Thursday, January 21, 2010

Generosity: An Enhancement — Powers' "Science Fiction"

Actually, Generosity: An Enhancement could probably be more accurately classified as "fiction about science...and fiction." That's Richard Powers' shtick: He has a unique gift for giving readers multiple entry points to his novels; fusing real science with literary themes into tightly constructed novels of ideas.
And Generosity: An Enhancement illustrates that gift nicely. If you're interested in genetics (or genometics, as it's now more accurately called, apparently), then this novel is right in your wheelhouse. Or, if you're interested in how fiction helps us interface with the real world, that's there too. Bioethics, filmmaking, Chicago, psychology, and even a love story, are all part of this slim, but stocked to the hilt, novel. 

The story is about an Algerian refugee and Chicago college student named Thassa Amzwar, who is "cursed" with preternatural happiness. Despite a horrible past which included the death of her parents and escaping from the Algerian civil war, she is constantly buoyant and enthusiastic. She meets our other protagonist, Russell Stone, in a creative non-fiction writing workshop he is substitute instructing. Stone is a rather misanthropic mid-30s magazine editor, who has all but given up on life and has taken the teaching gig on a whim. Thassa's infectious happiness soon wins over the hearts and minds of her fellow students, Stone, and university psychologist Candace Weld — Stone's eventual lover.

Meanwhile, celebrity scientist Thomas Kurton (think a more suave, dashing version of Richard Dawkins) is studying how particular genes and their interactions can result in traits like happiness or generosity — far beyond the conventional notion of genes affecting only height, or weight, or risk for certain disease. When he learns about Thassa, he realizes she (or, more accurately, her genetic make up) may be the piece of evidence he needs to prove his theories and publish his findings. If happiness is based on genes, then can't these genes be implanted in embryos to "genetically design" happy children?

But the paper Kurton publishes also results in a swell of public attention and media scrutiny on Thassa — all of which is none too welcome. So, amidst the bioethical questions about whether humans can or should be enhanced with particular genes for mood and disposition, the novel builds to the question of whether Thassa's happiness (her nature) will help her withstand the pressure exerted upon her by the world's attention to that happiness, or will she fold under the stress her environment (her nurture) imposes upon her?

And yet another ball in the air is Powers' meditations on fiction. He literally talks to us in the form of an intermittent meta-narrator, implicitly assuring us that this is all an invention. Part of the point, it seems, is to juxtapose (or maybe just compare?) the way science tries to explain and enhance the world with how fiction tries to help us understand it.

The novel has been very well-received by critics (Jay McInerney did the guest review for the NY Times!) and Amazon reviewers alike. But have you ever read a book you know is good, and brilliant, and well-written, but you just can't find your way in?  That's sort of how I felt about Generosity. I didn't understand a lot of the very detailed science, and didn't put in the work required to read up and try to understand. Normally, I don't mind difficult, heady novels, but here I was more worried about finishing it quickly instead of extracting every ounce of meaning.

I also committed another cardinal sin: I gave up on the novel too early. After the first third or so, the novel speeds up and becomes incredibly engrossing, but I'd already mentally checked out, just cruising through it to get it finished. Whoops. So, my advice if you decided to take this book on: Slow down, think it through, make it meaningful. It can be difficult at times, but it's not un-overcome-able, by any means. I really should give Powers his due, and read it again — but, alas, on to other things.
Have you read Power's before? If you're not familiar (and I'd be willing to be that not many are), dude ain't no dummy, as evidenced by his 2006 National Book Award win for The Echo Maker. I enjoyed that one much more than Generosity!


  1. A really thoughtful review, Greg! I haven't read anything by Powers before, but if I do, I'll go for The Echo Maker first, not this one.

  2. I HATE that feeling - when you KNOW that everything about the book is good and yet for some reason you just don't like it. I can't remember the last time it happened to me, though (lucky me!).
    In any case, I'm glad you finished it, even if you had already given up on it. I've been reading far too often lately about people that start books and then don't finish them, and I just don't get it. If I start something, no matter how much I hate it, I HAVE to finish it (otherwise, I assure you, I NEVER would have finished the God of Small Things). I almost feel as if the book deserves at least that. I mean, who knows what could change.
    In this one, for example, as you said, the last third ended up being better than the rest.
    Anyhow, I enjoyed this review, and I'm intrigued by this book. I love this kind of thing, and I think I would enjoy this, even if it is tough to read.

    (Sorry for my mini rant about not finishing books in your comments).

  3. @Aarti - Thanks for the comment. Other reviews have said Generosity is an easy introduction to Powers, but I think that The Echo Makers would definitely be a better place to start.

    @Brizmus - I'm with you on finishing books - I can't not finish! Thanks for the comment - I'll be interested to hear your thoughts on Generosity if you decide to take it on.