The American novelist Richard Powers is one of those writers who straddles both commercial and critical success. His last novel - his ninth, Echomaker - won the US National Book Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer, while his other works have gathered armfuls of other awards and acclaim. Generosity, his tenth novel, published in the UK in January 2010, comes emblazoned with praise for his work from the likes of Margaret Atwood writing in the NY Review of Books and the late John Updike in the NY Times, while the accompanying blurb is equally full of plaudits.
Powers blends fast-paced, action-packed storylines with intelligence and a ferocious imagination. In Generosity he tackles the world of genetic engineering. The novel is set in current time but in a parallel world, one in which 20% of human genes have already been patented. Russell Stone is a failed writer whose brief glimpse of fame faded when he realised the unforseen human consequences of his cutting articles: he toned his work down to avoid hurting more people but was deemed to have lost his bite. He is now working as a ghost writer for a confessional website while teaching part-time. When he embarks on his new course as lecturer in an evening class on writing, he is mystified by an Algerian woman in his class. Thassa is a twenty three year-old refugee who has tragically lost both her parents and experienced brutality first-hand in her home country. Yet she is so full of natural radiance that everyone around her is magnetised.
Simultaneously, Thomas Kurton, a famous geneticist is toiling away at his research. He has previously produced transgenic cows which produce milk containing proteins capable of curing some human illness. His most recent work is isolating the genes responsible for happiness. Thassa inevitably becomes embroiled in the hunt for the chromosomal key to human joy, and her life changes irrevocably.
I am the wrong person to review any adventure novel leave alone one based in the murky world of science, combining as I do an aversion to adventure/events-driven fiction with cynicism. My love is for books which centre around people rather than events. But I recognise that Powers creates tight, well-researched populist fiction. In Generosity, Powers parodies the concept of the omniscient narrator: so many commercially successful writers use the third person narrative in an all-knowing way, lazily telling us details about characters that they could easily have conveyed through the story. Powers turns this on its head by employing a first person narrator we're really aware of, one who makes his presence known by passing comments on the characters( eg on Russell: 'He's just thirty-two, I know, although he seems much older') and yet who is blatantly not a character in the story himself. So as well as knowing all about the characters, the narrator reads over Russell's shoulder, declares that he has a photocopy of the document Russell is holding, and so on. This device is odd and a little disconcerting, and at times feels knowing and pedantic, but it's certainly original and has the desired effect of evoking discomfort.
My main problem with Generosity was in the implausibility of the precept that everyone adores Thassa. I have no problem with the fact that some people are unnaturally joyful whatever life throws at them, nor with the idea that these people are universally loved (although it has to be said that many people are irritated by Polyanna types, seeing them as foolish/shallow or, worse, messianic and beatific.) No, it was more with the creation of Thassa. I didn't find her magnetic or lovable. The trouble with novelists creating enigmatic characters is that they usually have to show the reader why the character is so intriguing by giving examples of what they do and say. And Thassa doesn't come across as the adorable person she's meant to be. Her essays about Algeria are certainly upbeat and chirpy, but her interactions with others left me tepid. At one point Russell asks Thassa how she's coping with the local Arabophobia. She grins and replies that she's not an Arab but a Kabyle, then says that Russell's surname is a good Arab name when translated, adding 'Hey! Are you planning any terror, Mister?' While this is a valiant attempt to expose the racist stereotypes many people have (dark skin=Arab=terrorist), it's clumsy and Thassa's 'quip' wouldn't garner more than a lame smile in real life. But in the story, people are mesmerised by her. Another time, during a student assessment, Russell is advising Thassa while she scribbles away in her note book. He assumes she's taking notes but after a while she turns the page to show him a cartoon of him. Taddaa! How many teachers would be charmed by this, as Russell obviously is, and how many infuriated/irked? There isn't even the excuse that Thassa is beautiful - in real life, however unfair it is, beautiful people often manage to hypnotise others and are sometimes attributed positive personality characteristics because of their physical beauty. This isn't the case with Thassa.
Still, this is a small nit in an otherwise accomplished work. The scientific research is impressive, with the psychologists and doctors sounding plausible on the brain chemistry of and genetic predisposition to happiness. The rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Thassa's home country, Algeria, is also convincingly portrayed, as is Russell's growing obsession with this rootless refugee who confounds his expectations by remaining chipper in the face of terrible adversity. I'm prepared to accept that the reason I wasn't seduced is because it's a genre I'm not keen on, but those readers who are drawn to imaginative thrillers which explore the potential results of science taken to extremes may find this a compelling work.