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A Touch of Humanity

By Margaret Black

Generosity: An Enhancement

By Richard Powers

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 296 pages, $25

Richard Powers is a highly admired writer whose fiction I’ve never been able to read with pleasure. He has an extraordinary grasp of many subjects—computer science, music, psychology, contemporary media, biological engineering, you name it—and his intellectual playfulness is dazzling. But, like some other highly regarded writers (Jonathan Franzen immediately comes to mind), Powers doesn’t seem to like his characters very much. At least he doesn’t actively hate everyone the way Franzen does. Powers can describe their traits and behavior with wicked ironic accuracy, but he rarely indicates much affection. So why should we care to read about them? Indeed, Powers spends a fair amount of time questioning the value of reading fiction at all in this advanced era. However, because he is writing a novel, presumably Powers does believe fiction is worthwhile, even if it fails to meet the false reasons he presents for people “needing” it.

In Generosity, Powers employs a distant, nameless narrator who positively oozes intellectual superiority but, despite himself, comes gradually to feel some warmth for the story’s characters. “I always knew I’d lose my nerve in the end,” the narrator says. “Now Candace, on the auction block. A part of me wanted to love this woman since she was no more than the sketchiest invention. I thought she would be my mainstay, and now she’s breaking. I don’t have the heart to learn her choice.”

Generosity stars Thassa Amzwar, a young Algerian woman studying film at a second-rate college in Chicago. Thassa is preternaturally happy and warmly responsive to everyone and everything, despite a personal history of violence and tragedy. She totally mystifies Russell Stone, the teacher of her “creative nonfiction” course, and, like the seven other students in the class, Stone is completely captivated and enriched by her luminous presence. A man riven with doubts, self-disgust and insecurity, Stone worries that Thassa’s happiness may be a sickness and that it puts her in danger, so he contacts Candace Weld, one of the college’s psychological counselors. Thassa, Stone, and Candace are the novel’s three bumbling humanists (with an eventual, rather moving assist from Thassa’s classmates). They stand in contrast to Thomas Kurton, an irrepressibly self-confident geneticist whose fertile mind is perpetually seeking out human genetic enhancements that not only will improve people’s health and well-being but will, similar to his intellectual property, also produce significant income. The novel’s last major character, Tonia Schiff, is the host of a science TV show, Over the Limit; she is in the midst of filming “The Genie and the Genome,” an episode featuring Kurton and his work.

Kurton comes to learn of Thassa, persuades her to participate in his research, and identifies in her DNA a specific component for her extraordinary happiness. This sets off a media frenzy, which the author captures brilliantly and also discusses quite aptly as an essential (and problematic) phenomenon in contemporary science. There is even a love story, despite Stone’s musing that “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.”

Although the narrator spends a lot of time pondering philosophical and ethical problems, the writing in Generosity is compact and often very funny. Stone goes online (of course!) to learn about Thassa’s personality: “He taps in euphoria, and erases it. He taps in manic depression, and deletes that, too. He taps in extreme well-being. And right away, he’s swamped. In the world of free information, the journey of a single step begins in a thousand microcommunities. Inconceivable hours of global manpower have already trampled all over every thought he might have and run it to earth with boundless ingenuity. Even that thought, a digitally proliferating cliché . . .”

And we have Kurton coming to science. “From early childhood, he showed all the signs: the model rocketry, the ham radios, the long afternoons gazing into tidal pools, the complete Herbert S. Zim Golden Guides, and later, the expanding universe of cheap science-fiction paperbacks, those lyric hymns to alien life-forms with the surreal cover art where you couldn’t tell buildings from geographical features from living beings.”

When the police come to question Stone about Thassa, he “doesn’t know what is confidential anymore and what the state owns. He hasn’t a clue what he owes to professional discretion, what to justice, what to Candace Weld, what to Thassa Amzwar, and what to basic truth. But it’s pointless to hide from the Informational Oversoul.”

Powers may stumble on love scenes or dramatic encounters between his characters, but Generosity gradually becomes friendlier to its characters. There is even a sign, unbelievable but nonetheless there, that Stone may be the narrator. Once, in an effort to help Stone begin writing again, Candace has him write an invisible sentence in the air. He writes, “They sit and watch the Atlas go dark.” At the book’s end, the narrator says, “She’s still alive, my invented friend, just as I conceived her, still uncrushed by the collective need for happier endings.” He “sees” her one last time. “Delight pours out of me. ‘How are you?’ I ask. ‘How do you feel?’ She answers in all kinds of generous ways. And for a little while, before this small shared joy, too, disappears back into fact, we sit and watch the Atlas go dark.” A supple writer, Powers brings his book truly to life, makes it worth reading, only when author and narrator find themselves feeling warmth and affection for all their flawed protagonists, even Kurton.

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