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Richard Powers: Generosity

It is no secret that Richard Powers is enamoured of technology and the advances it is making, particularly as it affects our daily life. This novel deals, to a great extent, with what the mass media have called the happiness gene. It tells the stories of a group of people associated with Thassadit Amzwar, a Kabyle from Algeria, who may have the happiness gene, which is, according to Thomas Kurton, a geneticist, a one in a million chance at best. The story starts, however, with Russell Stone, a writer who definitely does not have the happiness gene (though realises, like most literary heroes, that the way to happiness, if you don’t have the happiness gene, is through love and romance). Stone specialises in non-fiction writing and had some success early with a few stories but when he got severely criticised for two of his stories – one on a homeless man and another on a man with mental problems, he had retreated to more factual non-fiction writing. He is therefore surprised when an arts college in Chicago calls him to teach a non-fiction writing class, guessing, correctly, that the college is desperate. The class contains the usual bunch of wannabees and people doing the class just to make up credits. But the class also includes Thassa. She has had a terrible life, growing up in Algeria where slaughter was routine. He father had been shot and her mother had died of cancer soon after. Despite the difficulties of her life, she is irredeemably happy.

Neither Russell nor the other students can understand her happiness but they soon realise that it is infectious and it livens them up as well. Russell wonders whether she is on drugs. He checks with the college’s psychologist, Candace Weld, but she is also infected with Thassa’s happiness and, gradually, very gradually, Candace and Russell start an affair. However, one of Thassa’s fellow students accompanies her to her apartment. She invites him in and he tries to rape her (he is very large and can force himself on her). However, she manages to persuade him of the stupidity of his attempt. He is so ashamed of his action that he not only backs off but turns himself into the police. Thassa does not wish to press charges, as nothing much happened, but the police talk to Russell who, using a word he has learned from Candace, describes Thassa’s condition as hyperthymia. This word finds its way onto the web and is picked up by many people but, in particular, Thomas Kurton, who has been struggling with looking for someone with the DNA structure she seems to have. From there, Kurton’s view – that the human genome can be manipulated to produce happiness and change other aspects of our character – collides with the views of others who fear genetic manipulation. Once the story gets out into the public, helped by Thassa and Kurton appearing on the Oona Show (a not very subtle mocking of the Oprah Winfrey show), science loses and web memes, widespread publicity and various religious prejudices take over, with the inevitable negative consequences both for Kurton’s work and for the main characters.

It’s two [types of plot], Russell thinks… It’s the old, elemental two, the only two that anyone will read: the future arrives to smack around the past, or the past reaches out to strangle the future. Hero goes on journey; stranger comes to town. Indeed, Powers uses both here – Thassa as the hero(ine) riding into town and changing the lives of those around her and Thomas Kurton setting out on a journey of discovery. That both do so blindly and end up not quite where they wanted to be is inevitable. It’s not a bad story and a warning about the dangers of blindly following science but probably not Powers’ best.

Publishing history

First published 2009 by Farrar Straus & Giroux