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 His face is about six centuries out of date.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 no man’s land, a zone neither wholly real nor wholly imagined. So Generosity immediately underscores that we’re not actually in Chicago anymore. We’re in “some other Second City. This Chicago is Chicago’s in vitro daughter, genetically modified for more flexibility.” Thus, as the book goes on, we will wonder only momentarily about the North American Baseball League, the Hitler Channel, or the popular talk-show hostess Oona.
Indeed, Generosity repeatedly underscores this interplay of real and imagined, of free and contingent. What is fiction, after all, if not a kind of creative nonfiction? Early on, our “author” frequently complains of trouble “seeing” a particular person or scene—but it’s obviously there, even if everything isn’t quite in focus yet. When Russell Stone is asked about his philosophy, the book pauses and the narrator casually says: “For convenience, I give him mine.” And that, we learn, would be: “When you’re sure of what you’re looking at, look harder.”
So let’s look harder.
Russell Stone is on his way to teach a writing class at Mesquakie College of Art. He’s just a temporary adjunct, brought in at the last minute. But he was once a young writer of promise, with three acclaimed essays—half short story, half New Journalism— published in major magazines, one of them obviously The New Yorker. “The secret of these pieces lay in the hapless narrator: bewildered victim of the world’s wackiness.” But gradually Stone grew convinced that he had damaged the very real human beings upon whom his slightly fictionalized reportage was based. And so he turned away from any writing even remotely personal or confessional. As an ex-girlfriend remarks, “Book-club moms were podcasting their teenage daughters’ first sexual forays, and he was beating himself up for misrepresenting street people?”
Nowadays, the thirty-two-year-old Stone works mainly as a copy editor for a self-help magazine called Becoming You. Like Stuart Ressler, the computer genius of The Gold Bug Variations (1991), he has rejected anything more glamorous:
Consummate tedium became his art. For two years, he kept to his verbal trade, hoping to sink without a ripple beneath the earth’s crust. He could edit Becoming You for the rest of his life, provided he died in early middle age.
But this autumn he has reluctantly agreed to take on the writing class, which he approaches with considerable trepidation. There are eight students enrolled, and Powers—himself a writing teacher for many years at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana—has fun describing each of them:
The circle starts with Sue Weston, a small, hard woman who must run with both wolves and scissors. She has recently been pierced in all her few soft spots. She looks at the world slant, from underneath a lopsided pageboy she cuts herself. Public judgment excites her so much it’s scary. She gives her life philosophy: “The shittiest five-second advertising jingle is superior to any symphony, if more people hum it.”
The eighth and last person to be called on is Thassadit Amzwar, “a Berber Algerian, from Kabylie, via Algiers, via Paris, via Montreal.” She sits surrounded by light. Thassadit, as we will soon learn, possesses what everyone wants: the secret of happiness.
At this point, Powers introduces his second plot, revolving around the production of a TV documentary called The Genie and the Genome. In this program the “irreverent” science reporter Tonia Schiff spars with controversial and determinedly youthful Thomas Kurton, “the Sergei Diaghilev of genomics,” so utterly charming that
He could fund-raise for some endangered wildlife fund. At fifty-seven, the man looks like he’s just been awarded a Presidential Junior Investigators grant to visit the National Institutes of Health over summer vacation.
Kurton—reminiscent of genomicists George Church and Craig Venter, with the “koala” look of Steven Pinker—believes in “Enhancement. Why shouldn’t we make ourselves better than we are now? We’re incomplete. Why leave something as fabulous as life up to chance?”
Kurton wants to map everyone’s genetic makeup, so that people can really take control of their own destinies. Knowing your alleles—your particular genetic variants—will set you free:
Suppose you want to have a baby, but you’re at high risk for conveying cystic fibrosis. You go to the clinic, where the doctors, by screening your eggs, guarantee that your child will be born free of a hideous and fatal disease.
As Kurton says, “Not too many prospective parents will have a problem with that.” By being aware of our genetic inheritance, we can take appropriate countermeasures to the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. We can control our story. Kurton even invokes the uses of fiction:
For most of human history, when existence was too short and bleak to mean anything, we needed stories to compensate. But now that we’re on the verge of living the long, pain-reduced, and satisfying life that our brains deserve, it’s time for art to lead us beyond noble stoicism.
Kurton makes this point in a debate with a Nobel laureate in literature. But to this novelist, somewhat reminiscent of Elie Wiesel,
genetic enhancement represents the end of human nature. Take control of fate, and you destroy everything that joins us to each other and dignifies life. A story with no end or impediment is no story at all. Replace limits with unbounded appetite, and everything meaningful turns into nightmare.
In support of this argument, the novelist might have cited the failure of hypertext fiction: most people don’t really want to choose their own adventure. They want to be guided through a novel by the controlling hand of the kindly author. In Generosity, however, that kindly “author” is deeply troubled and only partly in control.
Not so the buoyantly self-confident Thomas Kurton, who has taken full command of every aspect of his life. He’s never doubted that happiness is chemical and he’s even aiming to live forever: “We’ll see how far I get. I’m on calorie restriction, daily workout, and a few supplements, especially megadoses of resveratrol. If I can keep myself healthy for another twenty years, at our present rate of discovery…” He is, in short, the “Sarastro of the cult of antioxidants.” But he also has an up-to-date backup plan:
Close-up of his right wrist: a red medical-alert bracelet instructs the finders of his dead body to act quickly, administer calcium blockers and blood thinner, pack his corpse in ice water, balance its pH, and call the 800 number of a firm that will helicopter in paramedics to begin cryonic suspension [i.e., freezing the body so it can be resuscitated in the future when a cure for the disease that caused death has been found].
At this point—as the “author” in Generosity might say—it’s time for a digression. In 2008 Richard Powers became the ninth person in history to have his entire genetic makeup sequenced. In an article published in GQ magazine he relates his qualms and fears, describes his meetings with George Church, “the Edison of genomic sequencing,” and raises many of the same questions he will address, if not answer, in Generosity. Indeed, he puts some of his own thoughts from this article into the mouths of Kurton’s critics, for example, “If we really want to extend the average human life span, then let’s supply clean drinking water to the majority of the planet that doesn’t have it.”
Here, too, one finds shadowed the very plot of Generosity:
I ask if genomicists will ever be able to look at a person’s alleles and deduce something about his or her temperament. I have in mind the novelist’s territory, those mysterious components—warmth, spontaneity, humor—that, however uncomfortable it makes us to admit, seem to be somewhat to largely heritable. Will a genetic signature ever help us understand the origin of high-level behavioral traits?
And of all those various “high-level behavioral traits,” is there any more desirable than a perennial sense of well-being, of a Wordsworthian joy in simply existing? To be happy—isn’t that what we all want?
Early in the semester, Russell Stone gives out a writing assignment: “Convince someone that they wouldn’t want to grow up in your hometown.” It turns out that Thassadit’s parents are dead, her beloved brother is in prison, and her country is being ripped apart by rival factions: “The Islamic Salvation Front, the Islamic Salvation Army, the Armed Islamic Group, the Islamic Armed Movement, the National Democratic Rally, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat…” Back home, it’s “devout versus secular, traditionalist versus Western, Arab versus Kabyle.”
Thassa—as she is called for short—has been through the mill, and yet she exudes a charismatic gladness, of which she’s largely unaware. Just her presence makes people feel happier. This college girl eagerly talks to strangers on the street, and wherever she goes, people confide in her. Thassa somehow shines in a dull, gray world and the world is drawn to her. Stone quickly recognizes that there is “something contagious about the Algerian.” Her delight is “irresistible: like being seven, and ten hours away from turning eight.”
At first merely intrigued, Stone slowly grows fascinated with, then consumed by, Thassa’s constant bubbliness. Is hers some kind of manic personality? Could she be a danger to herself or others? The teacher decides to consult with a school psychologist and chooses Candace Weld because she appears—at first—the image of his ex-girlfriend. Weld is divorced, six years older than Stone, and committed to her career and to her ten-year-old computer-gamer son Gabe. She’s a serious woman. Nonetheless, her business card bears a quote—from The Tempest—that reads: “You have cause—so have we all—of joy.”
Throughout these early parts of Generosity, the unnamed “author” has been periodically interrupting the action to comment on the story’s development. At first he had that trouble in “seeing” his characters, but more and more he’s been worrying about the relentless logic of narrative, of where the plot might be taking everybody. Our “author” confesses that he would really like to keep his people safe from harm. But plots seem as inexorable as genetic inheritance. We are all caught up in narratives of one sort or another. Stone’s composition textbook—Frederick Harmon’s Making Your Writing Come Alive—actually lists many of the more common ones. So shortly after the introduction of Candace Weld, both Russell Stone and the reader can foresee the future:
He knows this story. You know this story. Thassa will be taken away from him. Other interests will lay claim. His charge will become public property. He might have kept quiet and learned from her, captured her in his journal, shared a few words at the end of his allotted four months, then returned to real life, slightly changed. A vaguely midlist literary story. But he’s doomed himself by calling in the expert. It’s his own fault, for thinking that Thassa’s joy must mean something, for imagining that such a plot has to go somewhere, that something has to happen.
The “author” then neatly adds: “I know exactly how he feels.”
Of course, such authorial intrusions are common in reflexive, postmodern fiction (and in much older fiction too: Victorian novelists frequently interrupted the action to criticize or comment on their own dramatis personae). That wonderful and neglected novelist Gilbert Sorrentino specialized in mocking his own characters even as he described their shenanigans, while Italo Calvino made both author and reader the key characters of the playful If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler.
Like Sorrentino and Calvino, Powers pushes hard against limits: How much can I interrupt the waking dream of a narrative and not lose the reader’s commitment to the story? This tension has often marked Powers’s fiction. He once said:
The more you can treat—providing you can continue to synthesize it into something that’s both intellectually and emotionally engaging—the better. Right now a lot of fiction restricts itself totally to dramatic revelation, raising a lot of proscriptions about the way that fiction can and can’t function. The direct introduction of discursive material has been considered anathema for a long time. I’ve been trying in different ways to violate that prohibition from my first book on. True, you can get more emotive power over your reader by dramatic revelation than by discursive narrative. But you can get more connection with discursive narrative. The real secret is to triangulate between these two modes, getting to places that neither technique could reach in isolation.
In Generosity Powers trims back the discursive material, but then superenhances the narrative with much authorial commentary. Not only do we move forward through the story, we also move in and out of it. The teller emerges as an essential character in the tale. Narrative and commentary easily merge:
Time passes, as the novelist says. The single most useful trick of fiction for our repair and refreshment: the defeat of time. A century of family saga and a ride up an escalator can take the same number of pages. Fiction sets any conversion rate, then changes it in a syllable. The narrator’s mother carries her child up the stairs and the reader follows, for days. But World War I passes in a paragraph. I needed 125 pages to get from Labor Day to Christmas vacation. In six more words, here’s spring.
Given the novel’s inherent openness, Powers feels free to present a long list of words cognate with the Latin gens, including “genes” and “generosity.” He briefly but repeatedly speculates about the nature of fiction. Early on, he jump-cuts two years into a future that the book will only catch up with at its end. Our “author” even mentions the things he hasn’t mentioned about his characters:
I need to slow down, to describe Stone’s terror of driving, his belief that he might be slated one day to hit a child. I have to mention Weld’s aversion to security cameras, her thrice-weekly yoga class, or how she must feed mealworms to her son’s horned toad when the boy forgets the living world. I need someone to transcribe for me the two lines of e-mail printout from Thassa’s brother that she keeps rolled up in the hem of her shawl. But the three of them pull me along in their own rush to arrive, before all the world’s books get rewritten.
Of course, the logic of both fiction and nonfiction demands that the sad sack teacher and the lonely divorced psychologist—each reenergized by Thassa’s charisma—will eventually fall in love. And, slowly, they do: “They stand there awkwardly, two more victims of natural selection, caught between negativity bias and the eternal belief that the future will be slightly better than the present.”
But even as love blossoms, Thassa’s inherent glow of goodness and joy catches the attention of Thomas Kurton and Tonia Schiff, of The Oona Show and the Internet—and everything begins to change. As our “author” writes:
I see them clearly now. Thassadit Amzwar and her two self-appointed foster guardians, on the verge of that Chicago winter. I assemble the missing bits from out of the reticent archive. I’d dearly love to keep all three tucked away safely in exposition. But they’ve broken out now, despite me, into rising action.
Here, as the action begins to intensify, we should again pause and consider some of the pleasures of “our story so far.” Powers has established several kinds of polarities: teacher and student, therapist and patient, scientist and interviewer, lover and beloved, author and character, freedom and necessity. Once Kurton persuades Thassa to allow him to analyze her genetic makeup—so that he can pinpoint which alleles generate a happy temperament—further oppositions emerge: privacy and publicity, science and business, knowledge and profit. All these will be debated, sometimes literally in the give and take of an “Over the Limit” documentary, on Oona, and between the characters. For any good novel of ideas, it’s the quality of the discussions, not the answers, that matters most. Yet Tonia Schiff never gets to ask the key question about happiness: “Why is the ‘optimal’ configuration so damn rare? What doesn’t natural selection like about it? Why should perfect bliss be hundreds of times less common than cystic fibrosis?”
Lest any of this start to resemble a magazine article in Science, Powers keeps his prose alive with bons mots, jokes, and memorable sentences: ” Reality has become programming’s wholly owned subsidiary.” Ten-year-old Gabe reads Danny Dunn and the International CloneCartel. We’re told of a T-shirt inscribed: “Dada: It’s not just for umbrellas anymore.” Joy, we are reminded, “does little to increase one’s judgment. Happiness is not the condition you want to be in when you need to be at your most competent.” At one point, Thassa “looks like a girl whose parents told her to stay put and wait for them, just before they were rounded up by the authorities.” Tonia Schiff, as attractive as she is really smart, has had “a few intense adventures with amusingly driven men,” but nearly all of them needed “far more approval than she can deliver without irony.”
While Powers makes us care about all his major characters—by the end of the book, each will be out of a job—the “author” grows increasingly fuzzy about his own role:
I’m caught like Buridan’s ass, starving to death between allegory and realism, fact and fable, creative and nonfiction. I see now exactly who these people are and where they came from. But I can’t quite make out what I’m to do with them.
He confesses that he would really like to write the kind of story that “from one word to the next, breaks free. The kind that invents itself out of meaningless detail and thin air. The kind in which there’s no choice like chance.”
That last sentence sounds more portentous than clear. Certainly Powers’s own fiction wasn’t written by throwing the I Ching or turning up Tarot cards at random, as were—supposedly—Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle and Calvino’s The Castle of Crossed Destinies. But then the reflections on the nature of fiction thicken considerably near the end, and grow increasingly speculative and tentative. How seriously should we take the comments of the “author”? And should we take at all seriously, or only satirically, genomicist Kurton’s view that most novels are “willfully naïve. Too many soul-searchers wandering head-down through too many self-created crises, while all about them, the race is changing the universe”?
The novel for Kurton is nothing but “a scattershot mood-regulating concoction”? This seems true of only the most commercial publishing products. By contrast, in a 1998 interview, Powers described the novel as “a supreme connection machine—the most complex artifact of networking that we’ve ever developed.” When written by Dostoevsky, Dickens, or Richard Powers at his best, one may feel that it can contain every facet of the world, not only the personal but also the social, political, and scientific.
In the end, Generosity simply concludes with a magician’s flourish—and with the mysteries of happiness and artistic creation and genetic inheritance still lingering in our minds, all of them quite unresolved. As the sunlight disappears behind the Atlas Mountains, we are left with only a faint smile by the author and the memory of Thassa’s insistence that “fate has no power over anything crucial.” Perhaps she’s right.
January 14, 2010