By Richard Powers
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux ($25.00, pp 296)
What is more annoying than the perpetually smiley girl staffing the towel desk at the gym every morning at 6 am? How about a world full of these happy, generous sorts whose genomes have been modified to breed ebullience? These are the questions noodled about in Richard Powers’s new novel “Generosity: An Enhancement.”
Following the intersecting trails of several protagonists, Powers creates a world where Science meets Literature meets TV meets the Internet, and all hell breaks loose. Confronted with the bubbly effervescence of Algerian refugee and Chicago art student Thassadit Amzwar, everyone stands in line hoping that a little of her joy rubs off…or at least that she will reveal some secret diet or exercise regimen. But no; it’s really all about genes.
Richard Powers is one of those eclectic authors with a diverse background (science, computers, literature, language, music) whose fiction never fits any simple label. A National Book Award winner, MacArthur fellow, and finalist for numerous other prestigious awards, he has clearly won the praise of the intelligentsia. Not bad for a kid born in Evanston. What Powers has not yet won is a popular audience. “Generosity” may not help this, but at least it has a chance since it is one of his most accessible, funny, and plot-driven novels.
The novel opens in the “Creative Non-fiction” class at a downtown Chicago art college. Russell Stone is temp-teaching this group of misfits who are filling pre-requisites for graduation. Although he had some successful pieces published while living in Arizona, he lost his juju (and his girlfriend) and is now editing reader submissions for a pop self-improvement magazine: “He fixed predications, aligned parallel structures, undangled participles, unmixed metaphors, and collared runaway modifiers.” The teaching job feeds his need for more money and some kind of resume credibility.
What little life there is in the class seems destined to be flattened under the weight of a plodding text with the plodding title “Make Your Writing Come Alive” until Thassadit (nicknamed Miss Generosity by her classmates) frolics in to join them. Almost at once, a seeming contact high creates upright man where there was before only primordial slime. Even Stone gets on board – he whose brother advised him: “You’re the kind of guy who needs his pleasures in very modest dosages. Have you thought about a multivitamin? …let’s face facts. We’re depressive. It’s in the Stone gene pool. Embrace it. It wouldn’t have hung around for so many generations if it wasn’t essential.”
In a concurrent plot Tonia Schiff, host of the popular science TV show “Over the Limit,” is putting together a segment based on the work of entrepreneurial scientist Thomas Kurton whose company Truecyte is about to go public with a genome sequence for human happiness along with the drugs to create it. A bit of a showman and promoter himself, Kurton only needs to find a confirming non-laboratory example to prove out his science. Despite Schiff’s on camera goading, Kurton holds his ground: “I’m an enthusiast. What’s your problem with that? I assume you have no moral qualms about curing depression? We’re talking about substances that will be to today’s serotonin reuptake inhibitors what fentanyl is to biting on a towel.”
Miss Generosity’s exuberance cannot be contained. Stone can’t leave happiness well enough alone and enlists the school psychologist to evaluate her to see if she is in danger of some kind of bipolar crash. Fellow students begin to spread the word on Facebook and web-postings. The TV News picks up the story. Soon Kurton’s web-crawler “alerts” tumble to her unique traits, and he has found his missing link. Throughout all the hubbub, she is ever cheerful answering every nutcase email and volunteering for Truecyte’s DNA tests. Scientists begin to talk. Fertility clinics bid for her eggs. Philosophers debate the morality of pre-selecting embryonic genes. Finally she and Kurton are guests on Chicago’s (and the world’s) most famous talk show: “Oona.” There is no place to hide.
As if this is not sufficient fodder for Powers’s playful wit and scientific musings, he adds a “metafiction” narrator to the mix. Adding details of character and scene to the unfolding plots, this intermittent voice is a reminder throughout the story that it is indeed just a story. While the novel explores the implications of a life where one’s mood remains upbeat despite setbacks, it also considers the modern convergence of fiction and fact, science and imagination.
It is Kurton who inadvertently summarizes the value of fiction as he tries to dismiss it: “The whole grandiose idea that life’s meaning plays out in individual negotiations makes the scientist wince. Intimate consciousness, domestic tranquility, self-making…all [are] blatant distractions from the true explosion in human capability. Fiction seems at best willfully naive.” Thank goodness for those, like Powers, who, naively or not, continue to use fiction to bring us closer to whatever there may be of fact.