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Book Review: Generosity by Richard Powers

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This year marks the 50th anniversary of C.P. Snow’s controversial lecture at the Senate House at the University of Cambridge on the “two cultures.” Well, the lecture was controversial at the time, spurring extensive follow-up and debate, even if unfairly forgotten today. Snow’s book on the topic was later noted by the Times Literary Supplement as one of the 100 most influential books published after World War II. And with good reason.

Snow argued that the sciences and the humanities—his two cultures—were no longer capable of communicating with each other. These competing ways of conceptualizing the world had much to gain from a dialogue, but they had lost the tools and translators necessary for such interaction. Even a cursory glance at our current situation reveals that the chasm noted by Snow has not narrowed during the intervening half-century. If anything, the humanities have embraced a deadening subjectivism, while science has become the plaything of commercial interests that can only view any humanist perspective as a hindrance to the bottom line. Perhaps the only thing in Snow’s thesis that needs updating is the word ‘culture’—the “two ideologies” might be a better way of describing the opposed views these days.

Novelist Richard Powers has built his whole literary career on the intersection of these divergent perspectives, seeking for dialogue where others only find barriers. His fiction focuses on science, but you would never label these books as “science fiction.” His technology is the kind that you might read about in today’s newspaper, or find profiled in the current issue of Scientific American. But the drama derives less from whiz-bang effects than from the human elements at play. In other words, if you are looking for exploding death stars or mutant aliens, you are advised to find another novelist.

Powers latest novel Generosity deals with one of his favorite issues, genetic determinism. Hey, don’t give me that grimace! There are no double helix diagrams here and certainly no test after the final chapter. Instead our novelist presents the story of a woman whose genes predispose her to a happy, cheerful disposition. Thassadit Amzwar is a Berber Algerian who has come to Chicago to study filmmaking. At age 23 she has seen enough horrors to crack apart even the solidest psyche, yet her serene and upbeat attitude not only has allowed her to survive—she positively flourishes. Those who come into contact with her find themselves helplessly attracted to her positive vibes. In a different time and place, she might have become a priestess or shaman, but even in modern-day Chicago she attracts a coterie of devotees who worship at her shrine of positive thinking.

Russell Stone, a writing instructor at her college, finds himself fascinated, perhaps even obsessed, with his resilient student. Stone is subject to bouts of depression, and feels compelled to consult with a psychologist about Amzwar. Is it healthy, he wonders, for her to be so happy all the time? Could this degree of felicity be some type of illness?

Through a complex series of events, this matter of private curiosity becomes a cause célèbre. Happiness is a marketable commodity, and soon a host of interested parties—journalists, scientists, church-goers, doctors, TV personalities, patent attorneys, and others—all are seeking a piece of Miss Generosity. Our happy lady even finds herself featured on a famous Chicago-based talk show hosted by a thinly-disguised character named Oona. (And if that doesn’t get this book selected for Oprah’s book club, you can’t blame author Powers for not giving it his very best shot.)

This cutting-edge-science-meets-everyday-life is exactly where novelist Powers likes to linger. Here, as elsewhere in his oeuvre, he delights in the pensive asides, the passing speculations, the philosophical angles, the ethical dilemmas of the situation at hand. Sometimes I find these awe-filled asides a bit much—and this author, more than most, has his idées fixes that he trots out at the slightest provocation. If you have read this author’s previous works, you will be familiar with his repeated expostulations on how wonderful it is that we can control the genes that control us, etc. etc. etc. Be forewarned: he is still working this seam in Generosity.

But Powers is also a great prose stylist, one of our finest contemporary fiction writers when it comes to the nuts and bolts of stringing sentences together with style and aplomb. So even when he wanders into one more panegyric on the wonders of technology, there is usually some interesting angle or slick turn of phrase that makes the detour seem like a scenic route.

The question of genetic determinism is not without its implications for storytelling, and Powers has thought through these with his usual acumen. Our traditional narratives are based on concepts of choice, character and will. Perhaps the ancient Greeks could tell fascinating stories built on the concept of an inescapable destiny, but that is not a congenial attitude for the modern novelist. Yet our understanding of genetics now threatens to topple this state of affairs. Thus Powers needs to wrestle not only with what his characters do, but also with two different levels of why—involving causality at both a psychological level as well as a chromosomal one. And you thought writing a novel was tough enough already?

In dealing with this complexity, Powers adopts the stance of the obtrusive narrator at several points. The story is interrupted while the storyteller second-guesses the veracity of the story. In essence, a third level of causality is now introduced: the characters do things because the author makes them. Yet this additional layer to a largely successful novel comes across as intrusive here, and eventually detracts rather than enhances the story at hand.

These meta-fictional interludes are short, and do little to capsize a story that has great momentum, compelling scenes and well-built characters. Powers is Mr. Generosity himself, setting out a dozen or so minor characters—including a whole classroom of eccentrics under Stone’s tutelage—who are fascinating enough to be major protagonists in their own right. In fact, this author’s well-known position as the Mr. Science of the literary community is, in my opinion, one of the least important of his achievements. He could leave all the techno-speak behind and write about farmers or clowns or haberdashers, and he would still be one of our finest novelists. Maybe some day he will do just that.

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