Generosity is the latest novel (2009) from the award-winning American author Richard Powers, and the first work of his that I have read. I wanted to explore his writing because I had read that his novels address the attributes and implications of modern science and technology within the essential framework of the story lines. The central theme of Generosity (no spoilers here – this is on the book’s jacket) pursues the issue of what it would mean to society at large, and to specific individuals as well, if the genetic basis for happiness were discovered.
It’s a strange, convoluted tale and I would not characterize it as “funny, fast and finally magical”, which is how the book jacket characterizes it. To my ear, this novel is an assemblage of some astoundingly beautiful prose shackled to a somewhat tedious post-modern sensibility. The writing definitely delivers on describing current issues in science and technology (genetics and the Internet, specifically); the prose is articulate and knowledgeable, in fact, it’s downright sensuous.
“Some of the profuse gear could be straight out of labs two centuries old: pipettes and flasks, burners and retorts. But the crucial new gear has all gone digital: inscrutable black boxes covered in LEDs, sealed microelectronic sarcophagi . . . devices the size of bread machines that accept matchbox cartridges filled with tens of thousands of biological macromolecules suspended in arrays; sensors that read millions of data points in minutes, that make errors only once every few million reads, and that spit out answers to questions three billion years in the making.” (Generosity, page 96)
But, the superstar geneticist behind the science is remote, far more iconic than the assortment of humanities types that populate the novel and worry about whether big pharma will patent and sell happiness. This imbalance in character development seemed at odds with the passionate, intricate accounts the author presents about the science and its possibilities. With the stunning exception of the personality whom the story centers aournd (a joyous Algerian woman), the other ‘humanities’ roundup are an uninspiring lot of urban intellectuals with commonplace neuroses and insecurities. The language they are portrayed in certainly artful and nuanced, but their conflicts were not profound enough for me to really care what happened to them — with the one exception of the Algerian.
More of the dazzling writing is manifest in the accounts of Chicago and Tunisia. Here’s an excerpt:
“The hotel breakfast: a coffee the consistency of clay slip, a baguette, and jam made from a biblical-tasting fruit she can’t identify. After breakfast, Schiff wanders out into a day that’s like a thousand-watt bulb mounted inside a converted cobalt bowl. . . . She navigates by guidebook up to the Casbah, just to shoot the town’s panorama. There she prowls around La Basilique, documenting the building’s changes in ownership: fourth-century grain storage turned Byzantine church turned mosque, recently returned to a Roman ruin. History is just fluctuations in appetite. Technology changes nothing. Someone, somewhere, sometime will auction off every inclination. When we tire of happiness, someone will make a market of useful despair.” (Generosity, page 245)
In the end, and perhaps not what the author’s intention was, I felt this novel presented a dark, even tragic, vision of the world where mundane commercialization trumps inventive genius and the madness of (Internet) crowds trumps the ten-thousand insights of the (Internet) long tail. And yet, can this guy write! If you like fiction that folds in science integrally to the story, I recommend this novel. I am now going to read one of Power’s earlier works — The Gold Bug Variations (1991).