Richard Powers’s tenth novel may be his breeziest. This is welcome news for readers who have hitherto shied away from this formidable writer, so often dubbed a brainiac and polymath, a Thomas Mann of the Internet-genome era. To enjoy Generosity, you don’t need to have double-majored in physics and philosophy, with a minor in comp lit.
While Generosity does deal with the implications of a cutting-edge science—in this case genomics—it forgoes sustained info-dumps, mathematical grids, or lines of computer code. Many of Powers’s earlier novels definitely looked gray on the page, dense with blocks of smallish type. Here, though, nothing goes on too long, as the book shifts quickly and frequently among several gradually intersecting stories. Moreover, there’s plenty of white space to set off the end of one narrative segment from the beginning of the next. As a result, the book actually feels airily nonchalant, in process, halfway between a notebook and a finished work of art. As it happens, Generosity wants us to think hard about how a story is told and an author’s relationship to his material. Does the rhetoric of fiction determine a story even as the arrangement of genes determines a temperament?
On the opening page of Generosity we are introduced to Russell Stone, who is riding the Chicago subway, on his way to teach a writing class called “Journal and Journey”:
He’s dressed for being overlooked, in rust jeans, maroon work shirt, and blue windbreaker with broken zipper: the camouflage of the nonaligned, circa last year. He’s as white as anyone on this subway gets. His own height surprises him. His partless hair waits for a reprimand and his eyes halt midway between hazel and brown. His face is about six centuries out of date. He would make a great Franciscan novice in one of those mysteries set in a medieval monastery.
Anyone who’s ever looked at the early dust-jacket photos of the six-foot-four Richard Powers will recognize that mop of hair, half Beatles, half Little Dutch Boy, the glowing face of a youthful Brother Cadfael.
Russell Stone obviously isn’t Richard Powers. For one thing, Powers—or at least the voice of the “author”—will be constantly interrupting and commenting on the story that follows. But already Powers is asking his readers to start thinking about the relationship of an author to his plot and characters. He’s touched on this theme before. Prisoner’s Dilemma (1988)—about a midwestern family and a dying father—matches much of what we know about the writer’s early life. Operation Wandering Soul (1993) draws on his brother’s experiences in a hospital for sick children. The protagonist of Galatea 2.2 (1995) is actually named “Richard Powers,” and many of that book’s details—the foreign girlfriend, the sojourn in the Netherlands, the themes of the protagonist’s novels—are clearly drawn from life.
Of course, fiction always repositions the known in a kind of …