Generosity: An Enhancement
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.