The novel will always be a kind of Stockholm syndrome – love letters to the urge that has abducted us. (p. 95)
Good books, the really good ones that you want to proclaim from the rooftops, to thrust at strangers and insist for their own good that they read them, tend to come in two varieties. There are those that make you read faster and faster as you progress through the book, impelled by an urgency that is beyond your control. And there are those that make you read more and more slowly, in part because you find yourself constantly stopping to chew over what you’ve read, and in part because you dread that approaching moment when you are thrust out into the darkness at the end of the book.
Generosity by Richard Powers is of the second variety.
Tolstoy once said that all happy families are alike. Powers has managed the tricky job of showing us happiness that is different, that is nuanced, that is engaging and that is convincing. Though he has done so in a novel that is not altogether happy. To misquote Eliot, he suggests that humankind cannot bear too much happiness.
On one level, then, this is the story of what happens when Russell Stone meets a truly happy person. Stone is not exactly our protagonist, though he does precipitate some of the action, but he is our primary viewpoint character. Once, some time before, he had made a name for himself as the author of a series of revelatory articles; until he lost faith in himself and in what he was doing as a writer. Now he earns a minimal living as an editor, and supplements his income teaching a course on creative non-fiction, a course for which he feels peculiarly ill-suited. One of his students is a girl of Algerian descent, Thassadit Amzwar, who exudes a calm joy in everything. She seems to befriend everyone, and everyone seems happy to know her. Yet the more he learns about her, the more Stone feels there is something wrong in such happiness. She has escaped civil war in her native Algeria, she has witnessed horrors, her family has experienced horrors, now those of her family who have escaped are living in exile in Toronto while she studies film in Chicago. Can such a person in such circumstances truly be happy? Yet she is, in a deep, calm, and unconsidered way that seems to infect everyone who comes into contact with her with a similar sense of well-being.
The point of Tolstoy’s quote is that there is little to say about happiness, it may be wonderful to experience but it is boring to describe, boring to read about, because it can be described only in the way that it has been described every other time. Powers’s novel is excellent in many ways (and I hope to note at least some of these ways in what follows), but perhaps the most extraordinary is the quiet and convincing way he describes Thassa. She is an individual, she is fully herself, she goes through the twists and turns, ups and downs that make us believe in the multi-dimensional, flesh and blood reality of the most solid fictional characters; and yet, however her mood may swing, we never lose sight of her deep, underlying joy, a joy that is distinctive and yet instantly and fully recognizable. Having met Thassa, it is hard to imagine that I might ever have met another truly happy person in any other work of fiction.
And yet there is always that question, the question that plagues Stone: can this be true? He researches her background (which leaves him more than ever convinced that no-one who survived that could genuinely be as happy as Thassa appears); he discovers a technical term, hyperthymia, which refers to those who "live every day bathed in renewable elation, enjoying a constant mania without the depression" (p. 67), which satisfies him because it suggests she is suffering from a medical condition (though it really doesn’t apply to Thassa’s experiences); and he consults a college counselor, Candace Weld, who finds herself similarly fascinated by Thassa.
Then one of her fellow students gets drunk and tries to rape Thassa, but she talks him out of it. Thassa herself is inclined to shrug off the incident, as she seems to shrug off everything bad that happens to her, but the would-be rapist hands himself in to the police. The story gets out, the police interview Stone who drops the magic word, hyperthymia, and suddenly Thassa is an internet and local news sensation.
This is a solid enough story in itself, but it is only a part of what Powers has to tell us. Interspersed with the story of Stone, Candace, and Thassa (predictably, a romance develops between Stone and Candace, both of whom have been damaged in relationships before, and the very ordinariness of their tentative affair is one of the incidental and low-key delights of this novel), we watch extracts from a science documentary being prepared by Tonia Schiff about the genetic researcher Thomas Kurton. It will be the last documentary Tonia Schiff makes—although we later see her flying to Tunisia in an attempt to revive her career—because her research will raise awkward moral questions for the ice-cold intellectual, and these will lead her to walk away from the project.
Kurton, meanwhile, is rich, confident, and glamorous, a smooth and eloquent advocate for the value of genetic research. But beneath the surface he is struggling to hold things together. In a world where you are only as successful as your last big discovery, he is facing a growing revolt from his own research team about his delays in announcing their latest findings. Kurton is holding off because he is not sure himself of the value of what they have found, nor is he confident of the right way to exploit the discovery, an uncertainty that will eventually see him forced out of his own company.
Together, the interplay between Schiff and Kurton enables Powers to explore a host of fascinating issues, such as the public and political character of scientific research in contemporary America, the pressure to announce discoveries through press conferences rather than peer-reviewed journals, the need to exploit discoveries economically almost before the discovery itself has been confirmed to avoid having your idea hijacked by other labs, and the resultant moral questions that are raised by all this. Powers’s sure handling of all this makes Generosity one of the most impressive and convincing novels about science I have encountered in a very long time.
And this is still only part of the story Powers has to tell.
The two stories come together because Kurton is seeking to isolate the gene for happiness. When he hears about Thassa he immediately recruits her. But when he finally announces his success, it quickly becomes known who his major gene donor is, and Thassa becomes the object of immense media and personal interest. She finds herself on a wicked parody of the Oprah Winfrey Show, she finds religious groups attacking her, and other religious groups queuing for her touch as if her mere presence will in some way cure their ills. It becomes too much even for her equanimity, and it also starts to threaten the fledgling relationship between Stone and Candace. Without ever quite becoming a straightforward tragedy, the worlds of Stone, Candace, Kurton, Schiff, and Thassa all start to come unraveled as a direct consequence of her joy.
We are led to question the way science is conducted, the morality of contemporary scientific investigation, the morality of contemporary media, yet not once does Powers allow himself to suggest a simple answer. Both Candace and Kurton are scientists, both find themselves at odds with the political structure of current scientific endeavor, yet they both lose and win because of that structure. Both Stone and Schiff are observers, people who structure the stories by which we come to understand science and its consequences; the questions they ask lead both of them to confront moral issues and force both of them to put at risk their personal and professional lives, yet neither of them could avoid asking those questions.
And this is still not the whole story that Powers has to tell.
There is another character implicated in all of this: the author. Right from the start we see him struggling to structure his tale. When he introduces Stone in the first line of the novel he immediately admits: "I can’t see him well, at first" (p. 3), and a few pages later, as Stone begins his first class, the author says:
I wish I could make out Stone’s students better. I can see how they disturb him. But I just can’t see them in any detail. They’re hiding in the sullen, shiny performance of youth. (p. 7)
And indeed he does then introduce them in terms of the performance each has fashioned for themselves.
I say "he". It is easy to assume that this uncertain, questioning voice is indeed Richard Powers’s own. But there is, in fact, no reason for us to think so. This vaguely postmodern technique, breaking down the hierarchy between author and reader, might seem a distancing device, emphasizing that this is story and thus taking us one step away from sharing its feelings. Actually, it has the opposite effect, making us part of the process of constructing the story. When Thassa agrees to go with Kurton to his lab in Boston the authorial voice addresses us thus: "You know the story in Boston. You know what the lab will have to discover" (p. 148). In one sense, no we don’t: the story hasn’t taken us that far yet. But in another sense, of course we do: we know the logic that such stories as this must operate by. We are complicit in structuring the story.
Everything—science, media, human relationships—is story. We understand what is happening because the story we have made allows us to anticipate how the thing is going to develop. That is what the author is telling us; the author who may be Richard Powers, but who is also you and me and everyone who is reading the story and making it up as they go along. And as he tells us in a somewhat disturbing aside later: "Story is antilife, the brain protecting itself from its only possible finale" (p. 273). Nothing here is one-sided, nothing is simple. Even when we think we understand what is going on, we have to question ourselves, raise the opposite possibility.
And that, I am sure, is still only part of what Powers has to tell us.
This is an incredibly rich novel that makes you read it more and more slowly if only because it gives you more and more to think about as you go through it. It is, at heart, a novel about love and happiness, a novel about how we see the world and how we make up the world we see, and it is a very fine novel about science. Whether fiction about science qualifies as science fiction I don’t know and, to be honest, in this case I don’t care. What matters is that this is a novel that has managed to be as emotionally and as intellectually exciting as anything I have read in a very long time.