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Generosity: An Enhancement by Richard Powers
Posted By David Loftus On December 17, 2009 @ 1:07 pm In Fiction Reviews | No Comments
“Only connect,” Forster counseled.
Richard Powers has been connecting — richly and deeply — from his first novel, the 1985 Three Farmers On Their Way to a Dance, which linked photography, Henry Ford’s invention of mass production, and a young computer designer’s romantic challenges in 1980s Boston; to his ninth, the National Book Award-winning The Echo Maker (also a Pulitzer finalist for 2006), in which the reader encounters a neurologist modeled on Dr. Oliver Sacks, a young man whose brain was damaged in a truck accident and has become convinced that his sister has been replaced by an imposter, and the migratory sandhill cranes in the Platte River plains of Nebraska.
Through all his books, Powers has displayed a unique aptitude for storytelling of a high order. In Plowing the Dark, when a longtime prisoner of Palestinian terrorists is finally allowed a book to read in his tiny cell, the narration describes his sensations upon opening it after a long period of intellectual deprivation: “Gorgeous human thoughts detonate in space all around you, extending their subordinate clauses, flinging their nouns around like burgeoning tracts of starter homes airlifted into arid wastes.” Reading Powers is a little like that. As well as any author I have read, he conveys the feel of ideas when they strike and stir you.
A smaller but no less valuable gift is his dramatization of intelligent people falling in love, intelligently related. Too many other forms of entertainment thrive on getting cheap laughs or thrills by showing people being stupid — television sitcoms being the prime example. (I could never get into “30 Rock” because Tina Fey’s character should obviously be more intelligent than she acts; which raises the question, are the writers of such shows incapable of coming up with more intelligent and believable plots, or are they purposely writing down to their viewers — the former would be sad, the latter contemptible.) Powers’ heroes make poor decisions, sometimes damaging ones, but he always gives them clear and ostensibly good reasons for having made them.
Readers have different favorites. I’ve met fans who swear by Gain, which pits a 42-year-old realtor and single mother against a long-established and powerful pharmaceutical corporation. Laura Bodey contracts ovarian cancer and tries to sue her corporate neighbor, Clare International, whose history going back to an 1830 Boston soap maker is related in tandem. Others prefer the overly self-referential Galatea 2.2, which includes a character who possesses Powers’ name, publishing history, reviews, and geographical wanderings alongside the tale of a project to create artificial intelligence — a computer known as Helen that its creators bet can pass a comprehensive English exam.
My favorites are his almost universally acclaimed third novel, The Goldbug Variations, which braids early DNA research, Bach, and Poe into a love story among research scientists; and The Time of Our Singing, about interracial romance, choral and instrumental music careers, the burdens of talent, and the early civil rights movement.
Generosity, published early this winter, is his tenth. It is shorter, and has a more spikey, neon-like feel — less magisterial — than many of his previous books. That’s undoubtedly a reflection of its focus, which is partly on the Internet. As a scientifically aware writer, Powers has always been conscious of the Web — his past characters have used e-mail, and Plowing the Dark takes place at an R&D spinoff of a Microsoft-like corporation in the Seattle area, where a virtual-reality team labors to recreate the complex environments of artworks such as Henri Rousseau’s jungle-like painting “The Dream,” Van Gogh’s bedroom in Arles, and the great mosque of Istanbul, Hagia Sofia. But Generosity employs blogs and newsgroups to develop its plot, if not in the hands of the protagonists, then at least to drive them through pressure from and developments in the cyber-community.
Russell Stone, 32, is a fairly passive magazine editor who had a couple of short stories published and praised some years back, and an interesting girlfriend, but has been creatively stagnant and solitary ever since. He lands a job teaching creative nonfiction writing at a small art college in Chicago. Among his students is a 23-year-old Algerian refugee, Thassadit Amzwar, a Berber from the Kabyle region whose educated parents (father an engineering professor, mother a document translator) died unhappily in the cross-fire of history. He was shot at his desk during the Islamic revolution that followed decades of bloody rebellion against the French colonial government; she died of pancreatic cancer shortly after escaping with the children to Paris. Thassa has made her way to Chicago by way of relatives in Canada, and wants to be a filmmaker.
What’s remarkable about her is that she shares her story with the class simply, with a kind of wonder and interest, as if it were not her own. In fact, Thassa finds delight, awe, and beauty in almost everything: her journal entries and stories charm everyone in the class, as does her person: “she shouldn’t even be pretty, except for the conspiracy of delight rounding her cheeks.” She seems perpetually happy! How can it be?
Puzzled by Thassa’s affect and (ostensibly) concerned for her state of mind and personal safety, Russell consults a counselor at the college’s health center, Candace Weld. A Licensed Clinical Psychologist, Candace attracts Russell’s attention on the college Web site initially because she resembles his old girlfriend. Intrigued by Russell’s description of Thassa and concerned for the girl herself, Candace eventually meets her and the three become close friends.
Two other characters figure prominently in the plot. Thomas Kurton is a research scientist in the high-stakes world of genetics; he’s an articulate quasi-celebrity in his field, good at publicizing the work of the various companies he’s founded, and equally good at hustling venture capital for them. In this he resembles Craig Venter (who’s mentioned in passing as a competitor; Powers doesn’t try to hide his sources). Kurton tangles in a friendly way with Tonia Schiff, a multilingual, Ivy-educated video journalist who has a cable TV tech show and is the pinup girl of geeks and Web surfers everywhere.
The central theme of Generosity that will draw these characters together is happiness: What is it? Can it have a genetically-based component? Could Thassa somehow be gifted in this sense, or does she perhaps “suffer” from a rare condition known as hyperthymia — a biochemical state of permanent elation?
As knowledge of Thassa’s permanent state of joyfulness and curiosity spreads through local news and the Internet, she agrees to appear on a national talk show with an Oprah-like host and to be genetically tested by Kurton’s labs — all of course against the advice of Russell and Candace. Inevitably, her fans think “Happy people must know something that no one else does,” and quite against her will, Thassa becomes a messianic figure, subject to the pleas of physically and emotionally damaged individuals and the buzz of the blogs. The trick is, unlike other messianic types in otherwise wonderful stories (I think of Paul Gallico’s The Man Who Was Magic), Powers never makes Thassa seem unbelievable, unduly naïve, or crazy.
Another theme of the novel is creativity and storytelling. Russell uses Frederick P. Harmon’s Make Your Writing Come Alive as the text for his class, and Powers shares instructions and exercises from the book (another joke: the Harmon book does not exist). In a sense, Generosity stands in for Harmon’s textbook: it discusses and demonstrates “How to make your writing come alive.” The narrator sometimes addresses his own issues (undoubtedly those with which Powers wrestles, to some extent, as well):
I never seek out uncanny plots. I find them way too cheaply gratifying. I stay away from books with inexplicable coincidences, prophetic events, or eerie parallels. But they seem to find me anyway. And when I do read them, however conventional, they rip me open and turn me into something else.
This is what the Algerian tells me: live first, decide later. Love the genre that you most suspect. Good judgment will spare you nothing, least of all your life. Flow, words: there’s only one story, and it’s filled with doubles. The time for deciding how much you like it is after you’re dead.
Powers comfortably and unflashily inhabits the post-modern territory of the self-conscious storyteller, introducing Russell Stone on a Chicago subway on the first page and saying: “I can’t see him well, at first. But that’s my fault, not his. I’m years away, in another country, and the El car is so full tonight that everyone’s near invisible.”
At various points throughout the book, the narrator speaks of his difficulties with the characters (“I see them clearly now … I assemble the missing bits … I’d dearly love to keep all three safely tucked away in exposition. But they’ve broken out now”) or empathizes with them (“I know exactly how he feels”); uses other media as narrative metaphors (“Forgive one more massive jump cut. This next frame doesn’t start until two years on”); pretends to possess documentary evidence of the tale he’s telling (“By the end, her paper is streaked over in ghostly emerald. Even my photocopy looks like a kelp farm”); comments on the progress of the plot as if he were also just reading it with us (“I want the story to stay there”); and comments on storytelling technique, sometimes in the guise of Frederick Harmon or Russell Stone, sometimes as “himself” (“Every novel is allowed one major coincidence and one minor one”).
If you’re not used to this sort of writing, it might seem precious. But if you’re familiar with the approach, you have to admire the ease with which Powers handles it. Summed up with a series of examples, as in the paragraph above, it also might sound overly intrusive, but distributed throughout a ripping good yarn, it is not.
Powers has always been fond of puns. In the past, they could be a little labored and self-congratulatory (e.g., “Great Scots, woman — you’ll get us all kilts” from Prisoner’s Dilemma), but now they’ve become smoother, fewer, and unforced. The rich similes and metaphors continue, though: a character’s childhood Episcopalianism haunts him like an “ancient creature … still paddling around inside him like some coelecanth, protected by the rumor of its own extinction.” Tonia Schiff realizes: “Broadcast [television] was an eight-lane autobahn into the amygdala….” Has the plodding task of editing ever been more beautifully described than “He ran a comb through the tangled thickets of prose until they almost shone…”?
It doesn’t matter — I doubt Powers even would mind — if a reader doesn’t know who said “Manuscripts don’t burn” or recognize a passing reference to “the child buyers”; or if a reference to “the subterranean world of Tataouine” rings a loud bell but not the significance, on the same page, of “she begins to imagine that it might indeed be possible for even Sisyphus to be happy….”
A part of me wishes Powers had footnoted or end-noted many of his references (for example, “On average, American parents would give their child ninety-fourth percentile beauty and fifty-seventh percentile brains”), but would the book still be a novel, then? It certainly would have increased its size by many pages. When I was an undergrad, John Hersey visited my college and was in a rage about how Norman Mailer had blurred fiction and reality in his so-called “true life novel,” The Executioner’s Song. Hersey said he would make it very clear what was real and what was made up in his coming novel about missionaries in China. (It would be interesting to collect all the opinions in this matter: Hersey’s on Mailer; Mailer on Hersey’s reactions, if any; Mikal Gilmore on Hersey, if any — the acknowledgements of Gilmore’s Shot in the Heart speak admiringly of The Executioner’s Song; and so on.)
When Powers came to Portland in March 2008 for a reading, I told him afterward that, since the passing of John Fowles, he had become my favorite living novelist. He said (with reference to Fowles, of course) that this meant a lot to him.
Fowles had more of a traditional classical education. He was a music lover, but music doesn’t permeate his novels to the extent it does many of Powers’ (who has considerable vocal training and has played saxophone, cello, guitar, and clarinet). Where Fowles mostly placed his characters in, and found his metaphors within, the realms of literature, painting, and film, Powers moves easily into physics, computers, medicine, and various areas of technology. Where their interests intersect more closely is in history (or, as must be the case with any serious writer, time itself), and in their ability to tear off the mask of artifice — to expose the storyteller’s tricks — while at the same time enthralling the reader with a page-turner anyway.
Time passes, as the novelist says. The single most useful trick of fiction for our repair and refreshment: the defeat of time. A century of family saga and ride up an elevator can take the same number of pages. Fiction sets any conversion rate, then changes it in a syllable. The narrator’s mother carries her child up the stairs and the reader follows, for days. But World War I passes in a paragraph. I needed 125 pages to get from Labor Day to Christmas vacation. In six more words, here’s spring.
When, near the close of Generosity, the narrator says of Thassa, “She’s still alive, my invented friend, just as I conceived her, still uncrushed by the collective need for happier endings,” it reminds me of nothing so much as the infamous chapter 13 of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, which begins with the narrator smashing the Victorian-novel spell with the words, “I do not know. This story I am telling is all imagination. These characters I create never existed outside my own mind…” but going on to ensorcel us with the rest of the book just the same.
The two men share an intellectual inquisitiveness and playfulness; an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink ability to encompass disparate areas of knowledge and cultural trivia (due, as Fowles once put it, to “my magpie mind”); and above all, a moral earnestness, a passion for ethical honesty, that can be off-putting to sophisticated readers accustomed to coolness and ambiguity. To these men, writing novels is a profoundly ethical, if not downright moral, undertaking … or should be, anyway.
David Loftus has played clarinet, piano, violin, and percussion; sung in chamber and symphonic choirs; and wrote his undergraduate thesis on John Fowles’s The Magus. He does not, however, write novels.
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