Previously, I’ve reviewed Powers’ novels Galatea 2.2 and Three Farmers On Their Way to a Day. In those reviews, I made some observations general to Powers himself as a writer, and not simply to the individual books themselves. Notably, Powers tends to write rather two-dimensional characters doing two-dimensional things—mere cogs in his much larger and more elaborate narrative machinery. Second, Powers has never written (to my knowledge) a book where the nature of the narrator is clear; rather, it’s some unknown conglomeration of real Powers, fake Powers, and wholecloth invention. Finally, so much of Powers’ writing tends to focus on the conflict between technological progress, reflecting humanity’s ability to improve despite itself, and emotional or artistic progress, reflecting humanity’s ability to succeed despite itself.
Generosity is his latest of 9 such novels, and not much has changed.
That shouldn’t come off like an insult, even if it sounds like it. Part of Powers’ brilliance, I think, is his ability to write novels that aren’t really about characters at all—a topic which he approaches, however obliquely, in this very book. It begins with an anti-hero, Russell Stone, who is a washed-up writer with neuroses teaching a writing course at a Chicago community college. Though he’s not a great teacher, the class ends up revolving around the magnetic personality of one Thassadit Amzwar, an Algerian refugee who by all rights should be an emotional wreck, but who instead pulsates with a constant exuberance for life that infects those around her. Eventually, Thassa’s condition (which she does not see as a condition) comes to the attention of Thomas Kurton, a scientist working to find (and patent!) the gene for happiness, and eventually the national media. In the meantime, Stone cultivates a romantic relationship with Candance Weld, one of the community college’s resident psychiatrist/counselors.
Gape at the Dramatis Personae: the Stone, the chickenshit “protagonist” who will stay chickenshit through; Thassa, the relentlessly happy young woman whose patience will be tested by the media circus; Weld, the damaged single mother ironically playing the role of a helpless therapist; Thomas Kurton, the caricatured reductive scientist intent upon describing even the most basic of human conditions as patterns of amino acids. Add to that Tonia Schiff, the career newswoman suddenly balking at her shallow career, and you’ve got a list of characters plucked straight from their molds. As I said, you can’t read Powers looking for a good character drama.
Three Farmers On Their Way to a Day dealt with war; Galatea 2.2 dealt with technology; Generosity deals with bio-ethics, and it does it with the sort of poetry and complexity we’ve all come to expect from a Richard Powers novel. In both of the former novels, Powers constructed parallel threads occurring at two points in history, meant to inform one another and tease similarities between two superficially disparate but fundamentally similar scenarios. In this new novel, the parallels are more post-modern than that. A running theme which stems from Russell’s Stone’s history as a writer is the difference between “creative nonfiction” and fiction; more simply, the difference between life as we observe it and live as we like to portray it. At one point, Thassa reveals that her short story of an old woman climbing a set of stairs was fabricated in the sense that it didn’t happen as it was written, but was rather an idealized combination of multiple experiences, and this greatly upsets Stone, a consummate lover of nonfiction. It is easy—remedial, even—for the reader to draw parallels between the writer’s division between depicting the world as it is and depicting it as it should be and the bioethicist’s division between declaring that nature is right (even if it include birth defects and depression and generalized sadness) and what science gives us the potential to enact.
In fact, the question of this narrator’s identity is more maddening than in any other book of Powers’ that I’ve read: even after finishing, I cannot decide whom it is supposed to represent, and what the curveball of the last couple of pages is supposed to indicate. Perhaps the author left it ambiguous; or perhaps I’m simply two indecisive about the whole thing, and the narrator of Generosity is no different than previous narrators—that is, a modified version of the author himself—and Powers is simply showing off his literary legerdemain: “See, this is me, writing a novel about writing a novel”1, and the line between what is invention and what is description is just blurred enough that you’re never sure which is which.
In researching the novel, I came across Peter Kramer’s review for Slate, in which the review seems to think that Powers, rather than attempting to highlight the conflict between two opposing modes, is merely acting as a cheerleader for the fiction-slash-genetic-modification angle, and “never elaborates the counterargument”. I happen to think this is a totally bogus notion, which is not only borne out by the text, but foretold by his similar approach to every other novel he’s ever written. To me, Powers ranks in the upper echelon with Kurt Vonnegut as one of the most important writers warning about the potential conflict between our technology and our humanity. Generosity, in its own way, continues that tradition in another upcoming field (read: bioethics), and with the same narrative and poetic skill that we’ve all come to expect from Powers.