Richard Powers is a master of sleight-of-hand. He writes novels full of science but escapes being called a science fiction writer. In Generosity: An Enhancement, the latest novel by the MacArthur “genius” grant and National Book Award winner (for The Echo Maker), Powers feints and flourishes in order to - presto-magico - pull together two seemingly unrelated themes: genetic engineering and creative nonfiction.
In Powers’ hands, the relation between the two themes is laid bare: they both are concerned with the nature, manipulation, and enhancement of reality. In recent years, we’ve seen the formerly innocuous genre of memoir mutate into the high-stakes blockbuster industry of creative nonfiction. And woe unto he who fudges the truth in his memoir, who tells a lie, however small. What used to be par for the course in memoir is now a cardinal sin: remember James Frey and A Million Little Pieces?
A character in Generosity - the narrator, in fact - says, “Feelings are the new facts. Memoir is the new history. Tell-alls are the new news.” And novels, moreover, are a “kind of Stockholm syndrome - love letters to the urge that has abducted us.” “Creative nonfiction,” meanwhile, “comes down to this: science now holds routine press conferences.” PR hacks spin the message while pundits amplify the noise of their best-paying clients.
So it’s no surprise that the genetic engineering - or genomics, as it’s now called - twine of the novel makes its public debut on a talk show. Or that from time to time the narrator in this (seemingly) third-person omniscient work of fiction obtrusively presents himself in the first person - but therein lies another aspect of Powers’ magical sleight-of-hand that the reader needs to witness for herself.
It’s also no surprise, perhaps, that the novel begins in that location so central to the decadence of the culture we find ourselves rollercoastering in, the creative writing workshop classroom. Russell Stone is a once-rising star of creative nonfiction who, via heartbreak and other disenchantments, has fallen to translating personal testimonies into Standard English for a Web site (everything has become “content” plugging in holes in the messaging machines) and teaching writing night classes at a Chicago art school.
In his workshop is a refugee from the Algerian revolution, that war that was so bitter it tore the country into a million little pieces and left Thassadit Amzwar the sole survivor in her family: “Ten years of organized bloodbath have reduced a country the size of western Europe to a walking corpse.” She should suffer from post-traumatic stress, depression, be suicidal and dark. But she’s happy, strangely upbeat; she’s so delightful that her jaded classmates (who range from a dressed-in-black Goth to a socially inept cyber-nerd) call her Miss Generosity: “Thassa has emerged from that land glowing like a blissed-out mystic.” She has a voice like a “mountain flute,” and her stories, written and otherwise, enchant her classmates and everyone she meets. WTF, Stone wonders, is up with that?
Powers allows - and is up-front with us in this aspect of the novel writer’s craft - one minor and one major coincidence in his story (this is hilarious because it’s a rule of thumb in every creative writing textbook, but saying so in a novel is akin to a magician explaining his sleight-of-hand via a slo-mo demonstration), and thus Miss Generosity is connected to Thomas Kurton, wizard of genomics and CEO of Truecyte. The plot of Generosity forms a double helix.
Kurton is working on programming (and patenting for Truecyte) the human genome. He’s hot on the trail of the happiness gene and, in Thassa Amzwar, he thinks he’s found it. Kurton runs tests on Amzwar, finds his magic bullet of a gene, and finally publishes the paper that tells the world that enhancement of the human personality is a matter of proper engineering:
“The script that has kept us in gloom and dread is about to be rewritten. Labs across the globe are closing in on those ridiculous genetic errors that cause life to suicide.” The crowd, as they say, goes wild - and the shit hits the fan.
Powers’ magic is that in “enhancing” the truth of a story it becomes truer still, and creative nonfiction is no exception. How decadent, perhaps even pre-apocalyptic, that Oprah should have kicked James Frey’s ass for telling a white lie in his book. Frey’s enhancement did no harm, but he lied to Oprah. Powers has such literalism locked in his sights: the showdown between Thassa and the geneticist takes place on Oona, a dead ringer for the Oprah format, book club and all.
Thassa, it turns out, is really fairly normal. Genomics, and designs derived therefrom, aren’t the answer leading to a Prozac nation full of smiley-faced people-drones; it’s another kind of lying, enhancement, story telling. And fiction, creative non- or otherwise, is nothing without conflict. The cognitive engine of culture and all our creative endeavor is, perhaps sadly, certainly for better and for worse, conflict.
MacArthur grants aside, devoted readers have known since at least The Gold Bug Variations that Powers is, in fact, a genius. He’s one of the few writers working who has such a sure grasp of science, its ethical and political dimensions, and a fully realized literary voice. Generosity brings to the fore all Powers’ talents and passions in a refreshingly succinct and accessible read that is as amusing as it is thought-provoking.