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GENEROSITY Paperback – August 3, 2010
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"Devoted" by Dean Koontz
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“Provocative...fascinating...dazzling.”―Ron Charles, The Washington Post
“An excellent introduction to Powers's work, a lighter, leaner treatment of his favorite themes and techniques...An engaging story-teller...even as he questions the conventions of narrative and character, Generosity gains in momentum and suspense.”―Jay McInerney, The New York Times Book Review
“Powers is a brilliantly imaginative writer, working here with a lightness of touch, a crisp sense of peace, and a distinct warmth...Powers shows both his reach as a student of humanity and his mastery as a storyteller.”―O, The Oprah Magazine
“When written by Dostoevsky, Dickens, or Richard Powers at his best, one may feel that [the novel] can contain every facet of the world.”―Michael Dirda, The New York Review of Books
“Powers fuses riveting narrative and spot-on dialogue with thought-provoking social analysis.”―Dan Cryer, Newsday
“One of our most exciting contemporary novelists.”―Amanda Gefter, Philadelphia Inquirer
"Powers is better than the best of almost anybody else."―John Leonard, Harper's Magazine
"Powers may well be one of the smartest novelists now writing."―Los Angeles Times
"One of our greatest novelists."―Booklist
"[Powers's] characters are unforgettable, flesh-and-blood individuals as finely drawn as those of any contemporary fiction writer."―Steve Weinberg, The Seattle Times
"To read his work is to be wowed by his verbal muscularity...admirable...wonderfully original."―Meg Wolitzer, The New York Times Book Review
About the Author
- Item Weight : 15.2 ounces
- Paperback : 336 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0312429754
- ISBN-13 : 978-0312429751
- Product Dimensions : 5.5 x 0.84 x 8.25 inches
- Publisher : Picador Paper; First Edition (August 3, 2010)
- Language: : English
- Best Sellers Rank: #632,557 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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There are a lot of topics brought up in this story, and the ones I likes the most were about genetic manipulation/engineering. It made me think about where we are headed and where we came from, and how we pretty much don't learn our lessons very well.
There is also a lot of interplay between technology, social media, and other "modern" distractions and habits.
The wall between story and reader is thin, and gets broken down a number of times in the book, which at first annoyed me [I come from a pretty classical reading experience], but after a while, I liked it a lot. It reminded me of those movies where one or all of the characters break down the wall between the movie and the audience and talk to the screen, as if they were inviting us to share some secret, behind the scenes information about the story. They do it a lot on Modern Family for instance.
The main character is majorly flawed and pitted against another major character who is "perfect" in mood and resilience. The pitch and tone of the story are enhanced by this dichotomy. A thoughtful pleasant and innovative read.
You know from the beginning that this is going to be one of those literary novels whose theme is "anything good in the world inevitably gets ruined." I've read that book too many times already. And the author evidently thinks he's doing something really cool and clever by commenting on his writing process within the book. News flash: It's been done before, and better--Pirandello's "Six Characters In Search of An Author" is almost a hundred years old. In my opinion, unless an author has something really unusual to offer by intruding into the story, s/he should stay out of the way and let the story do the talking. I think the story would have been strong enough on its own (if still kind of a downer) without the authorial self-insertion, but if Powers didn't have that much confidence in it, maybe he should have written another book.
Still, it's a well-written book and one I'm still thinking about, albeit with a high degree of irritation. What is happiness, anyway? For me, it's reading a story where the author stays offstage!
Many fans, myself included, appreciate Richard Powers as a humanist who can artfully bridge his understanding of sciences into his fiction, as he did in Gold Bug Variations and Galatea 2.2: A Novel, for example. In his new novel, Generosity: An Enhancement, Powers explores issues entangled in genetic engineering, questions about what it means to be human and to be happy.
The principal characters are a young Algerian woman who appears happiness gifted, Thassadit Amzwar (Thassa), and her writing teacher at a fictional Chicago college ("Mesquakie"), Russell Stone. Based on just a few exposures to Thassa in his writing class Russell begins to worry that she is too happy, which he somehow perceives to put her at risk. He involves a college counselor, Candace Weld, who after a brief informal meeting assigns a diagnostic name to Thassa's condition, "hyperthymia." The plot proceeds along two main lines from there, as television personalities and bio-engineering entrepreneurs fasten on to Thassa to serve their own ends and as a romance between Russell and Candace inches along.
Powers brings in a fair amount of what psychologists, neuroscientists, and geneticists have to say these days about the causal correlates and manifestations of happiness. His chief vehicle is his fictional genomics entrepreneur, Thomas Kurton, who takes on Thassa as an object of study and potential profit. Kurton believes there are happiness genes and he advocates market access to them for parents who want to bestow such blessings upon their children.
Powers is more satirically critical of contemporary culture in Generosity than in his earlier works. In addition to over-reaching bio-engineers, he particularly targets mass communications: cell phones, blogs, streaming "news," "time shifting," "user generated" content, social networking sites, television news, science celebrity shows, the Oprah show, and more.
One other significant thing is going on in Generosity: Powers writes about writing. Interlocutions from an author character are staggered throughout. We are frequently reminded that it is just a story, that the author hasn't figured out yet what will happen, and that he cares about his characters. Remember too that Russell teaches (the course is "creative non-fiction"), so the class scenes and his assigned text ("Make Your Writing Come Alive") offer opportunities for further commentary on the enterprise of writing. One wonders whether this aspect reflects Powers' own doubts and concerns about the story he is constructing.
Powers has been criticized in the past for failing to fully animate his characters. Here Thassa might appear to rescue him from that charge. But it is never credibly demonstrated for us why people are so convinced of her elevated and persistent happiness almost immediately upon meeting her. For the most part we are simply told that they are. When Russell and Candace quickly become concerned about her they have insufficient evidence either that she has some sort of unique endowment or that she is exposed because of it. Consequently they become rather too frantic about Thassa's fate very early on when nothing was yet out of hand.
Russell himself is not the sort of dynamic protagonist that might ease the author's task. At one juncture we are told that, "He's forgotten exactly what subassembly of the collective human project he is responsible for, or when exactly it might be due," a characterization that seems applicable more or less throughout. Candace is the responsible adult, a consummate professional in her counseling work and a dutiful single mother. Powers writes that together Russell and Candace "... stand there awkwardly, two more victims of natural selection, caught between negativity bias and the eternal belief that the future will be slightly better than the present." As you might surmise, this hardly makes for a sizzling romantic relationship.
Most of the other characters basically represent stereotypes, particularly Kurton and Thassa's classmates. The most fully-realized may be Tonia Schiff, a television science journalist -- we learn enough about her upbringing and the changes she's gone through that she seems authentic, even if we may not like her. Russell's brother Robert makes only a few appearances, but delivers the funniest passages in the book.
Typically it is the fundamentals that carry good fiction, the plot and characters. With Powers it is more the intellectual superstructure. If you have read him before and enjoyed it you will likely find Generosity satisfying as well. If you are looking for some breakthrough in his writing you may be disappointed. If you are new to him, this book will show you how he works.
Top reviews from other countries
The story of Generosity is this - a nerdy writer takes a college class in creative non-fiction and meets two unusual women. His student, an Algerian refugee seems afflicted by permanent happiness despite her terrible personal story. He brings this up with a student psychology counsellor, Candace, and the pair decide to explore whether she is 'suffering' from a medical condition. They turn to a famous Ventnor type to test her and the ensuing action turns her life upside down and miserable.
In all this, Powers demonstrates his prowess at exploring what is natural in human beings. The writer stands for the arts and human nature, Candace for reason and science - and they fall in love. It is obvious role reversal. Thomas Kurton (the Ventnor character) is pure masculine science - let's improve on mother nature - and the female science reporter who breaks the story is conflicted and changes sides from science to nature in the course of the plot. None of this feels contrived.
At the heart of the drama is the lovely Thassa - the ultimate woman - a natural uniter, a charismatic lover of life who seems unstoppable until her encounter with science almost destroys her. She is not a real person, you think while reading, yet she sets off this amazing tale and keeps you involved.
The Echo Makers is one of the finest novels I've read, and Generosity, though slightly behind it, contains enough stunning writing and intelligence to make me recommend the book warmly.
I enjoyed Generosity more than any, because his writing is particularly crystalline, his characters very accessible, and the underlying investigation of what makes us happy is a worthwhile theme, underpinned with some interesting perspectives on what genetics can or cannot determine. If you haven't read any of his work, this is a great one to try first. If you have liked any before then I don't think this would disappoint. But if you have tried and truly not been engaged by his style and approach, then this probably won't win you over. Ripping Yarns is not what he does. But most of those are soon forgotten. His books aren't.
Generosity is a novel that is thin on plot and great characterization. These are not its purpose. So with tongue in cheek a brief synopsis of the story is as follows. Mr Powers runs two parallel stories together before dove tailing them. A failed writer, Russell Stone, turns to teaching "creative non-fiction" at an art college, where he meets the central character, Thassadit Amzwar an Algerian who has a propensity to display happiness. Thassadit soon becomes the centre of attraction for just about everyone who wants to gain the capacity for being happy most of the times. But more crucially geneticist, Thomas Kurton, who happens to be doing research into gene therapy, learns about Thassadit's condition and of course pursues her in a quest to ascertain if her happiness is derived from her genes. Fleshing out the story are two couples Russell Stone and Candace Weld, and Thomas Kurton and Tonia Schiff. Stuck among them causing happiness or more ironically angst is Thassadit. The time period is contemporary and the setting is mainly Chicago but sometimes moving to Tunisia. The narrative device is inventive.
Powers dabbles with an interesting narrative technique. The story is essentially told by the first person - an omniscient first person. But Powers allows the narrative to flow as if there is no narrator or at least he gives the appearance of switching to the third person narrator. All the while it is the first person voice we hear who at times clearly appears in the narrative as observer and story teller.
In places Powers style is fluent and brilliant. His sentences are sometimes arresting. Here is an example where he is describing the thought process of a novelist, Nobel laureate, who is having a debate with the scientist Thomas Kurton: "The writer's thought is so dense that every clause tries to circle back for another try before plunging on." Or where he uses refreshing metaphor to describe the feelings of one of his main characters, Candace: "She trembles and tears up. But her shoulders and torso remain strangely marble." Furthermore, Powers text is in parts one that can only be describe as meta-fiction. I can't remember anywhere else in fiction, apart from Proust, where the writer so explicitly stands back from the text and examine its process and nature. The character Kurton, "praises the long mysterious journey of literature" and Powers have him tell us that: "Imaginative writing has always been the engine of future facts."
So if the novel is thin on plot and characterization, what is its raison d'etre? Like many of Powers previous novels, Generosity dwells in the realms of ideas. What makes the ideas Powers set out to explore relevant to the non-intellectual is that they are about the basic stuff of life. At the start of part two of the novel, Powers has an ethicists, Anne Harter, and the geneticist, Thomas Kurton, debate the issue of the value of aging in a context of scarce resources. The issue here is relevant to all of us: do we want to use genetics to keep the affluent in the first world living longer? Or should we allow people to age naturally and die creating a more equal opportunity for the masses across the world to share its resources?
More down to earth, on one level Generosity works as, let's say a minor thriller. Thomas Kurton becomes so embroiled with Thassadit's capacity for happiness that he goes off on a quest to find its source. But Powers is also looking ahead to the possibilities of gene technology. So on another level the novel satirize the present and future generations for what Powers expects will be their vanity in the application of genetics. In an interview session Powers has Tonia Schiff, a science journalist, ask Kurton: "Is it true that a California woman has mortgaged her house to raise the $50,000 needed to bring her dog back from the dead?" In the future age that Powers envisage, Kurton's response to Tonia Schiff is laced with irony. He answers: "A lot of us might be willing to pay as much for meaningful connection with another living thing."
If the novel is about exploring the contemporary human condition, rather than mere unimaginative biographical and historical forays, then Richard Powers has his finger on the pulse of what drives our contemporary human condition. Ranging from the current state of the arts in a world dominated by the quick pace of IT and modern technology to the basic substance of what makes us sentient beings, Mr Powers fiction is highly imaginative, perhaps a little dry, and relevant to our times.
What Powers has done in this novel is peer into a future world where the current research genome project has come to fruition and is applied in the new world. We get both a positive and negative glimpse of such a world. The means by which Powers show us his highly imaginative world is both exciting to follow and at times demanding but it is worth the effort.