No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Monday, April 18, 2011

2011/17: Generosity -- Richard Powers

Generosity -- Richard Powers
"We cured smallpox. We eradicated polio. We can hunt down and wipe out misery. There's no reason why every one of us can't be equals to our ideal ... I don't believe in God, but I do believe that it's humanity's job to bring God about." (p.190)
  1. Russell Stone teaches a 'creative nonfiction' class: one of his students is Thassa-dit Amzwar, a young Berber Algerian woman who Stone nicknames 'Miss Generosity' for her emotional resilience and enviable joie de vivre. She's survived more horror and hardship than the rest of the class put together, yet she remains cheerful. Thassa's happiness -- diagnosed by Stone as 'hyperthymia', a preternaturally joyful temperament -- influences all those who know her. Stone becomes close to Candace Weld, a clinical psychologist at the college who's as bemused by Thassa's brain as everyone else.
  2. If Stone and Weld are the 'arts' side of the equation, Nobel prizewinning geneticist Thomas Kurton and cable broadcast star Tonia Schiff -- who's putting together a programme on genomics -- represent 'science'. Kurton is fascinated by Thassa's condition, and believes that there's a genetic basis for her happiness: he hopes to make it possible (and commercially viable) for others to share in her gift.
  3. Richard Powers' writing is dense with epigrams, encapsulations, turns of phrase that make us look twice at the familiar. This book isn't a quick read: it deserves patience and reflection.
  4. Generosity is science fiction in that it's fiction about science: the core of the novel is the nature-versus-nurture debate, and the science of happiness and depression. There's a great deal of discussion about the evolutionary basis of depression:
    If you're scouting and find food, that's dandy. But if a pride of lions discovers your hideyhole while you're sleeping: Game Over. The bad can hurt you much more than the good can help. So nature selects for pessimists. (p.93)
    . Powers doesn't simply tell, he shows: Stone is reeling, eight years later, from the end of an affair; Candace is divorced; Candace's son Gabe finds meaning and fulfilment in online games; Stone's students are discontent but hopeful. Thassa's happiness is thrown into sharper contrast by the mundane miseries of every other character's situation. About a third of the way through the book I was inclining towards the view that she was a conduit as much as anything -- a way of reconnecting the lost and broken with a larger reality, letting them be courted by life.
  5. The novel's also about the act of creation: Stone's 'creative nonfiction' (which has caused him pain at the intersection of fact and interpretation), and his students' attempts to inject their journalled lives with meaning and feeling. There's also a mysterious narrator, a first-person voice who seems clumsy and uncertain of his craft and the direction of his story. This narrator's bias colours a lot of the novel, sometimes in ways that aren't transparent.
  6. Because it's a novel about creativity (both scientific and artistic) it explores differing interpretations and the quest for meaning. Uncertainty creeps in: did it really happen that way? Is this character's viewpoint trustworthy? Is the narrator reliable?
  7. If the mystery narrator is a placeholder for Powers, or for the reader's narrative bias, then so's the prize-winning novelist who's troubled by the implications of Thassa's psychology:
    ... genetic enhancement represents the end of human nature. Take control of fate, and you destroy everything that joins us to one another and dignifies life. A story with no end or impediment is no story at all. (p.139)
    . The limits of Thassa's happiness are revealed, though perhaps they surprise the characters more than the reader. If I've read correctly, the factors affecting that limitation might explain why Thassa's condition, call it 'hyperthymia' or generosity or joy, is so rare.
  8. I loved the book, but found the ending unsatisfactory. It does make sense, but it feels like defeat. Worse, it feels bolted on.
  9. Here's a curious thing: many of the characters are fascinating, but none -- with the possible exception of Thassa -- are truly likeable. Is that because Powers is merciless in his revelation of their flaws? Or is it because they're placeholders for points of view, actions, dramatic progression? I veer towards the former explanation.
  10. Generosity passes the Bechdel test (named female characters talking to one another about something other than a man). I wonder how differently it would read if Thassa-dit Amzwar wasn't foreign, exotic, non-white.

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