbeat and exudes a spirit of generosity that draws people to her. Russell becomes obsessed with her exuberant happiness and decides she has a condition called hyperthymia. When Thassa is assaulted by another student, Russell mentions this condition to the police, and it ends up being reported in the media.

The second thread features science journalist Tonia Schiff and Thomas Kurton, a genetics researcher who believes the future of humanity will be changed by scientists' ability to manipulate genes; Kurton intends to be one of those who profit from this process. Kurton's interest in studying Thassa and escalating media  pressure begin to affect Thassa negatively--and Russell and Candace along with her.

With these two threads, Powers gives us a meta-narrative in which the novel's narrator (who is probably Stone but may not be) comments on the nature of fiction and nonfiction, character, plot development, and the functions of literature.

For me, all of this does not quite come together as a novel. While Russell is a three-dimensional (and pathetic) character, the others are not.  Thassa does not seem authentic--perhaps a genetically happy person is beyond description (or is simply rather boring). Kurton and Schiff are too obviously devices for explicating ideas in which Powers is interested. Despite my not really loving the book, it does present interesting ideas about happiness, science, and writing. Nothing about its flaws makes me any less convinced that Richard Powers is a genius--but a human one whose books are stimulating but not perfect.

Favorite passage
When you're sure of what you're looking at, look harder.

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