Richard Powers, winner of the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize finalist for his 2006 novel, The Echo Maker, writes at the intersection of science and the humanities. The reader would do well to have a copy of Merck’s or the Physician’s Desk Reference handy when tackling Powers’ work.
His latest, Generosity: An Enhancement, published in 2009, is lighter on the science than some of his past work, but plumbs issues of genetics and bio-ethics. With genetics as the backdrop, Powers poses large questions in this novel: what is it that makes us happy and how can we be happy all the time? And, even if we could be happy all the time, would this state of bliss rob us of the essence of what makes us human?
At the center of this story is a Berber Algerian refugee, the always happy, Thassadit Amzwar. She is a student in a college course called Creative Nonfiction, Journal and Journey. Her professor is Russell Stone, a down-and-out editor for a self-improvement magazine. Stone is an adjunct faculty member at a mediocre college in Chicago. Stone’s entire class is mesmerized by Thassa’s sunny nature and they take to calling her, Miss Generosity. None is more obsessed with the young Kabylie woman than Stone. He does exhaustive internet research on the Algerian civil war and the psychological literature, looking for studies on what causes people with such a bleak upbringing to be so optimistic.
Stone consults a mental health counselor at the college named Candace Weld, who is likewise drawn to Thassa’s sunny aura. Stone and Weld become lovers and both are under Thassa’s giddy spell.
Early on, Powers introduces the reader to Tonia Schiff, who produces documentaries on cutting-edge scientific discoveries for a show called Over the Limit. She is interviewing Thomas Kurton, a renowned geneticist who is something of a celebrity, a more self-confident version of the pop psychologist, Dr. Gerald Webber in The Echo Maker. Kurton has started a biotech company devoted to better living through chemistry. Kurton’s quest is to allow humankind to achieve perfection on earth through genetic engineering.
The first turning point of the story occurs when one of Thassa’s classmates attempts to rape her. It is the type of urban crime that may go unnoticed outside of Chicago, except that Stone, when interviewed by the police, uses the term “hyperthermia” to describe the woman, whose name is not divulged by the police. A researcher for Kurton comes across the term during a daily internet keyword search and he decides he must track her down for his study. Kurton locates and arranges a meeting with Thassa and convinces her to undergo a series of tests for his study. Anxious to publish his findings, Kurton refers to Thassa in his study as “Jen.”
In the second dramatic turn, a classmate reveals Thassa’s identity through social media and her email box is flooded with requests, ranging from religious fanatics who see her as some sort of messianic figure to sad sacks who believe she can cure them. Soon, Thassa is an instant celebrity and is invited to appear on an Oprah-style talk show, Oona.
The struggle between science and the humanities is best illustrated by an earlier scene when Stone, Weld and Amzwar attend a debate between a Nobel Laureate and Kurton, the geneticist:
“The novelist’s argument is clear enough: genetic enhancement represents the end of human nature. Take control of fate, and you destroy everything that joins us to one another and dignifies life. A story with no end or impediment is no story at all. Replace limits with unbounded appetite, and everything meaningful turns into nightmare.”
The geneticist responds:
“Kurton praises the long, mysterious journey of literature. ‘Imaginitive writing has always been the engine of future fact.’ He thanks his opponent. ‘You’ve made a lot of good points that I’ll have to thank about.’ He concedes that genetic enhancement does force major reconsiderations, starting with the boundaries between justice and fate, the natural and the inevitable. ‘But so did the capture of fire and the invention of agriculture.’
“He invites a thought experiment. Suppose you want to have a baby, but you’re at high risk for convening cystic fibrosis. You go to the clinic, where the doctors, by screening your eggs, guarantee that your child will be born free of a hideous and fatal disease. ‘Not too many prospective parents will have a problem with that…’
Thomas Kurton sees only the audience. “Now suppose you come to the clinic already pregnant, and tests show cystic fibrosis in your fetus. Assuming that doctors can bring a treatment risk down to acceptable levels…’
Later in the scene, Kurton addresses the role of literature:
“Russell comes alert when Kurton invokes the use of literature. ‘For most of human history, when existence was too short and bleak to mean anything, we needed stories to compensate. But now that we’re on the verge of living the long, pain-reduced, and satisfying life that our brains deserve, it’s time for art to lead us beyond noble stoicism.’”
The novelist concludes: “The misery business will remain a growth industry. When fiction goes real, reality will need a more resistant strain of fiction.”
It’s hard to say where Powers comes down on this debate. His skill is that he presents both arguments forcefully and leaves it up to the reader.
Powers is the author of nine novels. He has received a MacArthur Fellowship, a Lannan Literary Award, and the James Fennimore Cooper Prize for Historical Fiction. He teaches a graduate course in multimedia authoring, as well as an undergraduate course on the mechanics of narrative, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he is the Swanlund Professor of English