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A- : creative, but falls a bit short with the risks it takes
See our review for fuller assessment.
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The complete review's Review:
In a debate with a Nobel Prize-winning author one of the characters in Generosity, geneticist and entrepreneur Thomas Kurton, argues:
For most of human history, when existence was too short and bleak to mean anything, we needed stories to compensate. But now that we're on the verge of living the long, pain-reduced, and satisfying life that our brains deserve, it's time for art to lead us beyond noble stoicism.He's playing to the crowd here, suggesting a bridging of the infamously separated 'Two Cultures', but he doesn't really believe it. He is a scientist, and science has the solutions. Near the end of Generosity he takes up Camus' The Plague -- in a typical nice touch, Powers does not have him read it but rather listen to the audiobook -- and realize (again, one suspects): "The problem is with the craft of fiction." Story-making and -telling are no longer adequate:
Fiction seems at best willfully naïve. Too many soul-searchers wandering head-down through too many self-created crises, while all about them the race is changing the universe.One of the other protagonists, around whom most of the action revolves, would-be non-fiction writer, teacher, and editor Russell Stone, sums it up more succinctly: "fiction is obsolete. Engineering has lapped it."
Generosity puts these notions to some tests, as Powers pits scientific advancement versus the possibilities of fiction. Generosity itself is the example of the possibilities of fiction, and Powers shows impressive range and creativity in presenting his story -- even as so much of it remains oddly (and, ultimately, excessively) conventional.
Russell Stone enjoyed shooting-star success as a writer with some creative non-fiction ("back then people still called them personal essays") when he was very young, but he burnt out fast. Now thirty-two ("although he seems much older"), he putters along doing editing work and, at the beginning of the novel, has just landed a gig teaching a class in creative non-fiction writing (class title: Journal and Journey) at Chicago's not-too-illustrious-sounding Mesquakie College of Art.
Stone is a problematic protagonist, an irritating schlemihl with a sort of writer's block. He couldn't build on his early success -- in large part, presumably, because he couldn't take the reactions he got to his work from the people who saw themselves or those they knew described in it. But already in the three pieces that are his only claim to fame:
The secret of these pieces lay in the hapless narrator: bewildered victim of the world's wackiness.Stone remains a bewildered victim -- he just can't write about it any more. So, of course, in best proverbial fashion, as one who can't do he teaches.
Stone's early personal essays and now his 'Journal and Journey'-class in navel-gazing are, of course, a peculiar (but popular) sliver of what writing is -- and that uneasiest mix of 'creative' writing and fact. Far more interesting than Stone and his students' exercises is another authorial figure in Generosity, a first-person narrator that occasionally intrudes (largely at the beginning and end of the novel; the voice disappears for much of the rest of the book). It is this first person voice that begins the narrative, a shadowy figure that, despite a sense of omniscience, has difficulty bringing some of the scenes and characters into tight focus:
I can't see him well, at first. But that's my fault, not his. I'm years away, in another country, and the El car is so full tonight that everyone's near invisible.The surreality of these descriptions, the writing process described in the act, contrasts nicely with the solidity of the rest of Powers' story. This authorial figure isn't prominent in the text, but pops up on occasion -- a reminder of the omnipresence of the author behind (and in) the narrative. And it's a reminder of the artifice of the story -- that Generosity is a story, it is invention -- that is a creative leap that makes of the narrative more than Stone's pathetic 'personal essay'-fumblings could ever be. [Ironically, of course, the authorial voice is presumably Stone, practicing his creative-nonfiction -- i.e. writing an account of what happened, several years after the fact. Yet, of course, the story as a whole remains -- to the reader -- a fiction.]
The central figure of Generosity is one of Stone's students, a young woman named Thassa Amzwar. Despite personal tragedy and first-hand experience of terrible things in her native Algeria she is radiantly bubbly, in a constant (and infectious) state of what amounts to something like euphoria, reveling in everything and only seeing the positive in all experience: "She's constitutionally incapable of being anything but all right." Her condition even has a name -- hyperthymia ("He hasn't made it up. It's biological. Researchers study it. It has a Greek name.").
Stone finds her unsettling and fascinating; looking for happiness himself (in self-help books ...) he's bewildered and concerned by this person who is happiness incarnate:
She sighs and looks skyward. Anyone who didn't know her might say she's exasperated. "You think I'm too happy, don't you ? The whole world thinks I'm too happy ! Isn't this America ? No such thing as too much ?"For the most part Powers manages this unbelievable character (and the effect she has on those she interacts with) well; only one plot-twist, in which a would-be rapist turns himself into the police, doesn't fully convince (but Powers needs it to keep the action moving).
Eventually, genome-mapper (and would-be exploiter) Thomas Kurton learns about Thassa, as the two dominant storylines come together. Generosity is also about scientific advancement and the possibilities of life-enhancement through science -- specifically, genetic screening and, eventually, alteration. Such science offers a different kind of fiction-generation: it's the ultimate personal essay:
We're trapped in a faulty design, stuck in a bad plot. We want to become something else. It's what we've wanted since the story started. And now we can have it.Genetic freak Thassa (yes, of course her predisposition to complete happiness is coded into her genome), is a model for what is likely soon possible -- that everyone can be bred for or mutated into such happiness. Yes:
You think computer programming has changed the world ? Wait till we start programming the genome.Powers is less concerned with the scientific plausibility of this particular hypothesis, treating it essentially as a given: scientific advancement is unstoppable and fast-moving, and one way or another such enhancements will be possible. Instead, Powers focuses on the powers and dynamics behind modern science (or at least the biological sciences) -- most notably how it has been transformed by and into big business, moving it ever further from the ideal of a free exchange of ideas (i.e. the democracy of science -- which ultimately also means: democracy as a whole). Among the points he makes is that:
But increasingly, the market is taking once-public facts private. Even colleagues in his own university department, funded by corporate grants, can no longer talk freely with one another.So also Thomas Kurton finds by the end that whatever he discovers and does, in the modern corporate context it is no longer all about: "scientific practice qua science". And he finds: "his own company is transcending him", as he is undone and ousted by the company bylaws he put into place. Yes, even to him the scene unfolds like in a bad novel: "the drama just seems so absurdly conventional, like one of those cheap paperback genres". But this is what it comes down to, for him and for Thassa:
All life long, Kurton has predicted the upgrade of human life by its evolutionary heirs. It remains the species' unique destiny to preside over the design of its own obsolescence.What's surprising in Generosity is how conventional so much of the narrative is, right down to the love-affair Powers allows his loser-protagonist Stone. Powers even builds up to a climactic scene involving Thassa and Kurton appearing on a ... Chicago talk show. Not just any talk show, either:
It's less a talk show than a sovereign multinational charter. And its host is, by any measure, the most influential woman in the world. Her own story is a remarkable mix of motifs from American creative fiction, from Alger to Zelany. Say only that she has grown from impoverished, abused child into an adult who gives away more money than most industrialized nations. She has the power to create instant celebrities, sell hundreds of millions of books, make or break entire consumer industries, expose fraud, marshal mammoth relief efforts, and change the spoken language.But then, of course, the nature and success of this talk show (and its host) is yet another 'story', a juggernaut-enhancement that's taken on a life of its own. As it happens, the host's name here is O'Donough -- though everything associated with her is: "known the world over simply as Oona" --; coyly Powers only mentions these details after he's introduced the show in a way that has led every reader to fill in the blank with the real-life counterpart -- yet another not-too-subtle reminder that what's on offer here is a work of fiction and that the author is still in charge and can make of this reality whatever he wants. ("Creative fiction" Powers pointedly writes here; there is no other kind, so the use of the word 'creative' only be seen as a (strong) reminder of fiction's true nature.)
Much of the story in Generosity is conventional and simple, but that's easily forgotten -- at least for stretches -- among the many characters and storylines. Many of the characters, too, are a bit flimsy, but even with the one-dimensional -- and what could be more one-dimensional than the ever-cheerful Thassa ? -- Powers manipulates them (and the reader) engagingly. Still, by the end convention bogs down much of the story, and it seems a shame he didn't risk more.
Where Powers does succeed is in his story-telling. This is a self-conscious work (and notable for how self-conscious (though often not self-aware) so many of the characters are), and the authorial voice shares its concerns in considering how to proceed:
I'm caught like Buridan's ass, starving to death between allegory and realism, fact and fable, creative and nonfiction. I see exactly how these people are and where they came from. But I can't quite make out what I'm to do with them.Author and scientist both play god, but ironically it is non-author Stone -- barely even an editor -- whose interference is life-changing and who is the deus ex machina in several of these lives (and who, of course, should have left well enough alone).
Stone's true failure is his inability to write fiction:
He knows why he could never in his life or anytime thereafter write fiction: he's crushed under the unbearable burden of a plot. He could never survive the responsibility of making something happen. Plot is preposterous: event following event in a chain of clean causes, rising action building to inevitable climax and resolving into meaning. Who could be suckered by that ? The classic tension graph is a vicious lie, the negation of a mature grasp of reality. Story is antilife, the brain protecting itself from its only possible finale.Therein, however, lies part of the explanation why Powers allows convention to dictate so much of the story: to show how easily we're suckered.
What's harder to believe is that Stone himself isn't more strongly drawn to fiction -- if not writing it (and, as impotent as he is as a writer, his block is plausible enough) then at least reading it. Powers does allow him his fix, on rare and carefully chosen occasion:
He goes home and binges all weekend on nineteenth-century Russian short stories. Just this once, fiction.But Generosity as a whole implies -- as does that little scene -- that fiction is, indeed, where, if not salvation, at least opportunity and hope lie -- in reading it, and writing it. (Certainly Stone -- and probably those around him -- would have been better off if he had indulged in more of it .....)
Early on, the authorial voice imagines young Stone and the "unstoppable literary gang" he and his buddies were going to be:
They would change the way writing worked, break the tyranny of convention, and reenchant the tired reading public with a runaway playfulness that not even the dead could resist.Only one of them: "proved merciless and mean enough for real creativity", the authorial voice suggests -- a rare ungenerous, even bitter take in Generosity, even considering the others' failures.
Much more unassumingly, Powers does push against the tyranny of (some) conventions (even as he uses others to hide what he is doing) and try to reenchant readers. The dead are probably still resistant, but Generosity is a rare truly creative work that also offers many of the satisfactions of entirely conventional fiction.
Powers' story ultimately falls somewhat short, but it is an effort worth engaging with.
- M.A.Orthofer, 27 September 2009
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American author Richard Powers was born in 1957.
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