Richard Powers is that rare fiction writer more concerned with the mysteries of science than with the mysteries of character. His novels, including The Gold Bug Variations (1991) and The Echo Maker (2006), are well-received, idea-driven stories about theoretical physics, the ethics of photography, and virtual reality. Critics love him for his ability to bridge the gap between science and literature without condescending to either; readers love him for his interweaving plots and his interest in contemporary issues like artificial intelligence and bioresearch.
Powers’s new novel, Generosity: An Enhancement, hews closely to this proven formula. Although less sprawling than most of his previous work, Generosity shows Powers again straddling the worlds of popular fiction and popular science and technology, this time constructing his plot around the positive psychology movement, the search for the genetic source of happiness, and celebrity in the age of blogs and YouTube. Generosity tells the tale of Thassadit Amzwar, a refugee from the Algerian civil war who, despite her nightmarish childhood and present dislocation, is remarkably, effervescently happy. Russell Stone, an adjunct professor at a small college in Chicago, meets Thassa in his creative nonfiction class and is struck by her infectious exuberance. When she listens to other students telling the most banal tales, she is “like a child fresh from months in the sickbay, at a tennis match under a spotless sun”; when she walks ordinary city streets she wears a “flushed look announcing that the most remarkable thing has happened to her.” In short, as Russell thinks, she is “the world’s most blissful refugee.”
Russell fears that Thassa is too happy, that her cheerful demeanor may be a sign of mental derangement or, at best, an invitation for others to take advantage of her. After doing his own research into potential neurological explanations, Russell asks Candace Weld, a college psychologist, for advice. Russell and Candace soon begin dating, with their interest in Thassa the force that draws them together.
After an improbable scene in which Thassa talks another student out of sexually assaulting her, the cheerful girl garners attention from the media and, eventually, from a researcher studying the genetic basis of happiness. He convinces Thassa to be the face of his new study on the inheritability of happiness. Thassa becomes a celebrity, appearing on The Oona Show (a fictionalized version of Oprah) as the poster child for what a genetically enhanced future might look like. The plot grows more outlandish, and the pressure intensifies for Thassa. Wanting to escape the media crush, she tries to flee the country, with Russell as her accomplice.
Like many of Powers’s novels, Generosity interweaves several plot lines: the science plot and the romance plot are joined by a journalism plot in which a television reporter explores the prospect of designer children. In past novels, this contrapuntal plotting has been the formal counterpart to Powers’s interest in parallel structures—the double helix in The Gold Bug Variations, the overlapping of different times enabled by general relativity in The Time of Our Singing. Generosity lacks such a formal justification, and one gets the sense that Powers has written these plots in counterpoint merely because he’s in the habit of doing so.
Powers can also be a clunky stylist. He has a tendency to overwrite when describing phenomena that are dear to him, like the human genome or classical music. In Generosity, it is Thassa who is awash in purplish prose. “Her voice,” Powers writes, “is one of those mountain flutes, somehow able to weave a second melody around the one it plays.” Russell pictures Thassa as “some mythic creature” flying past his window, “teal and ruby against the concrete neighboring high-rise, a species blown a continent off course.” The figurative language Powers uses is frequently lazy and imprecise, as when he describes Thassa’s reaction to a question: “Her face is like someone texting a lover.” (Wouldn’t it be like the face of someone texting a lover?) These stylistic flaws are rooted in Powers’s earnest desire to show how fascinating and beautiful the world can be. He often seems to be trying too hard to yoke together disparate realms-too desperately set on showing how, for instance, poetry and modern technology are mutually reinforcing. At one point, after a joke goes over Russell’s head, another character retorts, “It’s called irony. Supposed to be our generation’s native idiom.” Powers likewise seems uncomfortable with his generation’s native idiom. He is not a cold ironist by nature; he is a celebrator, an enthusiast. Like Thassa, Powers is generous—he wants us to see the world with as much passion as he does. Although this generosity sometimes leads to overheated, woolly language, it is also the best thing Powers has going. Powers is a writer of moral seriousness.
In Generosity, he directly addresses not just topical issues—how has the Internet altered the divide between public and private?—but also timeless philosophical ones: What does it mean to be happy? Is there such a thing as too much resilience? Are our personalities determined? But he occasionally seems embarrassed to be engaging such questions head-on. Generosity calls attention to its own artifice, playfully announcing that it is a novel and not a work of nonfiction. The story is narrated by an unidentified observer who declares, “I stay away from books with inexplicable coincidences, prophetic events, or eerie parallels. But they seem to find me anyway.” Later the narrator says, “I’m caught like Buridan’s ass, starving to death between allegory and realism, fact and fable, creative and nonfiction.”
There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with novelistic self-consciousness. Writers from Chaucer to Philip Roth constantly remind us that their works are in fact works, forcing us to think about what counts as truth and what the goals of fiction should be. But in Generosity, these reminders seem merely a halfhearted defense against the charge of being naive or unsophisticated. The revelation of the narrator’s identity at the novel’s end isn’t much of a surprise, and it doesn’t justify the dispersion of the novel’s moral force through his self-referential digressions along the way. Powers is capable of treating serious ideas without apology. I hope that in his next novel he unabashedly returns to his earnest, generous mode.