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?

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