Richard Powers is one of the most interesting mainstream American novelists working today. I threw in “mainstream” there because much of Powers’ fiction is concerned with science and its role in human affairs as both an institution and as a philosophical conundrum to be explored in trying to make sense of the human condition—which is what novelists tend to try to do. As a result, much of Powers’ best fiction—Galatea 2.2 and Plowing the Dark come to mind—are elegant meldings of genuine novelistic achievement and a finely honed understanding and appreciation of the dynamics of contemporary scientific issues. For that matter, much of Powers’ work is pretty indistinguishable from the work of some writers who are forever consigned to the “science fiction” section of your friendly bookstore, although Powers’ work won’t show up there. This is ironic, because in some ways Powers’ most recent novels—The Echo Maker in 2006, and now Generosity, published last year—exemplify the (occasionally justified) criticisms that critics and writers often have of science fiction—the indifferent characterization of the protagonists of the novels, the clumsy and often unbelievable plotting devices, the stereotypical and flat narrative style. Which makes me wonder what’s going on.
Powers is a writer whose books I genuinely look forward to because, like a number of my favourite contemporary novelists (Howard Norman, John Berger, the late Angela Carter, Evan S. Connell) his books have thrilled me in the past. Reading Galatea 2.2 or Plowing the Dark for the first time is to be transported to a different realm entirely. This is what great books, and great writers, do. So what has happened in Generosity to make is so disappointing? We have a stimulating and, indeed, important story line—an unfulfilled writer encounters in a creative writing class he is teaching a student (Thassa) who seems to embody happiness. In spite of her background (Algerian refugee, parents dead), she glows, and makes everyone around her glow as well. He tries to understand this, and this leads to the usual fictional journeys (boy meets girls, crises emerge) and some heady scientific discussion, since what becomes at issue in the book is the question of whether or not there is a gene for happiness. And if there is, should we develop it?
As always, the questions Powers deals with are important ones, both philosophically and scientifically. Powers knows his science, and does a pretty good job of explaining it. In The Echo Maker, Powers’ previous novel, we learned a whole lot about neurological conditions and the brain, and what can go wrong. And how people deal with the complications that actually ensue in people’s lives when things do go wrong. In Galatea 2.2, and Plowing the Dark, we learn quite a lot about what’s interesting, and what’s potentially limiting, about Artificial Intelligence. In Generosity, we learn a lot about genetics (although Powers has to presume some basic familiarity on the part of his readership). And we learn about the business of science, perhaps more explicitly than in any of Powers’ other novels. And, as always, the strength of the ideas, and the discussion of them, carries quite a bit of the narrative forward.
But in Generosity, as in The Echo Maker, it no longer seems to be enough. These are not bad books by any means, the way, say Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake was a genuinely bad book by a good writer. But they are disappointing, in part because the characters are no longer as developed—either Powers has gotten a bit lazy, or else I’m more jaded to his characterizations. I wanted to believe in these characters—they seem like normal people with the usual conflicts and emotions that normal people have, and they find themselves in some unusual situations that they mist resolve, the way good fictional characters do—but somehow this doesn’t work. The boy meets girl plot is just entirely too convenient. The narrator himself, on the odd occasions when he interjects himself, just doesn’t seem to make sense. The science guy is too overconfident in his science. The media whores are too transparently media whores. And Powers pulls a narrative trick here that just doesn’t work, with the recurring implied ambiguity about just who is the narrator here, anyway? That is more of a distraction than anything else. And these weaknesses detract from the novel’s admitted strengths—the quality of the ideas, and the social commentary. Powers does a very nice job of following the natural results of the notion of a “happiness gene” in modern pop American culture, from the Oprah-like TV star whose popularization of Thassa has the inevitable social consequence, to the discussion of what money is to be made from the marketing of Thasa’s happiness.
One less kindly reviewer—James Wood over at The New Yorker—has suggested that part of the problem may be that Powers now writes by dictation with word recognition software, and perhaps needs some bullshit-detection software as well. This may not be a bad guess. There is a need for novelists to do what Powers is doing, with varying degrees of success—face up to the implications of scientific issues, and deal with these issues intelligently and humanely. Powers takes a somewhat deterministic view of the world—biology determines a lot. But that’s a philosophical view that one can endlessly debate, and it’s a debate we should be encouraging. And we should be encouraging serious writers like Powers to be taking these leaps. I’m prepared to live with the disappointments, like Generosity. I just hope there won’t be too many more of them.