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Book Review: Generosity: An Enhancement by Richard Powers

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It’s necessary this review start with a disclosure: I am not a fan of metafiction. So, when Richard Powers employs the device from the first paragraph of his latest novel, Generosity: An Enhancement, it’s going to impact my view of the book. Whether that is proper or justified is a debate for another day. I’m simply acknowledging my prejudices.

In fact, the metafictional elements aside, I have fairly high praise for Generosity, which made a number of “best of” lists when initially released last year. I also have to acknowledge that the book, now out in a trade paper edition, is not full of passages telling you that the characters Powers is asking you to invest in are made up. Yet the unnamed omniscient author interjects himself frequently enough to distract me and, more importantly, undercut the social issues the book presents.

One track of the story builds around Russell Stone, a writer who basically quit writing when he learned how his first published articles affected the people who were the subjects. He now lives in a small Chicago apartment, editing the stories submitted for the entirely subscriber-generated content of a self-improvement magazine and, as the novel opens, is beginning a job teaching a creative nonfiction night class at a small college in downtown Chicago. Among his students is Thassadit Amzwar, an Algerian Berber refugee from the county’s civil wars and political unrest. Despite the strife that marked her life, Amzwar seems immeasurably happy, ebullient to the point she even has a positive effect on her fellow students and people she encounters on the street. Enthralled by her disposition, Stone becomes concerned whether she has hypomania, one aspect of bipolar disorder, or if she is the rare hyperthermic, a person who is always happy and positive. He even consults a clinical psychologist with the school’s counseling center, Candace Weld, who bears a striking resemblance to the lost love of Stone’s life and also soon drawn in by Amzwar’s ubiquitous euphoria.

The other track centers on Tonia Schiff, the host of a cable television science show, who is preparing a episode about the potential benefits and ramifications of genomics and genetic engineering. The main subject is Thomas Kurton, whose biotech companies are seeking ways to improve life through genetic engineering. When the two tracks cross, testing done on Amzwar by Kurton’s company leads him to believe the potential exists to create a “happiness gene” based on her genetic structure. Once Amzwar’s identity leaks out, her life changes dramatically.

Akin to how Powers’ National Book Award-winning The Echo Maker examined aspects of neuropsychology, Generosity considers the implications of programming the genes of fetuses, creating drugs tailor-made for an individual’s genetic code or extending life far beyond today’s life expectancies — and the profits to be made from patenting genetic information. Kurton sees this as creating a wonderful new world. Stone and Schiff are more leery, In fact, after trying to grasp the journal article on the testing on Amzwar, Stone concludes:

Homo sapiens has already divided itself, if not into the Eloi and the Morlocks, then into demigods and dispossessed, those who can tame living chemistry and those who are mere downstream products. A tiny elite is assembling knowledge more magical than anything in Futopia, … learning how a million proteins interact to assemble body and soul. Meanwhile, Stone and his 99.9 percent of the race can only sit by, helplessly illiterate, simply praying that the story will spare them.

Powers also takes Generosity beyond the ethical and social issues of the concept that happiness is simply a function of genetics. The characters also confront the more basic questions of what happiness is, how we achieve — or lose — it, and how each of us views our lives and our world. As a result, it is not as deep an exploration into the science and tends to be more character driven than The Echo Maker.

Powers does have the ability to quickly capture characters. For example, saying one of the students in Stone’s class is “a small, hard woman who must run with both wolves and scissors” does as much to set that character as a couple paragraphs of description. At the same time, the main characters in Generosity don’t seem to be plumbed too much. Weld, for example, never really feels fully fleshed out and rarely comes across as much more than a convenient bridge between Stone’s world and Kurton’s. Moreover, the metafictional element seems to undermine the development of the characters and our ability to invest in them.

Setting aside my admitted distaste for metafiction, Generosity is more engaging than The Echo Maker. Particularly with its flaws, that doesn’t make it a national award winning book. But if all we read were books that won awards, we would miss a lot of interesting works. Even for readers who may have my predilection toward metafiction, the flaws in Generosity are largely offset by the book’s ideas and the way Powers approaches them. As such, it not only is worth reading, it may be a more accessible introduction to his style and approach for newcomers to his work.

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About Tim Gebhart

Tim Gebhart is a book addict living in Sioux Falls, S.D., where he practices law to provide shelter for his family, books and dogs.