Russell Stone is a washed-up writer making ends meet by teaching a ‘Journal and Journey’ class to a group of art students at a Chicago college. One member of that group stands out because of her remarkable personality: Thassadit Amzwar is a young woman from Algeria who is apparently happy all the time; nothing seems to bother her, and people are naturally attracted to her sunny disposition. Even after everything she has experienced in her life, Thassa remains in perpetual good humour; Russell speaks to Candace Weld, one of the college’s counsellors, who can only conclude that nothing is wrong, and Thassa is just a naturally happy person. At the same time, we read about Thomas Kurton, a biotechnologist with an evangelical zeal for his work in the field of genetics. Kurton’s current project is to isolate the genetic basis for happiness; when he hears about Thassa, he invites her to participate in his study – and soon she becomes public knowledge.
Generosity has a number of concerns, but the one that’s most prominent to me is stories. The novel is full of then: the creative nonfiction taught by Russell makes a story out of one’s life; media reporting makes a story out of science; science itself makes a story out of the stuff of the universe. The characters are presented to us through filters of story: we first encounter Thomas Kurton as a talking head in a science documentary; and there are frequent asides from the narrator (whose identity is unclear; it may be Richard Powers himself, or perhaps Russell Stone, or the science broadcaster Tonia Schiff, or someone else entirely) which emphasise the fictional nature of what we’re reading. The effect of this is to suggest that reality is mutable: our conceptions of the world change with the telling, and there is no escaping the web of story, however much we might think otherwise (some of the most effective passages in the book show this in action, describing the spread of information in an age when the boundary between public and private has all but dissolved).
This leads into another of Generosity’s main themes, which has to do with the ethics of science and its reporting. Powers is more concerned with dramatising questions than providing answers, and paints a complex picture: is it unethical for Thassa to profit from her genes, if it means that she can improve her family’s lot to a degree that would otherwise be impossible? When Kurton makes a song and dance in the media over his company’s research, is he feeding the flames of hype, or just doing what he has to do to get noticed in that day and age? Such issues never quite lose their shades of grey in the book, as characters are shown to both benefit and lose out from the choices they make.
I’ve been thinking about the characterisation in Generosity for some time, particularly that of Thassa. For one so charismatic with by definition an extraordinary personality, she comes across on the page as remarkably unremarkable – I never felt Thassa’s charisma when reading about her. At first, I considered this a problem, because generally I want to experience characters’ traits, rather than just read about them. But now I tend to think it’s a way of showing how this aspect of her character can be a space that other people fill in their own way; there’s a striking scene where Thassa makes an impassioned speech that spreads all over the internet, but we witness its detail only through the online reactions and imitations. Of the other characters, I found the depiction of Russell Stone particularly vivid; in some ways, he is the opposite of Thassa – where her personality faces naturally outwards, his turns inwards (when we first meet him on the train to work, Russell is described as being ‘dressed for being overlooked’). Over the course of the novel, Powers traces the (fairly complex) development of Russell’s character, as he becomes less withdrawn, but without shaking off his doubts.
Generosity leaves one with much to think about in a variety of areas, from ethical issues in science to the effects on people of being caught up in scientific change; from the place of story in the world to the effects of contemporary communication methods. Recommended.
This novel has been shortlisted for the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke Award. Click here to read my other posts about the Award.