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Unignorable possibilities

Generosity by Richard Powers

Jon Turney 12 January 2010

Ideas man: detail from the cover

Powers is interested in a wider debate about possibilities for human enhancement, not just the implications of genetics

In the US, a new novel from Richard Powers is a literary event. In the UK, not so much. Why some authors find readers across the Atlantic – in either direction – and some don’t is one of life’s mysteries, but the author’s high reputation in his homeland has prompted some harsh reviews of this latest novel (Generosity: An Enhancement, Atlantic Books) – along with less memorable praise. The critiques which attracted most attention are, I think, misplaced. One, from uber-critic James Wood, lambasts Powers as a tin-eared stylist and a creator of thinly realised characters. I don’t get that – though I do know that if one only read novels which met Wood’s exacting standards the shelf would be pretty thin. I do agree with Woods, and practically everyone else, that Powers is as interested in ideas as in people. Too interested? Well, on the whole I prefer novelists who recognise an idea when they see one.

A number of Powers’ books feature ideas from science – no surprise when he trained in physics and worked as a computer programmer. But he has drawn more heavily on biology and neuroscience, as he does in his latest, and in some ways most accessible novel. The story turns on an uncannily resilient refugee student, Thassadit (Thassa), in a creative writing class in more or less contemporary Chicago. She fascinates her tutor, the college counsellor and, in time, an ambitious, entrepreneurial geneticist, Thomas Kurton. What leads her to experience daily life as an apparently ceaseless series of epiphanies? Could this young woman, whose life in Algeria was a catalogue of calamity, have a set of genes which predisposes her to something most regard as elusive: happiness? Kurton enrols her as his subject to track the precise alleles involved.

This invocation of genetics prompted another critique which seems slightly off target, from the psychiatrist and chronicler of the Prozac culture Peter Kramer, on Slate. He reckoned the story is hobbled by recent results which weaken a supposed link between genes, serotonin handling, and resilience. OK, serotonin, along with many other elements of science’s emerging picture of “happiness”, does get a mention. But the story is not so much about the existence of any particular gene (or genomic network – Powers is up to date to that extent) as about whether our temperament is malleable or set in stone, how far we might change it, and whether that would be a good thing. Powers is interested in a wider debate about possibilities for human enhancement, not just the implications of genetics.

So this is not a book “about science” (perish the thought). It is a book about life in late modernity, and the unignorable possibilities of science we late moderns have to deal with. It comes with a certain amount of metafictional baggage – a Powers trademark. This is also a writer who is deeply interested in the act of writing, in the modern fashion of authors who, like the shadowy narrator here, seem to pop up in their own books – and of one who believes that “reading is the last act of secular prayer.” These interjections can be wearisome, but I did not find them intrusive in this instance – though others might. John Crace, who has powerful allergies toward this kind of thing, was particularly unkind to Powers on this score in a just published Guardian parody.

In fact, I was fairly easily absorbed in the narrative. It is not, I suppose, that compelling in some ways. Will Thassa stay happy in the face of her new-found notoriety – well-depicted as ranging from the blogosphere to 24-hour TV news – as the person supposedly endowed with the secret of happiness? Will Kurton explain or exploit her, and should she sell him her eggs for an experiment in IVF? Will her tutor, our other protagonist, an endearingly anhedonic soul whose life is almost lifeless at the start of the book, find love, and new point to his existence, with the college counsellor? All pretty straightforward elements in a novel. I think I was gripped because I get an unusually strong sense from reading this book that the author and his characters live in the same world that I do, and notice similar things (but notice them better). That is only one kind of reader-satisfaction, but here a powerful one. That goes for the science, too. Powers is clearly a man who sees science as having certain crucial limitations. As he told a Paris Review interviewer, “The further into physics I went, the more I felt I was in danger of becoming the quintessential hedgehog, learning more and more about less and less until I would know everything about nothing. I could see down the path and see what a life in science would be like.” But in his novels he is always returning to his fascination with what science can and cannot do, and what it might yet do.

That often makes them rich in scientific detail, and also in scientific incidentals. Powers’ fiction presents an intriguing composite portrait of science and scientists, among many other things. He has said in the past that “each of my books is a reaction against the previous one”. That no longer seems true, with his last novel The Echo Maker featuring a neuroscientist of a particular, slightly outmoded kind as a key character. As with Generosity, if you follow popular science at all, elements of that character are familiar – there is a good deal of Oliver Sacks in the way he writes, for example. This time, Craig Venter has been seen by some as a model for Kurton, but he is clearly a more complex composite. For instance, he also has quite a lot of Ray Kurzweil’s enthusiasm for a transhuman future, and for increasing one’s chances of getting there through a massively complex regimen of pills, for example, hedged by a contract for cryonic suspension in the event of a sudden collapse.

This could just be thrown together, but is all of a piece with the character. In fact, Thomas Kurton is a splendidly ambiguous figure – clever, driven, and manipulative; also eloquent, far-seeing, even, in his way idealistic. The idealism may be a little austere, but it is one which some scientists will recognise, I think, even when Powers puts it in terms which are (deliberately?) over the top:

All life long, he has believed in the one nonarbitrary enterprise, fairer than any politics, truer than any religion, deeper than any artwork: measurement. Double-blind, randomize, and test again: something will circulate, something cold and real and beyond mere desire. Something that can put us inside the atom, outside the solar system. Something that can come to change even its own enabling code…

I think it is illuminating to juxtapose that fictional quote with another from the author, in the same Paris Review interview. There he outlined a properly large ambition for a novelist: “My project has always been to say where history has dropped us down”. In that context, he meant Americans, but extend that to all of “us” and one can see why science keeps looming large in his stories. Where history has dropped us down, after all, is a time when science might, just, give us insights into our own character which allow us to edit the storyline of future human evolution. Kramer suggests that bioethicists and philosophers have provided richer discussions of that prospect than Powers can manage, but I think it is heartening to see a serious novelist engaging seriously with it in broadly realist fiction (as opposed to science fiction, where it crops up all the time). Generosity is not, for me, the best Powers I have read, which remains The Time of Our Singing but one of his best – which is to say very good indeed.

Other articles by Jon Turney