Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Generosity: An Enhancement, by Richard Powers

Generosity: An Enhancement (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009) is one of Richard Power’s most accessible novels. It revisits topics he previously explored in such works as Galatea 2.2 (1995) and The Goldbug Variations (1991--my personal favorite). But Powers in this novel gives new twists to issues of genetics, genomes, and the relationship of the human individual to science. At first this novel seems headed towards an exploration of genetic engineering, and the question of whether one’s genetic makeup necessarily compels one towards a particular behavior and disposition. Powers provides a background frame to this subject by having the book narrated by its own author—a fictional author who may or not be Powers himself. The author imagines characters into being and, in the conclusion, imagines them out of being. This frame focuses our awareness on the fact that characters in a novel are artificial constructs who behave at the whim of their authorial creator. Or do they? Are the actions of a fictional character as determined as the behavior of an individual with a particular genetic makeup? Is there self-determination, free will? Do we inhabit a genetically determined world?

One of the two main characters in Generosity is a failed writer, Russell, who, after several early successes with nonfiction, suffers a long and extended and possibly permanent writer’s block. Blockage extends to other areas of his life. He is stuck in an unending rut, able to make few if any decisions for himself, constantly dealing with his sense of failure, which controls everything he does. In a temporary instructional assignment he teaches a creative nonfiction class to a group of mostly adult students, one of whom is Thassa, a young Berber Algerian woman blessed with an ebullient, sunny, always positive disposition. She has the ideal genetic makeup for optimism, for happiness. Can her genes be mapped? Can they be bought and commercialized and become the basis for a genetic engineering marketing campaign that offers happiness to everyone who buys it?

When word gets out that Thassa has the happiness gene, she becomes an object of celebrity fascination and notoriety. Fans and opponents picket her dormitory. She is invited to appear on the television show of a famous media star (similar to Oprah Winfrey). She is the subject of newspaper articles and TV news reports. A famous journalist wants to write about her. How Thassa responds to this attention, and to the interest of a genetic engineering entrepreneur who wants to explore and, in some way, market her genetic makeup, is part of the focus of the novel, which becomes a study of the destructive power of the celebrity and media cultures in contemporary America. It suggests that having scientific issues debated in public can result in fundamental misunderstandings. It suggests that the fusion of scientific research with corporations and commercial interests can lead to unhappy and even destructive compromises. To an extent these additional themes give the novel a bifurcated focus, and the concern with genetic engineering and determinism is partially derailed.

Russell falls in love with Thassa, and he also falls in love and has an affair with a psychological counselor at the university where he teaches. All of the characters in this narrative have personal interests and obsessions that intermingle with professional ambitions—no one is uncompromised, even Thassa.

By the way its plot works towards a conclusion, Generosity provides some speculative answers to the questions it raises. By basing its narrative on the premise that fiction is, after all, nothing more than fiction (Henry Fielding and Henry James and Paul Auster and others have made this notion explicit too), by having the author-narrator consign his characters to non-existence as the novel ends, Powers makes his point, but in the process strips away a level of pleasure from this reader. Who does not understand that novels are fiction, the creations of a writer, that characters are imagined beings? Who needs to be reminded?

The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence, by Paul Davies

In The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence (Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt, 2010) Paul Davies reviews the history of the fifty-year-old SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Life) project. His specific interest is the “eerie silence” of his title. Although SETI has been looking for radio signals from alien civilizations elsewhere in the universe, no signals have been received. What does this mean? That SETI is looking in the wrong places, that there is no alien life out there, that their civilizations are too advanced to use radio signals, that SETI is looking for the wrong kinds of communication? Davies considers all these possibilities. He reviews not only the history of SETI but also the speculation over the last several centuries about whether extraterrestrial life exists and the forms it might take. Davies is a serious scientist who explains that SETI research is a scientific enterprise carried out with scientific methods. Searching for ET he regards as a natural expression of human beings for making connections and for a larger understanding of identity and existence.

Davies suggests that looking for radio signals may be quixotic. The Universe has existed for twelve or more billion years. If there are alien civilizations out there, they may have developed and disappeared millions of years before our present moment. The probability that there is a civilization out there at this precise moment in time that has decided to use radio signals to contact other beings is unlikely. Moreover, such a civilization might be using another form of communication, such as laser beams (which SETI is now looking for).

Davies hypothesizes that an alien civilization further developed than our own might communicate in forms we can’t imagine. To them radio signals would be an ancient, antiquated technology. Perhaps, then, we’re not looking for the kinds of communication aliens might use. Perhaps they wouldn’t be seeking to communicate at all and instead might have left by accident or intention other artifacts of their existence. Davies discusses what these might be and how we could recognize them. He suggests that if an encounter with aliens ever comes, it might be with independent self-replicating robots sent out by their creators to explore and report back on the state of the universe. This aspect of the book is highly speculative.

Davies notes that much speculation about alien civilizations has been anthropomorphic, and that we tend to think of other civilizations as being similar to our own. He speculates as well that life on other planets might well not be carbon-based. He discusses the possibility that life might have begun elsewhere, such as on Mars, and later transferred to earth by meteor impacts.

I was most interested in Davies speculations about the possibility that there is no other life at all out there in the cosmic expanses. As a scientist he expresses his conviction that intelligent life does not exist elsewhere in the universe, that its development on the earth was a highly random and unlikely event. This runs contrary to what many others believe, but Davies makes a persuasive case for his position. He suggests that life may not be as quick to develop as some, such as Carl Sagan, have suggested. At the same time as a human being he wants to believe in the possibility of intelligent life elsewhere in the cosmos.

Davies’ concluding discussion of the consequences of discovering that there is intelligent life elsewhere in the cosmos, or that there isn’t, and his ruminations on what such a discovery would mean to our sense of ourselves as human beings, is fascinating.

Point Omega, by Don DeLillo

Point Omega is the endpoint: the apocalypse, the end of human life, the end of the world, the prospect of personal extinction. In this slight novel by Don DeLillo (Scribner’s 2010) —and by slight I mean in length, not in substance—personal extinction looms in the foreground, but all the other meanings are present as well. The novel has three sections—in the first a filmmaker named Jim Finley (we don’t immediately learn that he is a filmmaker) is obsessed with an exhibit at the New York Museum of Modern Art. An artist has taken Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and slowed it down so that it takes 24 hours to watch. People drift in and out of the exhibit room. No one seems to remain for long, except Finley, who is there for most of the eight days the film is playing. He’s obsessed with it.

At the exhibit, Finley meets Richard Elster, a brilliant and aging intellectual who is living out the final years of his life in a desert shack in California. His most recent work involved advising the U. S. military on how to package the concept and practice of war for public consumption. He says he wanted to reduce the concept of war to a haiku. Finley becomes obsessed with making a film in which Elster does nothing but talk. Elster invites him out to the cabin. Finley spends much time trying to convince Elster to do the film, and Elster seems to be interested, although he never commits to the project. The cabin is a place of extreme isolation. Cell phone signals barely work there. But Elster is the most isolated of all in the novel.

Elster’s daughter comes to the cabin to visit. Elster loves her but rarely speaks to her directly. Instead he speaks about her, most often to Finley. She doesn’t really want to be there—her mother has forced her to make the visit so that she will not see a man she has been involved with romantically. Finley grows attracted to her. One night on the porch, after Elster has gone to bed, he takes her hand and holds it. But Elster suddenly turns on his bedroom light and then comes out on the porch. The daughter goes inside. Later the same evening, Finley walks past her door, slightly ajar, and looks in to watch her sleep. He suddenly realizes she is awake and watching him, and then she turns away from him—a clear rejection.

The next day she disappears, without explanation. Has she been abducted or committed suicide? The local sheriff comments than many people come to the desert to commit suicide. She never returns and no trace of her is ever found. Did Finley kill her? Probably not. He never hints or implies in any way that he did, but the possibility is there. He also seems totally unaware, or unwilling to acknowledge, that his actions the previous evening may have had some connection with her disappearance.

Elster is devastated and destroyed by his daughter’s disappearance. He stops talking and begins wasting away, physically and intellectuals. Eventually Finley takes him back to New York, planning to leave him in the care of the most recent ex-wife.

In the final section of the novel Finley is back in the Museum, watching the slowly progressing Hitchcock film. He makes a half-hearted effort at conversation with a woman, who gives him her number, but he forgets to ask her name. The novel ends.

There are no real resolutions here. Rather, there are circumstances and situations. One can see (or imagine that he sees) much of DeLillo in Elster, the aging artist and intellectual. But one can also see much of the reclusive novelist Bill Gray and his relationship with his two assistants in DeLillo’s Mao II (1991).

The emotional impact of the middle section, where Elster’s daughter disappears, is haunting and powerful. The writing and its evocation of the desert setting reminded me of several essays by Joan Didion in her book Slouching towards Bethlehem (1968). This novel never clearly sets forth what the narrative or intellectual issues are. It implies them by reflecting them—Finley’s obsession with the slowed-down Psycho, Elster’s comments about the modern world. We know simply that Finley wants to make a film about Elster, and that Elster has withdrawn from life, feels alienated from everything, believes the end is coming both for himself and the rest of humanity, even as he is considering the film. Finley himself is a younger version of Elster. His obsession with filmmaking (he has made only one other film) costs him his marriage. He lives alone in a New York apartment and, despite his intention to make films, is adrift. He’s also a kind of voyeur, a watcher. Elster’s foreboding sense of doom and horror, not only at his own situation—death’s approach—but at the general situation of the world, dominates the novel. A spooky, eerie, depressive gloominess envelops Point Omega, and the fact that the novel never comes to a conclusion, that nothing is resolved for any of the characters, enhances the pervasive sense of doom.

What to make of the 24-hour Psycho? Such a film was actually made by Scottish artist Douglas Gordon in 1993 and screened at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC in 2004. DeLillo was reportedly impressed by it, and he acknowledges the artist on the last page of the book. But was he impressed or depressed? For me such exhibits are signs of how self-absorbed and obsessed with artificial constructions we have become in the contemporary world of interpretation, where we care more for the apparatus of interpretation than for the works under study. Finley’s obsession with the exhibit is a sign of his own narcissism and essentially obsessive-compulsive nature. Does the film signify for DeLillo the fragmentation and deconstruction of modern culture, or is he truly impressed by it as Finley was?

36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction, by Rachel Goldstein

36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction (Pantheon Books, 2009) by Rachel Goldstein is structured around a conceit—each chapter is given the title of one of the thirty-six arguments. An appendix to the novel explains and refutes each argument. The chapter contents sometimes do correlate with the argument named in the chapter title, and sometimes do not. As I read, I became increasingly interesting in identifying connections between chapters and their titles, and ultimately gave up trying. This aspect of the novel’s organization to me seems clever but also contrived. I enjoyed a previous novel by Goldstein, Particles of Light. There she employs concepts from physics to advance the narrative. Goldstein is a novelist of ideas, and she aims her novels at readers who will understand and appreciate the worlds she writes about. Even when her novel may seems unsuccessful, the situations and ideas she explores are interesting. Even trying to decipher the structure of this novel was a rewarding engagement, though ultimately one that disappointed.

36 Arguments moves between the main character Cass Seltzer’s years as a graduate student working under a famous professor‘s tutelage and his adult success as the writer of an academic study that makes him famous. 36 Arguments is an academic novel—it’s about the academy and the academic ego, especially the egos of those ambitious for the kind of fame that research in the academy offers. Some pursue fame avidly, while others, like Cass Seltzer, stumble into it. He writes a book entitled Varieties of Religious Illusion that explains the psychological attractions of religion. It contains an appendix listing the 36 arguments of the title. This appendix becomes the basis of his fame, and he is labeled an “atheist with a soul.” There is also the fame (and ego) of the eminence grise Jonas Elijah Klapper, a truly monumental and oppressive figure who has outlived whatever fame he once had. Opposed to the modern, a defender of tradition, he invokes arguments and speaks in a language that make no sense. He gathers around him an entourage of graduate students (Cass among them) and ensures that most of them never graduate. And there is the ambitious yearning for fame of Seltzer’s romantic partner, Lucinda Mandelbaum.

The academic dimension of the novel is satiric. The religious dimension is not. While Cass argues that religion is an attractive illusion, he is nonetheless attracted to it himself. Raised in a Hassidic community by a mother who later breaks with Hassidism, he has lived in the secular world all of his life. Many of the scenes describing the “New Walden” Hassidic community and Cass’s interest in the Rebbe’s son, a mathematical genius, are quite moving.

Cass is a sympathetic character who has had a number of unsuccessful romantic relationships. Is he a hapless victim who hasn’t a clue as to why these entanglements failed, or is he somehow responsible for their failures? He is likeable, but Lucinda breaks up with him when he tells her that Harvard has offered him a position. She accuses him of a number of sins, and although she is jealous of his success, at least some of her accusations are just.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Divine Secrets of the Sister Ya-Ya Hood

Based on a novel by Rebecca Wells, Callie Khouri’s 2002 film Divine Secrets of the Sister Ya-Ya Hood uses with prodigious thoroughness stereotypes and characters drawn from the South. One wonders what connection the novel, and the film, have to Mary McCarthy’s The Group (1963), which traced the experiences of eight close friends in the years after their graduation from college. Ya-Ya Hood takes as its premise the convention that women, especially but not exclusively Southern women, can share a close bond of friendship that supports them in difficult times and shields them against the extremities of the outer world. This is a theme in Steel Magnolias (1989) and in Fried Green Tomatoes (1991), of course, and in fact Eudora Welty dramatizes the idea in her story “Lily Daws and the Three Ladies” as does Greg Johnson in “Crazy Ladies.”

The four women who are the main characters in this film are true Southern eccentrics (the purported protagonist, Sidda, daughter of one of the sisterhood members, is really just an excuse for the sisterhood members to tell their stories, their secrets). In their early adolescence they formed a secret sisterhood and vowed to remain faithful to each other throughout their lives. The sisterhood is a bond of commonality that supports its members through bad marriages, motherhood, nervous breakdowns, and crisis. In the film three members of the sisterhood decide to repair the relationship of Sidda and her mother Vivi, the fourth sisterhood member. The two have had a difficult relationship. Sidda is a New York dramatist whose plays seem to dramatize her childhood experiences. An interview with Sidda in Time identifies her mother as a source of childhood trauma. Vivi is enraged and cuts her daughter off. Sidda is about to marry an Irishman she lives with in New York, but she has been putting off the marriage for years, and when Sidda is kidnapped, drugged, and put on a plane to Louisiana by three members of the sisterhood, she seems ready to take the opportunity to delay the marriage again.

The basic premise of the movie revolves around the rift between Vivi and Sidda, the difficult times in Vivi’s life which her daughter either doesn’t know about or has repressed (she tells the interviewer that she had an uneventful childhood that gave her nothing to write about), and the importance of sisterhood. Once Sidda comes to understand the difficulties her mother faced (the death of the man she loved, her marriage to a man who loved her but was cold and emotionally repressed, her difficulties with alcoholism, her physical abuse of her children, and her nervous breakdown) then she can comprehend her own relationship with her mother and feel free to go ahead and commit to the Irishman. At least this seems to be the logic of the film.

The Southern environment makes Southern women into eccentrics: this also is an underlying premise. They marry men who have been repressed themselves and who are repressive. The sisterhood gives its members power over the men. Vivi’s husband is a case in point. He married Vivi because he loved her and despite the fact she didn’t love him, because he thought “he had enough love for both of them,” but his frequent absence during the marriage creates problems that lead to Sidda’s breakdown. It is the repressiveness of the Southern environment that makes these characters eccentric, and their eccentricity is what makes them interesting. Or is the film saying that the Southern environment tolerates eccentricity and individuality?

African-American characters are prominent. A black woman is a servant to some of the women (she is in effect an initiated member of the sisterhood). Black characters play music, and at the end there is a birthday party for Vivi where a Dixieland band performs. All the characters intermingle and the implication is that interdependency extends between the races as well as between genders. This is not inaccurate, of course.

One of the best scenes in the film occurs when the four sisterhood girls are taken by their maid to Atlanta for the premier of Gone with the Wind. The girls are enthralled, but the maid is not, and she thinks of the place as hellish. At the breakfast table the young son of the family that is hosting the girls refers to the maid as a “nigger” and the ya-ya hood girls throw food at him. The moment is significant for the irony of this trip for young white girls chaperoned by a black women to the Gone with the Wind premier, by the treatment of the maid at the table, and the snobbishness of their host family. Racial equality and tolerance were not part of the 1930s American South. In this sense the film presents the sisterhood members as exceptions to prevailing racial codes.

Many aspects of the film do not depend on the South for meaning and authenticity. The friendship of the sisterhood women has little to do with their Southernness. The experience of young women whose loved ones go off to World War II is not inherently Southern either. The film strives to portray a universality to the experiences of the women that is not limited by the regional setting.

Ultimately, the characters in this film are stereotypes, comic and even comic book figures. The notion that Sidda must return to her Southern home to face the past (aka Quentin Compson) is a platitudinous plot device. It reminds us of the main character in The Prince of Tides (1991).

This film takes place largely in the rural South, although there is not much evidence of a city or town nearby.

Sandra Bullock as Sidda does not speak with a Southern accent. Her prospective marriage to an Irishman is evidence of her desire to move outside her Southern heritage, but her willingness in the end to have the wedding at her mother’s home indicates her acceptance of or at least acquiescence to that heritage, especially when in the final scene she is initiated into the sisterhood.

The false or absent Southern accents in the film signify that the filmmakers wanted a Southern setting to flavor events but that they were not particularly interested in accurate portrayals of that setting. In fact, I would say the same of the Rebecca Wells novel, which mines the Southern stereotypes for all the comic effect they are worth and creates a mythic world of eccentricity, friendship in the face of suffering, good feelings, and reconciliation that has only loose connection with the outside world.