Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Review: Generosity by Richard Powers

Generosity by Richard Powers
Published: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2011
Nominated: Arthur C. Clarke Award

The Book: 

Russell Stone, a failed writer, picked up a night job teaching a creative non-fiction class for an art college in Chicago.  At that small class he first met Thassadit Amzwar, a Kabyle Algerian refugee who seemed to radiate joy.   Stone was concerned that she shouldn’t be so happy after all of the terror she must have experienced in Algeria.  After consulting with a counselor who looked strikingly like his lost love, Candace Weld, Stone accidentally let his concerns about Thassa’s condition leak into the media.

In the meantime, famous geneticist Thomas Kurton was working on a monumental study to link an elevated base mood with certain fragments of DNA. After Russell inadvertently ‘outed’ Thassa for being too happy, Kurton invited her to participate in his study.  The results of the study will throw Thassa into the center of a media frenzy.  To her horror, her very happiness will begin to destroy her own life as well as the lives of the people she loves.

I’m reading this as a part of my effort to read the Arthur C. Clarke Award nominees.  I was a bit put off initially by the idea of a “happiness gene”, but the novel thankfully focused more on the effects such a discovery would have on the world.

My Thoughts:

The narrator of Generosity was the author.  I don’t mean to say that it was Richard Powers exactly, but it was a fictional author persona that was constructing the novel.  The narrator talked constantly about the structure of the story, as if determined to make sure the reader always remembered that it was just a construct. The narrator’s musings, combined with the fairly simple plot of the book itself, sometimes left me with the odd feeling that I was reading a tutorial novel.

The narrator also frequently went off on short tangents about topics such as science, evolutionary psychology, the nature of happiness, and even the use of fiction.  A lot of these were pretty interesting, though I’ve never much cared for evolutionary psychology.  The narrator’s stance on fiction seemed rather odd to me. He accused people who read fiction of escapism, of being too cowardly to accept the fact of their eventual demise, or of not being active in society.  It almost felt like the novel was criticizing me for reading it.

Within the story, there were a number of interesting societal conflicts.  The first conflict that came to my attention was between C.P. Snow’s two cultures of science and the humanities. Another was between pure science, R&D, and popular science, which are illustrated through Kurton, his corporation, and Tonia Schiff.  There was also an undercurrent of the clash between youth and age.  For instance, Stone, though only in his 30s, continually showed bafflement and distaste at the behaviors of the younger characters.  In general, I think that all of these opposing forces tied into the tension between the old and the new, and between stability and progress.  

My Rating: 3.5/5

I enjoyed this book far more than I expected.  The novel is very idea-centric, rather than plot- or character- centric.  The plot is very straightforward and slow-moving, and most of the characters felt like caricatures of certain types of people. I get the feeling that this book is meant to be read at a leisurely pace, and I think it would be fun to discuss the ideas and arguments it raises.  I don’t think I was ever really enthralled by the characters or the story, but the novel was continually interesting and thought-provoking.

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