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Review: Genorosity by Richard Powers (NY Times)
For the past 20 years or so, Richard Powers
seems to have been engaged in a prodigious attempt to redress the
imbalance of knowledge that was the subject of C. P. Snow’s famous “Two Cultures” lecture.
That, you will recall, was the one in which Snow, a British scientist
and novelist, bemoaned the breakdown of communication between the
sciences and the humanities. Unlike most of his novelistic peers,
Powers speaks fluent science and technology. As a longtime reader of
the mostly rapturous reviews of his novels, written by humanists who
seemed deeply intimidated by his mastery of arcane branches of
scientific knowledge, I managed — until recently — to avoid cracking
any of them. As it turns out, his new novel, “Generosity,” is an
excellent introduction to Powers’s work, a lighter, leaner treatment of
his favorite themes and techniques.
The new novel is certainly more buoyant than Powers’s last, the National Book Award-winning “Echo Maker,” which was, among other things, a dense and intricate exploration of neuropsychology with side trips into ornithology. While that book revolved around a young man who suffers serious brain damage, the central figure of “Generosity” is a woman ostensibly afflicted with hyperthymia — an excess of happiness. The new book poses the question, What if there were a happiness gene? Curiously enough it features a public debate between the two cultures, in which a tortured, charisma-challenged Nobel-winning novelist fares badly against a glibly articulate scientist arguing the case for genetic engineering.
Like many of Powers’s novels, this one involves parallel narratives, although the two stories converge fairly quickly.
primary narrative involves a triangle of characters that coalesces at
a third-rate university in Chicago. Russell Stone is a dweebish editor
for a self-improvement magazine, moonlighting as a “creative
nonfiction” teacher at Mesquakie College of Art, where he encounters
Thassadit Amzwar — a Berber Algerian who has landed in Chicago after
suffering the loss of most of her family, including her father, in the
Algerian civil war; her mother died of pancreatic cancer not long
after. Thassadit enthralls her teacher and her fellow students not only
with her stories of Algeria but also with her generosity of spirit.
Despite the horrors of her past, she seems to be incurably optimistic
and luminously happy. She quickly becomes the sun around which the
entire group revolves. Stone becomes obsessed with his brilliant
student to the point that he studies the history of Algeria and
researches the psychological literature on the subject of happiness.
Eventually he consults a school psychologist, Candace Weld, who happens
to bear an uncanny resemblance to his ex-girlfriend. Weld becomes part
of the cult drawn toward Thassa’s radiance, and inevitably falls in
love with Russell.
An excessively happy central character would seem like a potential handicap in a novel, but Powers manages the difficult feat of making Thassa plausible and even fascinating, in part by refracting her through the others, in part by endowing her with a richly textured biography.
The converging story line introduces Tonia Schiff as a thinking man’s babe, a “fair-haired, blue-eyed heir of dying high culture” who hosts a “Scientific American meets Götterdämmerung” cable science show called “Over the Limit.” We watch her putting together an episode called “The Genie and the Genome,” about the geneticist Thomas Kurton, who has founded a biotech company dedicated to enhancing life through genetic engineering. “I don’t see why,” he tells Schiff, “given enough time and creativity, we humans can’t make ourselves over into anything we want.”
A third narrative, actually a meta-narrative, is woven through these pages, and is basically the story of the telling of the story. “Over date pudding, she tells him about negativity bias. I’m not really sure if she tells him this over date pudding, of course, or even if she tells him at this lunch at all. But she tells him, at some point, early on. That much is nonfiction: no creation necessary.” Actually, of course, the whole passage is fiction, written by Richard Powers — who surely knows that a narrator professing incomplete knowledge of his own creations, or drawing arbitrary lines between fiction and nonfiction, risks violating his contract with his readers. Some of Powers’s meditations on fiction and causation are genuinely profound, but this particular passage shows him at his cutest, and different readers will have different tolerances for this kind of metafictional noodling.The novel really kicks into gear when one of Thassa’s fellow students, temporarily unhinged by her goodness, attempts to rape her, then turns himself in. The story might have died after 60 seconds on the local news if not for the fact that Russell Stone uses the word “hyperthymia” in trying to explain his exotic student to the police. Powers is especially effective at illustrating the way the story of the girl with the happiness gene spreads across the Internet and, only slightly less rapidly, the traditional media. Thassa’s mailbox starts filling up: “Strange people with Hotmail accounts want me to make them happy. One woman wants to hire me as her personal trainer. She thinks her soul needs a professional workout.”
Meanwhile, Kurton’s research team is on the verge of publishing a study that correlates specific genetic codes with emotional well-being. But despite the large sample on which the study is based, Kurton is holding back on publication, looking for some missing datum to confirm his findings. When Thassa’s story comes to his attention he thinks he may have found it.
Kurton persuades Thassa to undergo a series of tests, and when the results are finally published — the ebullient Thassa’s genetic material having confirmed the initial findings — media interest in the Happy Gene Girl goes manic, culminating with an appearance on a Chicago talk show whose host, known to all simply as Oona, “is, by any measure, the most influential woman in the world.” In a canny elision, Powers gives us only hints of Thassa’s triumphant performance, by way of its echoes on the Internet.
Especially in the earlier chapters, Powers’s characters and his narrative can be nearly swamped by the scientific discourse and the metafictional divagations. “A revolution is afoot,” reads a typical passage, “one that looks almost like retooled Lamarckism, calling into question the centrality of the gene and all the old dogma of fixed inheritance.” This kind of discourse seems to flow much more fluidly from his pen than passages describing sentiment or romance: “In her bed, Candace is sapphire, something he does not know in her.” The Lamarck passage, for all its arcane knowingness, seems clearer to me than the sapphire one.
At times, one can’t help wondering if Powers’s sympathies, and his sensibilities, lie entirely in the scientific camp — if he doesn’t perhaps agree with Thomas Kurton’s critique of fiction, rejecting “the whole grandiose idea that life’s meaning plays out in individual negotiations.” But Powers is, when he chooses to be, an engaging storyteller (though he would probably wince at the word), and even as he questions the conventions of narrative and character, “Generosity” gains in momentum and suspense. In the end, he wants to have it both ways, and he comes very close to succeeding.
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