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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Richard Powers

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To purchase Generosity

Title: Generosity
Author: Richard Powers
Genre: Novel
Written: 2009
Length: 296 pages
Availability: Generosity - US
Generosity - UK
Generosity - Canada
Das größere Glück - Deutschland
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Our Assessment:

A- : creative, but falls a bit short with the risks it takes

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Bookforum . 9-11/2009 John Domini
Christian Science Monitor . 23/10/2009 Yvonne Zipp
The Guardian . 2/1/2010 Christopher Tayler
Independent on Sunday A- 7/2/2010 James Urquhart
The LA Times . 4/10/2009 David L. Ulin
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 12/10/2009 Michael Schmitt
The NY Rev. of Books . 14/1/2010 Michael Dirda
The NY Times Book Rev. . 4/10/2009 Jay McInerney
The New Yorker . 5/10/2009 James Wood
The Observer . 17/1/2010 Tim Adams
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . Spring 2010 Stefanie Sobelle
Sunday Times . 10/1/2010 Stephen Amidon
The Telegraph . 1/2/2010 Helen Brown
TLS B 8/1/2010 Jonathan Bate
The Washington Post . 7/10/2009 Ron Charles

  From the Reviews:
  • "Generosity offers a climax thatís hardly simple -- a fun-house mirrorís reimagining of The Oprah Winfrey Show. Can a book that sweeps us up in imagined lives also acknowledge their artificiality? Powers answers in the affirmative." - John Domini, Bookforum

  • "Instead of better living through chemistry, itís better living through genomics, and Powers lays out economic and ethical implications that are already playing out in life science labs throughout the US." - Yvonne Zipp, Christian Science Monitor

  • "The narrator's strange position with regard to the story turns out to be a feint, however, and in the end the reader senses, as expected, that Powers is a liberal humanist at heart. But while there's something impressive and admirable about his appetite for ideas and information, Generosity mostly comes across as a William Gibson novel in which the thriller plot has been replaced by wooden debate." - Christopher Tayler, The Guardian

  • "Powers conducts the ensuing fire sale of genetic commodification and intellectual ownership with verve and brio. But it's his characters, rather than the cresting wave of incident, that have most force. Generosity throngs with vivid personalities" - James Urquhart, Independent on Sunday

  • "(T)he flip side of his intellect is that his characters are, in places, two-dimensional. Clearly, their emotional lives interest him less than the ideas they stir up, and here, secondary figures such as Kurton or television journalist Tonia Schiff function more as animated plot devices than human flesh and blood. Not unlike The Echo Maker, though, Generosity doesn't so much suffer from these limitations as it uses them to frame a rumination about identity and artifice, nature and nurture, the inexplicable forces that make us who we are." - David L. Ulin, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Das ergibt ein reichhaltiges Buch, gekonnt aufgebaut, mit vielfältig verknüpften Themen und Anliegen, gewürzt mit pointierten Sätzen, die paradoxe Befunde auf einen Nenner bringen. Aber Aktualität hin und Raffinement her -- der Roman als Ganzes lässt einen beim Lesen trotzdem ziemlich kalt." - Michael Schmitt, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "(T)he book actually feels airily nonchalant, halfway between a notebook and a finished work of art. As it happens, Generosity wants us to think hard about how a story is told and an author's relationship to his material." - Michael Dirda, The New York Review of Books

  • "Especially in the earlier chapters, Powersís characters and his narrative can be nearly swamped by the scientific discourse and the metafictional divagations. (...) Powers is, when he chooses to be, an engaging storyteller (though he would probably wince at the word), and even as he questions the conventions of narrative and character, Generosity gains in momentum and suspense. In the end, he wants to have it both ways, and he comes very close to succeeding." - Jay McInerney, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Powersís new book, Generosity, his most schematic and coarse, exaggerates the weaknesses of his better work. (...) The prose, dictated or otherwise, reads as if it had been written by an Orientalist Tom Wolfe. (...) Generosity is a slimmer, hastier, more crowd-pleasing book than anything Powers has yet written. Perhaps it is just a quick folly between more considered works. Still, in insidious ways it diminishes its better predecessors." - James Wood, The New Yorker

  • "It's a meditation on the human condition as much as a plot-driven novel, a crucible for a particular preoccupation, which boils down to a single question: what will happen when geneticists believe they have identified the code for happiness?" - Tim Adams, The Observer

  • "Generosity lacks the gravitas of its predecessors, but it marks a significant shift for its author. Whereas Powers usually seems to side with science, here he argues that it is perhaps art that holds the promise of the future." - Stefanie Sobelle, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "What really makes Generosity tick, however, are its characters, who are as multifaceted and alive as any Powers has ever created." - Stephen Amidon, Sunday Times

  • "But the novelís cleverest trick is also what sucks its heart out. Powers has gone postmodern -- continually reminding us that heís making up characters even as heís asking us to care about them. (...) I ended up losing interest in the plot of Generosity and failing to believe in its increasingly flimsy characters. One of the ways narrative makes us happy is via escapism -- and Powers bars all the exits here." - Helen Brown, The Telegraph

  • "Generosity gets of to a slow start, goes on a little too long and suffers from the Powers vice of schematism (shambling writer versus slick scientist). There is also an unnecessary postmodern layer in which it is a book about its own writing. But even a second-rank Richard Powers novel such as this is unerring in its anatomy of our scientized lives." - Jonathan Bate, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Although you might expect a novel so weighted with medical and philosophical arguments to flatten its characters into brittle stereotypes, ultimately that's the most impressive aspect of this meditation on happiness and humanness. As Generosity drives toward its surprising conclusion, these characters grow more complex and poignant, increasingly baffled by the challenge and the opportunity of remaking ourselves to our heart's content." - Ron Charles, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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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.
     Look again: the whole point of heading out anywhere tonight. The blank page is patient, and meaning can wait. I watch until he solidifies.
       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.
     Six months later, their movement collapsed.
       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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Generosity: Reviews: Richard Powers: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary American fiction

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About the Author:

       American author Richard Powers was born in 1957.

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© 2009-2010 the complete review

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