An international student is pleased that her professor doesn’t consider himself religious. “Good,” the young woman responds. “I’m nothing, either. I’m a Maghreb Algerian Kabyle Catholic Atheist French Canadian on a student visa.”
Richard Powers always has a lot going on, but he’s never had a vehicle so jam-packed as Generosity: An Enhancement. This student’s rapid-fire border-hopping suits the novelist’s latest, his closest brush with comedy. Not that either the young woman or the book she inhabits lacks for tragedy. Thassadit Amzwar, twenty-three years old, has lost both parents. She herself barely survived the postcolonial “Time of Horrors” in Algiers. Yet even that grim story eventually goes through an “enhancement,” as every element of this narrative gets reconfigured. Amzwar crosses paths with four other major characters, each from a very different place. And everyone’s tailed by a figure you might call “the Author.” Never named, this first-person presence exposes secrets, opens imaginary textbooks and websites, and looks into the future. Powers even subverts his own project, describing a TV science program as “Scientific American meets Götterdämmerung.” Such portentous encounters define his work, from his 1985 debut, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, which considers the dangers of accelerating technology, to National Book Award winner The Echo Maker in 2006, a meditation on how little we know about the brain. Powers has always warned us of some coming twilight. His latest points to unnerving possibilities of gene science.
The story postulates the existence of a “happiness gene” that would enhance the whole species. Thassa Amzwar, improbably happy despite her suffering, might be the donor who will usher in the “age of molecular control.” Yet the novel’s affect, first to last, isn’t admonitory so much as amazed, a word half-buried in Amzwar’s name. Generosity may be jam-packed, but it’s genius: It soars, it boggles.
Powers breaks us in gently. Our introduction to the imperturbable Maghreb comes before she generates any hullabaloo, via the subdued Russell Stone, her Chicago professor. Amzwar studies film, but she’s enrolled in Stone’s seminar in creative nonfiction (a genre whose ambiguous relation to truth prompts stinging Authorial asides). It’s the teacher who first marvels at the girl’s “eerie contentment,” her “promiscuous warmth.” Not that Amzwar’s actually promiscuous, on drugs, or blessed with great looks. Still, “her glee is a dance,” and the assignment in which she details the Time of Horrors ends in a lighthearted remembrance of Algiers, “so crazy with life.” Her classmates designate her “Bliss Chick” and “Miss Generosity.”
Amzwar demonstrates how Generosity represents a departure—Karin Schlutter, the central figure of The Echo Maker, is all inner torment. And Stone is something new for Powers as well, a literary artist, though lapsed. The writers in previous novels are, like Gerald Weber in The Echo Maker, researchers who publish. This time, Powers must shuttle between an author who’s a conventional flawed character and the prankster Author, who isn’t Powers either but knows a good deal beyond Stone’s ken. The play gets so dizzying—the Author, for instance, follows the future story line to the edge of the Sahara—that Powers, wisely, keeps it within a simple narrative frame. The Author wonders, the night of the professor’s first class with Amzwar, “What in the name of second chances was he thinking?” and much of what follows thereafter, for everyone here, boils down to an answer.
Renewal for the prof comes in the form of Candace Weld, a college counselor. Weld, too, gets knocked sideways by Stone’s student, her “peak experience . . . all the time,” and as a wounded single mom, she’s drawn to the professor. Amzwar plays Cupid as the couple come together, with the exquisite slowness implied in the imagery for their first kiss: “lowering a bucket to a well.” But so close a student-teacher-counselor friendship makes the college nervous. Once Internet and TV news thrust the Bliss Chick into the public eye, school administrators sever her from Stone and Weld, and she’s left vulnerable to the genome researcher Thomas Kurton. Kurton and his work have been part of Generosity from the beginning. We’ve seen him first on TV, his theories of gene modification repackaged as sci-fi drama. Then both Kurton and his interviewer, Tonia Schiff, discover their own second chances in Amzwar. Her DNA contains the structure for happiness that Kurton has hypothesized, a structure that could be cultivated and commodified, but both he and Schiff are shaken by the circus that erupts around the unsophisticated foreigner. There’s noise out of the church and the government; there are bids for her eggs. The fracas disturbs Weld and Stone as well, and it seems as if the dramatis personae are moving toward a classical catharsis. But Generosity offers a climax that’s hardly simple—a fun-house mirror’s reimagining of The Oprah Winfrey Show.
Can a book that sweeps us up in imagined lives also acknowledge their artificiality? Powers answers in the affirmative. His vibrant Chicago recalls Augie March (one of many literary allusions), yet his Author admits: “This place is some other Second City . . . Chicago’s in vitro daughter, genetically modified.” The beleaguered Amzwar tumbles back into refugee status, though surely she’s the character most in need of a fresh start—and when her opportunity arrives, it’s not the gift of some rare gene, but rather a blessing from the rogue Author (perhaps at last named). Such stuff feels like fable, a nomad’s campfire tale, and might once have been too rich for Powers’s taste, given his penchant for Götterdämmerung. But this time Jeremiah dances a genie’s double helix.
John Domini’s most recent novel is A Tomb on the Periphery (Gival Press, 2008).