Generosity: An Enhancement by Richard Powers


This book has multiple strains that bump against each other. First we are introduced to the nebbishy editor who had once written brilliantly cutting non-fiction, but couldn't bear the real or imagined harm it did to the subjects. As he begins teaching a night school class in writing, issues about writing come up. The class argues about the concept of how many plotlines exist and thereafter throughout the book plots are referred as they are designated in the textbook. Occasionally the author refers to himself and his choices in creating the book. 

One member of the night school class is an Algerian woman, dubbed Miss Generosity and is beloved of all who meet her; she is always upbeat, warm and happy about the world despite the violence she faced in her young life. Thassadit is the central figure of the book, apparently the one the author loves most.

Another story line that runs along with and sometimes connects with the Thassadit story is that of a geneticist Thomas Kurton who is sure the world will be remade. And yet another centers on Tonia Schiff, the smart and sassy TV science program interviewer who of course intersects with both Thomas Kurton and Thassadit.

I found the scientist pretty unconvincing as he often speaks as he does in this quote from the podium at a university conference on aging:

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. Aging is not just a disease; it's the mother of all maladies. And humankind may finally have a shot at curing it.

He strives to stay in good health and wears a bracelet that informs medical personnel what to do when he dies to preserve his body for the time when the age thing has been cured. Kind of a ridiculous figure, but makes for good TV.

Though she maintains she is an ordinary person, Thassadit becomes a public figure and is interviewed by a Chicago television personality named Oona. Thomas then persuades her to allow extensive testing in hopes that her "happiness genes" can be identified and help in the elimination of misery. 

Ultimately Thassadit discovers the limits of happy time, Tonia Schiff finds she can only ignore science in the creation of good TV for so long, Thomas Kurton is forced to resign from the company he created by the venture capitalists, and the nebbishy editor Russell Stone finds true love and happiness. 

There are countless epigrammatic statements scattered throughout. When Russell and Thassadit set out on a trip from Chicago to Montreal, we get "The journey of a single mile begins with a thousand regrets." Later, "Despair: the mother of science, father of art, discarder of hypotheses, a thing that only wants to eliminate itself from the pool." And "The genes of discontentment are loose, and painting the universe. Life's job is to get out of their way." 

Richard Powers, Generosity: an Enhancement, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009, 296 pages. I listened to the audiobook.  Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.

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