Generosity Hardcover – Sep 29 2009
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“Provocative . . . fascinating . . . dazzling.” ―Ron Charles, The Washington Post
“An excellent introduction to Powers's work, a lighter, leaner treatment of his favorite themes and techniques . . . An engaging story-teller . . . even as he questions the conventions of narrative and character, Generosity gains in momentum and suspense.” ―Jay McInerney, The New York Times Book Review
“Powers is a brilliantly imaginative writer, working here with a lightness of touch, a crisp sense of peace, and a distinct warmth. . . . Powers shows both his reach as a student of humanity and his mastery as a storyteller.” ―O, The Oprah Magazine
“When written by Dostoevsky, Dickens, or Richard Powers at his best, one may feel that [the novel] can contain every facet of the world.” ―Michael Dirda, The New York Review of Books
“Powers fuses riveting narrative and spot-on dialogue with thought-provoking social analysis.” ―Dan Cryer, Newsday
“One of our most exciting contemporary novelists.” ―Amanda Gefter, Philadelphia Inquirer
About the Author
Richard Powers is the author of nine novels. The Echo Maker (FSG, 2006) won the National Book Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Powers has received a MacArthur Fellowship, a Lannan Literary Award, and the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Historical Fiction. He lives in Illinois.See all Product Description
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Russell Stone, a dweebish "nice guy," is teaching a course at Chicago's Mesquakie College of Art in "creative non-fiction," a genre formerly known as the "personal essay." His class consists of the usual assortment of art students of various ages with various goals, and, as they read their journal entries on successive class meetings, they soon become close. Thassadit Amzwar, a twenty-three-year-old Algerian Berber from Kabylie, however, quickly becomes the focus of the group for her perennial good humor and upbeat attitudes. Thassa has survived the ongoing Algerian Civil War, which began in 1991, supported by Islamist fundamentalists. An entry in her journal includes the discovery of her father's executed body after he wrote a letter to the newspaper challenging governmental policies, and it shocks the class, but it is her unconquerable good humor which leaves the longest-lasting impression on her classmates.
In Boston, Thomas Kurton, a pure scientist, is investigating the chemistry that underlies emotions and the genome which may be responsible for human happiness. Kurton believes that "aging is not just a disease; it's the mother of all maladies. And humankind may finally have a shot at curing it." The concept of deliberately "adjusting" the genome to produce happier, longer-living people with less disease, drives him relentlessly. Tonia Schiff, regarded as "America's most irreverent science television journalist," often features Kurton on her programs, "humanizing" him so that non-scientific viewers can identify with his discoveries. Back in Chicago, Russell Stone begins to wonder if Thassa's constant cheerfulness can be a sign of mental illness, and he contacts Candace Weld, an on-call college counselor, for insights. These three main plot lines converge when Kurton hears about Thassa and wants to map her genes, looking for the ephemeral "happiness gene" he believes she may have.
Powers writes a cerebral and challenging novel which incorporates much new science regarding the human genome, and his emphasis on provable data contrasts with the position of Russell Stone who is trying to free the minds of his students to their imaginations and creativity. The ethical questions that Powers raises regarding the effects of tinkering with the genome, and how one must redefine reality (and even the arts) in light of that are thought-provoking and get at the heart of the (threatened) values which have endured for thousands of years.
Though the characters sometimes give the impression that they have been created specifically to illustrate the non-fictional, scientific points the author wants to develop, and the plot sometimes wanders afield, the novel is both enlightening and absorbing for any reader who is curious about neuroscience. Filled with surprises, twists and turns in the plot, and an ending that feels a bit like a trick, this unusual and thought-provoking novel will entertain those interested in exploring the cutting edge of scientific investigation into the nature of humanity. Mary Whipple
Many fans, myself included, appreciate Richard Powers as a humanist who can artfully bridge his understanding of sciences into his fiction, as he did in Gold Bug Variations and Galatea 2.2: A Novel, for example. In his new novel, Generosity: An Enhancement, Powers explores issues entangled in genetic engineering, questions about what it means to be human and to be happy.
The principal characters are a young Algerian woman who appears happiness gifted, Thassadit Amzwar (Thassa), and her writing teacher at a fictional Chicago college ("Mesquakie"), Russell Stone. Based on just a few exposures to Thassa in his writing class Russell begins to worry that she is too happy, which he somehow perceives to put her at risk. He involves a college counselor, Candace Weld, who after a brief informal meeting assigns a diagnostic name to Thassa's condition, "hyperthymia." The plot proceeds along two main lines from there, as television personalities and bio-engineering entrepreneurs fasten on to Thassa to serve their own ends and as a romance between Russell and Candace inches along.
Powers brings in a fair amount of what psychologists, neuroscientists, and geneticists have to say these days about the causal correlates and manifestations of happiness. His chief vehicle is his fictional genomics entrepreneur, Thomas Kurton, who takes on Thassa as an object of study and potential profit. Kurton believes there are happiness genes and he advocates market access to them for parents who want to bestow such blessings upon their children.
Powers is more satirically critical of contemporary culture in Generosity than in his earlier works. In addition to over-reaching bio-engineers, he particularly targets mass communications: cell phones, blogs, streaming "news," "time shifting," "user generated" content, social networking sites, television news, science celebrity shows, the Oprah show, and more.
One other significant thing is going on in Generosity: Powers writes about writing. Interlocutions from an author character are staggered throughout. We are frequently reminded that it is just a story, that the author hasn't figured out yet what will happen, and that he cares about his characters. Remember too that Russell teaches (the course is "creative non-fiction"), so the class scenes and his assigned text ("Make Your Writing Come Alive") offer opportunities for further commentary on the enterprise of writing. One wonders whether this aspect reflects Powers' own doubts and concerns about the story he is constructing.
Powers has been criticized in the past for failing to fully animate his characters. Here Thassa might appear to rescue him from that charge. But it is never credibly demonstrated for us why people are so convinced of her elevated and persistent happiness almost immediately upon meeting her. For the most part we are simply told that they are. When Russell and Candace quickly become concerned about her they have insufficient evidence either that she has some sort of unique endowment or that she is exposed because of it. Consequently they become rather too frantic about Thassa's fate very early on when nothing was yet out of hand.
Russell himself is not the sort of dynamic protagonist that might ease the author's task. At one juncture we are told that, "He's forgotten exactly what subassembly of the collective human project he is responsible for, or when exactly it might be due," a characterization that seems applicable more or less throughout. Candace is the responsible adult, a consummate professional in her counseling work and a dutiful single mother. Powers writes that together Russell and Candace "... stand there awkwardly, two more victims of natural selection, caught between negativity bias and the eternal belief that the future will be slightly better than the present." As you might surmise, this hardly makes for a sizzling romantic relationship.
Most of the other characters basically represent stereotypes, particularly Kurton and Thassa's classmates. The most fully-realized may be Tonia Schiff, a television science journalist -- we learn enough about her upbringing and the changes she's gone through that she seems authentic, even if we may not like her. Russell's brother Robert makes only a few appearances, but delivers the funniest passages in the book.
Typically it is the fundamentals that carry good fiction, the plot and characters. With Powers it is more the intellectual superstructure. If you have read him before and enjoyed it you will likely find Generosity satisfying as well. If you are looking for some breakthrough in his writing you may be disappointed. If you are new to him, this book will show you how he works.
The book seems to condemn and love technology; a fair reflection of people's true beliefs. Russell wouldn't dream of owning a cell phone (afraid of technology or afraid of people calling him?), yet he sits for hours doing research over the internet and reading blog entries. Kurton sees the field of genetics as one that can improve the whole human race, while he himself is without a soul: why not improve your own life there, Tommy? Nobody wants to end up alone and depressed like Russell, yet the "hive-mind" of media-fueled spin is not to be desired either. Social network sites, 24-hour media and blogs enrich social connections people have, but at the same time, the anonymity and remoteness of those very vehicles cause people to have and express over-reaching opinions that are none of their business; they stick their nose where it doesn't belong. Generosity really makes the reader think of the implications-good and bad- that technology brings to our lives.
Even though I ended up enjoying Generosity, it took me until halfway through to "get into" it, and I have 2 big problems with this book:
The characters are not as fully developed as I hoped. Candace seems plastic, Tonia and Kurton are so self-absorbed and lack any sort of compassion to the point that they didn't seem human, and in EVERY scene, Russell is so overly weak and depressive (does he have Asperger's like his brother, I wonder?) that I found myself exasperated to the point of yelling, "UGH!! Grow a spine, willya!!!!" He's really an "all-or-nothing" (mostly "nothing") kind of guy that has to be pushed into any action. The only characters that seemed genuine and that I ended up caring about were Thassa and Gabe.
The metafictional style (where the author introduces something into the storyline to keep you aware you are reading fiction) Powers employed of randomly interjecting a first-person account of the plot/character development was really annoying and supremely confusing in the first half of the book. Sorry, but I don't really want to know how you envision the characters or came up with the storyline; I don't care for you to outright express your like or dislike of the people you create. Let the novel speak for itself. Having said that, about halfway through, those interruptions are brought to a minimum and are less of a distraction. And even though I didn't care for this style, the ending ties the main plotline and the author's opinions of his novel together brilliantly.
You know from the beginning that this is going to be one of those literary novels whose theme is "anything good in the world inevitably gets ruined." I've read that book too many times already. And the author evidently thinks he's doing something really cool and clever by commenting on his writing process within the book. News flash: It's been done before, and better--Pirandello's "Six Characters In Search of An Author" is almost a hundred years old. In my opinion, unless an author has something really unusual to offer by intruding into the story, s/he should stay out of the way and let the story do the talking. I think the story would have been strong enough on its own (if still kind of a downer) without the authorial self-insertion, but if Powers didn't have that much confidence in it, maybe he should have written another book.
Still, it's a well-written book and one I'm still thinking about, albeit with a high degree of irritation. What is happiness, anyway? For me, it's reading a story where the author stays offstage!