GENEROSITY: AN ENHANCEMENT by Richard Powers

Book Quote:

“He concedes that genetic enhancement does force major reconsiderations, starting with the boundaries between justice and fate, the natural and the inevitable. But so did the capture of fire and the invention of agriculture.”

Book Review:

Review by Poornima Apte (OCT 18, 2009)

There are many reasons why Thassadit Amzwar should not be the way she is—always happy. For one thing, she has lost most of her family in the ongoing Algerian civil war. Her father is killed and her mother dies soon after from pancreatic cancer. She has left her home behind and is now a refugee studying in a mediocre college, Mesquakie, in Chicago.

It is here that she runs into Russell Stone—who is teaching the creative writing course she is enrolled in. Stone is a disillusioned writer who works at a day job editing content for a self-help magazine. Along with his students—who are various shades of young adults—Stone is really struck by Thassa’s boundless enthusiasm for life. She is labeled “Miss Generosity” –for the eternal sunshine she visits on those around her and for her generosity of spirit.

Stone begins to wonder about Thassa—how can one who has been through unspeakable horrors be so cheerful? Does Thassa have a psychological problem that she needs to be protected from? To get at the answers, he meets a school counselor, Candace Weld, who, incidentally, is a spitting image of his ex-girlfriend. Candace sympathizes, even applying a label to Thassa’s condition: hyperthymia, a rare condition that programs a person for unusual levels of elation.

Parallel narratives track the career of a famous geneticist Thomas Kurton—a scientist who is well versed not just in science but also in the marketing of it. Helping him achieve his high-profile career is Tonia Schiff, a host of a nationally televised science program, a “thinking man’s babe.” Schiff often gives the scientist Thomas Kurton a forum to bring his research to the public.

Meanwhile back at the college, one day Thassa is raped by one of her fellow students—the news item that follows would have easily disappeared from the public radar screen if it were not for the fact that Stone mentions one word when he is interviewed for the story: hyperthymia.

This word catches Kurton’s attention. Up until now, Kurton’s research is almost there—trying to prove the genetic basis for happiness and other kinds of moods. To him, Thassa seems like a godsend and soon enough she becomes the subject of his research and Thasssa rapidly gets on to the national stage as the “happiness” person. She even appears on the Powers’ equivalent of Oprah after which she has surely and firmly jumped into the public fishbowl.

An endless media frenzy ensues and Powers details the rapidly spirally downturn Thassa’s life takes. “Blogs, mashups, reality programming, court TV, chat shows, chat rooms, chat cafes, capital campaigns, catalog copy, even warzone journalism all turn confessional,” Powers writes of the contemporary sound bite culture we live in. “Feelings are the new facts. Memoir is the new history. Tell-alls are the new news.” The huge hype Thassa’s story brings about is cataloged well by Powers although sometimes you begin to wish he would have stopped while he was two steps ahead. It is at this point that the story teeters on the verge of being a tad formulaic. Incidentally, I thought it ironic that I finished the book on the same day that the “balloon boy” made all the headline news. The parallels between that incident and the media’s obsession with Thassa seemed all too apparent.

Generosity is also a beautiful exploration of the craft of writing—in fact there is a separate train of thought throughout the novel where a narrator explains what elements of fiction are being executed at what stage. This kind of technique brings with it its own risks—one of them being that the novel might seem too gimmicky and worse, overly scripted—but fortunately that doesn’t end up being the case. In one brilliant paragraph, Powers likens the six thousand years of writing to a 600-page novel. “The last chapter is filled with deus ex machinas, and on the very final page, the very last paragraph, the characters throw off the limits of the Story So Far and complete their revolt,” he writes. Which, in the novel, they actually do—sort of.

Arguably Powers’ strongest talents lie in presenting cutting-edge scientific facts in the form of literary fiction. The brain and its workings seem to be his particular favorites. In the spectacular, award-winning The Echo Maker, Powers’ protagonist was a young man suffering from Capgras Syndrome (a form of delusion in which you believe a close relative is actually an imposter) in the wake of a near-fatal accident.

In Generosity too, Powers mines the riches of scientific advances in genetics. As Thassa’s fate careens out of control, Powers effectively shows us how quickly scientific facts—or any other for that matter—can be distorted to reflect one’s own beliefs.

A few days ago, on NPR, a reputed scientist said that the biggest problem facing science these days (especially in the United States) is the rise in the number of people who don’t believe in it. “We need effective communicators, people who can bring science to the public,” he said. People, I suppose, like Thomas Kurton, Tonia Schiff or even Richard Powers.

What’s especially commendable is that above all, Powers consistently delivers powerful, readable stories. The fact that he is also the only writer I’ve read who has successfully used the word “amygdala” in his writing—that, I’ll admit, is the sort of stuff that gets me all weak in the knees.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 37 readers
PUBLISHER: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (September 29, 2009)
REVIEWER: Poornima Apte
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? YES! Start Reading Now!
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Richard Powers
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and audio excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of

Bibliography:


October 18, 2009 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , , , , ,  · Posted in: 2009 Favorites, Contemporary, Literary, US Midwest, y Award Winning Author

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