Richard Powers is a great and vexing writer. His most recent novel, Generosity: An Enhancement, recently out in paperback, is mostly vexing. It’s also highly intelligent and intriguing in short stretches, but as a story it spends most of its narrative in a stall of science and speculation, inaction and frustration.
It is, one might say, ungenerous to the reader.
Generosity follows a familiar Powers formula. Intelligent characters find themselves confronted with an idea that is changing the world. The characters fall in love, and they think about the idea, and they struggle with the idea’s large implications. In Generosity, the idea at hand involves the genetics of human happiness or perfection. In short, can we understand the genome well enough to engineer our own inner paradise?
When this formula works well for Powers, his novels are uncommonly brilliant and provocative. For me Galatea 2.2 (from 1995, about artificial intelligence) and Operation Wandering Soul (from 1993, about a doctor in a desperate pediatrics ward) were moving and magical and his debut, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance (1985) was a dazzling meditation on photography as infinitely replicable art.
However, Powers can also exhibit the worst traits of the so-called post-modernists: tedium born of fascination with ideas over characters and the creation of flat, lifeless characters who carry forth the ideas but neither move us nor do all that much, plotwise. Plowing the Dark (2000), which dealt with virtual reality and a hostage situation in the Middle East, seemed like it would never end for these reasons.
The irony here is that Powers, for all his concept-over-story ways, has never seemed all that much like a typical post-modernist. While he relishes his mastery of science and history in the course of narrative like Thomas Pynchon, his books never have the mad sense of design and maximalist zaniness that Pynchon has made into a po-mo signature. Powers’ books—whether they succeed or fail—seem typically bleached of a sense of “play” or expansion. They focus inward, and while they may breach realism pretty often, you’re not often tempted to call this “play”.
Generosity is extremely unplayful. For great stretches, in fact, it’s just a dud.
The story is this. A once-promising but recently washed-up essayist and writer is reduced to teaching a crummy “creative nonfiction” class as a last-minute fill-in at a Chicago college. In his class, Russell Stone meets an Algerian refugee who seems unnaturally ebullient all the time. Stone consults a school psychologist about this odd “condition”, and the two befriend Thassa as she slowly (very slowly, I should note) becomes the object of media and scientific interest because of her oddly positive mood. An opportunistic TV science journalist and a bullshit-spouting geneticist put Thassa on the tube and into the lab for their own profit, resulting in a media circus that, torn-from-the-headlines-style, ruins Thassa’s good mood and, apparently, her life.
The characters and their actions are equally flat for the first 80 percent of the story. Stone is just that, a weight that the book has to carry around, and the psychologist Candace can only make Stone and herself matter to the reader when they get together romantically. It takes them for-ever, including a long telephone flirtation that seems pretty high school to me. Thassa is, by definition, a one note character for most of the book. Further, the sections detailing the work of Tonia Schiff’s TV show and Thomas Kurton’s science lab are momentum snuffers.
What the book, of course, is moving towards, is the fact that Thassa is not genetically immune to unhappiness, and that her various hangers-on (including Stone and Candace) just want that to be the case. In the last 50 pages, Powers seem to awake to the need for some narrative movement, and suddenly there is sex and tension and a car journey and a manhunt and then a medical crisis. The lurch in the storytelling is abrupt: even Stone’s creative nonfiction students would have trouble workshopping this plot in a productive way.
The entire production is made even more nettlesome by a sort-of post-modern framing devise that is stillborn throughout. A first-person narrator very occasionally jumps in tell us that he is The Writer Of This Book, and that he is Looking At His Characters From Afar and Trying To Understand Them. This author/narrator is spotty and tedious, intruding in ways that suggest that Powers knows that he’s written a frustrating book.
At one point, for example, the narrator says about Kurton, “The geneticist, too, has had a rough night. I’ve said so little about him that you may not care.” Yes, you want to say, you are exactly right that this character is flat and I don’t care about him. Cleverly pointing this out all of sudden does nothing to cure the lack of caring.
Ultimately, this intrusive author tactic seems to be in the book only to set up a final-page-or-so set piece in which Powers erases the “fiction” of his fiction, only to have his narrator/author sit down with Thassa, his own creation. If you are moved by this, then I do not understand you. It is a party trick, pulled out at the end of a failed work of art.
There are significant parts of Generosity that are cringey-bad. For example, the long episode in which Thassa appears of The Oona Show is a mega-mistake. Oona, an internationally famous Chicago-based, daytime talk-show host who can influence the culture and sell any book is not exactly an original creation. Why would Stone bother to “invent” an exact analogue to Oprah Winfrey? Did the Oprah Legal Team make Farrar, Straus and Giroux change the name? Or did Powers think that he was “playing” but creating a pseudo-Oprah in his flat fictional world?
The most engaging character in Generosity, by a significant long-shot, is the psychologist’s son, Gabe, who at least has some real fun, playing video games and wandering around in a simulated world on-line when he isn’t sassing his mom’s new boyfriend. In a more playful post-modern novel, Gabe would matter more, or he’d have a crazier name, or we’d get an authorial disquisition on the history of video games or on the scientific research about the ability of an XBox 360 to trigger certain brain chemicals in interesting ways.
Powers can tell us, at one point, that a character wakes up from a Pynchon-like dream, but he’s not willing to give us the mad fun of such a dream. Instead, he gives us an oddly empty and joyless kind of post-modernism, a novel about science and ideas that—and I can’t believe I’m writing this—makes Michael Crichton seem like a master of characterization and dialogue. The story ain’t fun like Jurassic Park and the writing ain’t alive and electric like Pynchon. In the end, it’s not even clear that the ideas themselves have been particularly provocative or interesting.
Generosity: An Enhancement, instead, is a shaggy-dog story that flirts with different styles and genres but commits to none and brings the reader too little of everything. The question of whether science will soon be capable of knowing our destiny of mood, or even changing it, ought to be riveting, and every once in a while the books gets this thought going in your head. Alas, it’s not a good novel, generally.
I’m a Richard Powers fan, and I found myself begging my eyes to work their way across these pages. A book about unnatural emotional positivity will, alas, sap you of yours. As your doctor and literary geneticist, I prescribe a different book.
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