Richard Powers’s new novel investigates the origin of joy and how far people will go to achieve it.
THOSE WHO HAVE READ ANY OF RICHARD POWERS’S nine previous novels might intuit the praise to come: Powers writes challenging novels, novels of ideas, while simultaneously creating flesh-and-blood characters and compelling story lines. Powers is a genius, recognized as such by the MacArthur Fellowship, often referred to as the “genius” award. Powers is, well, unique.
For readers of fiction who are deciding to enter Powers’s world for the first time, his new novel, Generosity: An Enhancement (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; $25), is a wise place to begin. In terms of accessibility, Powers’s 10th offering is almost surely number one, followed closely by 1999’s Gain. His others -- including Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance and The Gold Bug Variations -- require serious concentration and might occasionally baffle readers who don’t get tutelage on the side. Though every one of his novels is worth the effort, Generosity is able to deliver the thought-provoking prose Powers is known for without as many of the headaches.
The book focuses on the questions of whether unadulterated human happiness is achievable and, if it is, whether it is primarily hereditary or environmental in nature. Powers’s Exhibit A is Thassadit Amzwar, a 23-year-old woman exiled from the violence-ravaged northern-Africa nation of Algeria who settles in Chicago. Despite a tragic upbringing, Amzwar seems to radiate happiness, a trait noticed immediately by her college writing teacher, Russell Stone, and the other students in the class, who nickname her Miss Generosity.
Amzwar’s gift is so remarkable, in fact, that Stone feels compelled to determine what must be an extraordinary causation. He consults Candace Weld, a counselor at the college, who, along with Stone, befriends Amzwar. When genetic researcher Thomas Kurton learns of Amzwar’s remarkable penchant for cheerfulness, he takes her on as a research subject in an attempt to identify the genetic root of her perpetual joy. A television newswoman by the name of Tonia Schiff attaches herself to Amzwar as well, believing her to be her ticket to journalistic fame. Stone and Weld eventually become Amzwar’s protectors as unexpected and unwanted fame wash over her, pushing her resolve to the limit.
Powers’s observations about happiness throughout the novel are characteristically intriguing. For one, happiness can be intoxicating in a debilitating way. Describing the usually hapless Stone, Powers writes, “He’s weakened by his recent bout with joy. Joy does little to increase one’s judgment. Happiness is not the condition you want to be in when you need to be at your most competent.” But more than that, the book prompts questions such as, what would happen if we could bottle happiness? Would everyone want it? And should everyone have it?