Posted by: Corri van de Stege | January 8, 2012

Richard Powers and Generosity

Cover of "Generosity: An Enhancement"

Cover of Generosity: An Enhancement

In his previous book, The Echo Makers (which I reviewed in 2010), Richard Powers writes a story that revolves around memory and brain disorder: Mark, the protagonist loses his memory in an accident and subsequently imagines that his sister is an impostor.   Powers nows his stuff: a lot of research has clearly gone into theories of memory loss and brain disorders, the relationship between Capgras Syndrome and  cognition, and the story evolves into a gripping psychological thriller about what really happened during the accident.

Generosity is similarly intricate and demanding. The beginning of the book is somewhat pretentious, as if an elaborate film set is being prepared, however, it becomes clear that we’re still on earth, in fact in an American town that turns out to be Chicago and we are being introduced to Russell Stone, a failed writer now lecturing in ‘creative non-fiction’ writing and to the group of students he is tutoring.  The group includes an immigrant girl in her early twenties, from Algeria, Thassa Amzwar.  The students give each other nicknames and Thassa’s  is ‘Generosity’ because of her unbelievably positive attitude to life and people in general.  This despite having lost her parents in a dreadful way and having been through a lot of misfortune in war-torn Algeria.  She is exuberantly happy nevertheless, and all the time.

As with his previous books, Powers has clearly undertaken a lot of research, which involves biochemical theories / genomes and processes.  He is extremely knowledgeable about gene therapy, the genome project etc.   In Generosity Kurton is a genomics biochemist, business entrepreneur, who is preoccupied with the ‘happiness gene’ , Schiff is the tv programme producer, who asks Kurton at one point ‘You’re going to make us all happy is that the plan?’.  Kurton, however, feels mocked by this, and retorts: ‘A little more capable of being well in this world.  But not if you don’t want it, of course.’

The science of the gene is woven through the evolving relationships between Russell and  the University Psychologist Candace he falls in love with, between Russell and Thassa whom he wants to protect from the publicity jamboree that develops after the story about a woman with a happiness gene has been published, between Thassa and Candace and Candace’s need to protect her own professionalism, between Kurton and Schiff and later between Thassa and Schiff.  We never learn very much about Thassa as such, apart from her extremely happiness and at the same time that she is quite down to earth in her acceptance of this remarkable trait.  All she wants to become is a film producer, the one who holds the cameras and follows others around to record their movements and expressions.

Potentially this could be classified as a lab-lit book, with biochemical/genome theories underpinning the direction of the story, what is and what is not scientific and how friendship, love and happiness cannot be dissociated from cold theories about genetics, although ‘journalists can barely disguise their excitement at the discovery of the ‘happiness gene’.  Science has found a chief genetic contribution to bliss.’

There are some lovely insights and thoughts and the story is absorbing.  However, at times the book seems over-pretentious, as it is also trying to provide a commentary on its own fiction, through the author’s interference by providing self-conscious analysis of the story lines, on what will happen next.  Halfway through the book, for example, Stone reflects back onto chapter one, when he predicted her [Thassa’s] ultimate capture by science before the book’s end.   Sometimes we get the fiction writing theories through the textbook used by Stone for his non-fiction writing class: ‘Place, Harmon says, is as much a protagonist as any character.  But place is in danger, Harmon claims.  Our sense of here is rapidly disappearing in the globalizing, virtual onslaught.’  And then, reflecting on his own inability to finish his fiction book ‘He does not tell her the real problem: fiction is obsolete.  Engineering has lapped it.’

So, as well as constantly reminding us that this is fiction, and that the characters could all just end up in quite different (fictional) places, there is also a kind of inevitability because of the scientific processes underlying character and individuality: in the way we are to an unknown extent genetically determined to be one way or another.

This is definitely a book worth reading, and in my view needs to be reread to be able to argue with all the theories and observations that Powers plays around with.  He definitely does not shrink away from very ambitious large-scale stories that involve complicated science and psychological theories.

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