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Generosity is an irritating and tiresome novel bustling with fascinating ideas. It would work best as a graphic novel with long footnotes, full of clever one-liners and big themes that don't add up to much. Yet Powers won the 2006 National Book Award for Fiction for his novel The Echo Maker, and his is a distinguished American novelist, so this new work is not one that can be easily dismissed. I should admit that I tried to read The Echo Maker because of the high praise it won, but I gave up half way through, defeated by characters I didn't like and a plot that didn't interest me. So maybe there's just a bad fit between Powers' writing style and my preferences. However, I can't help thinking that Powers approach to his topic of the science and ethics of happiness is superficial.
The plot is simple enough. Russell Stone is an adjunct professor teaching a creative nonfiction class at a Chicago university. One of his students is Thassadit Amzwar, from Canada and prior to that, from Berber Algeria, and her family has a history of being oppressed. She is an orphan and refugee from the civil war in her home country. Yet she seems very happy -- much too happy given her circumstances. Russell consults with a university psychologist, who raises the possibility that Thassa has hyperthymia. This is not a disorder, but it is an abnormal state. Other people come to learn about Thassa, and she starts to be investigated by scientists. They examine her brain chemistry and her genetics, in the hope of discovering her secret. She appears in TV documentaries and even on a popular daytime talk show. She becomes very well known. Of course, this does not turn out well.
Thassa's friends in Chicago from the writing class are very concerned about her, especially because they were so drawn to her in the first place. Russell and the psychologist Candace Weld (who are attracted to each other) are especially concerned about her and their role in changing her life. Their own romance seems to depend on Thassa, and when her life becomes more difficult, their relationship runs into trouble.
The other main characters in the novel are scientist Thomas Kurton and journalist Tonia Schiff, and they enable Powers to set out plenty of discussion of the science of happiness, positive psychology, antidepressants as life enhancers, neuroscience, genetics, and technology, along with the blogosphere, TV, newspapers, and language. Kurton is a caricature of a scientific reductionist, and Schiff is a caricature of the popularizer who has second thoughts about the effects of her work on the world.
There are two main problems with the book. First and foremost, the characterization is just dreadful. None of the characters is remotely interesting except as a locus of theoretical ideas. Not even Thassa herself, who is bemused by the attention around her and doesn't believe for a moment that she is really as extraordinary as other people say she is. We find little about her and nothing about her internal life, and no descriptions of her make it clear why others think she is so happy; she just seems polite and enthusiastic. Russell goes though a sort of crisis near the end of the novel but it is never clear what it is all about. The other characters are simply wooden. This problem is exacerbated by Powers' decision to go postmodern and make the narrator refer to the creation of the story itself and his decisions in forming the plot. We never find out who the narrator is -- possibly it is Russell himself, many years after. Putting the whole thing in quotation marks and distancing the reader from the immediacy of the plot may be clever (though it is hardly new) but it just makes us care even less about what happens.
Second, and this also enhances the first problem, the writing is glib. Powers loves for his characters to make pompous and trite statements, just like in a comic book. For example, "The entire spinning planet must be bipolar," "Plug and play chromosomes. Why didn't I think of that?," and "Reality has become programming's wholly owned subsidiary." The whole book is full of this. Combined with all the trendy science and popular culture, one is left with the impression that the book is just throwing a bunch of ideas about happiness together, sticking a possibly unhappy ending on it, and hoping that people will think it all adds up to an examination of the human condition in modern neuro-geno-cyber-technological society. But it isn't. It reads like a collection of popular science blog entries held together by a self-conscious plot. It's as pleasing as running your nails down a chalkboard.
Other authors have covered similar ground with more success: Jonathan Franzen in The Corrections and Dirk Wittenborn in Pharmakon, for example. Powers does more here in Generosity, with a focus on genetics rather than neuroscience and neuropharmacology, and combining it all with media and popular culture. In those other novels however, the social context is far richer, and the characters really connect with each other.
The unabridged audiobook is performed by David Pittou. He makes different people's voices distinct and gives them energy, but his somewhat disinterested reserved tones don't help the novel. I did find, however, that on a second listening, the book became more interesting because then it was more possible to engage with it at its own theoretical level, and just take pleasure in the individual turns of phrase and the social observations, once the issues of the plot could be safely kept in the background.
© 2009 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.