"For the past 20 years or so, Richard Powers seems to have been engaged in a prodigious attempt to redress the imbalance of knowledge that was the subject of C. P. Snow’s famous 'Two Cultures' lecture. That, you will recall, was the one in which Snow, a British scientist and novelist, bemoaned the breakdown of communication between the sciences and the humanities. Unlike most of his novelistic peers, Powers speaks fluent science and technology. As a longtime reader of the mostly rapturous reviews of his novels, written by humanists who seemed deeply intimidated by his mastery of arcane branches of scientific knowledge, I managed—until recently—to avoid cracking any of them. As it turns out, his new novel, Generosity, is an excellent introduction to Powers’s work, a lighter, leaner treatment of his favorite themes and techniques. The new novel is certainly more buoyant than Powers’s last, the National Book Award-winning Echo Maker . . . While that book revolved around a young man who suffers serious brain damage, the central figure of Generosity is a woman ostensibly afflicted with hyperthymia—an excess of happiness. The new book poses the question, What if there were a happiness gene? Curiously enough it features a public debate between the two cultures, in which a tortured, charisma-challenged Nobel winning novelist fares badly against a glibly articulate scientist arguing the case for genetic engineering . . . A third narrative, actually a meta-narrative, is woven through these pages, and is basically the story of the telling of the story. 'Over date pudding, she tells him about negativity bias. I’m not really sure if she tells him this over date pudding, of course, or even if she tells him at this lunch at all. But she tells him, at some point, early on. That much is nonfiction: no creation necessary.' Actually, of course, the whole passage is fiction, written by Richard Powers—who surely knows that a narrator professing incomplete knowledge of his own creations, or drawing arbitrary lines between fiction and nonfiction, risks violating his contract with his readers . . . The novel really kicks into gear when one of Thassa’s fellow students, temporarily unhinged by her goodness, attempts to rape her, then turns himself in. The story might have died after 60 seconds on the local news if not for the fact that Russell Stone uses the word ‘hyperthymia’ in trying to explain his exotic student to the police. Powers is especially effective at illustrating the way the story of the girl with the happiness gene spreads across the Internet and, only slightly less rapidly, the traditional media . . . But Powers is, when he chooses to be, an engaging storyteller (though he would probably wince at the word), and even as he questions the conventions of narrative and character, Generosity gains in momentum and suspense. In the end, he wants to have it both ways, and he comes very close to succeeding."—Jay McInerney, The New York Times Book Review"When written by Dostoevsky, Dickens, or Richard Powers at his best, one may feel that [the novel] can contain every facet of teh world."—Michael Dirda, The New York Review of Books"[Powers'] cerebral new novel offers a chilling examination of the life we're reengineering with our chromosomes and brain chemistry. Although it's tempting to call Generosity a dystopia about the pharmaceutical future in the tradition of Huxley's Brave New World, Powers sticks so closely to the state of current medical science and popular culture that this isn't so much a warning as a diagnosis. And as with any frightening diagnosis, you'll be torn between denial and a desperate urge to talk about it . . . [Powers] has a well-deserved reputation for brainy fiction (he won a MacArthur 'genius' grant in 1989), and Generosity may be his most demanding novel yet. It's told in a series of moments that run from just a paragraph to a few pages long, involving a triple-helix plot . . . What Powers makes so bracingly clear . . . is that the scientific breakthroughs that alter the nature of humanity don't take place in the laboratory. These drugs and genetic techniques aren't fully born until they're packaged by the media and consumed by a distracted but passionate public. In a culture in which entertainment value is the highest value, all things—including scientific truth—must be hyped for mass consumption . . . [There is] a spot-on depiction of an episode of 'The Oprah Winfrey Show' about the latest psychological discoveries. A graphic reminder of the nuance-free way millions of people learn about complicated medical science, it's as funny as it is sobering. And to this fascinating mix, Powers dares to add a postmodern narrator who periodically breaks into the story to deconstruct readers' assumptions about characters and plot . . . In the context of Generosity, Powers's self-conscious narrator is brilliantly relevant. This is, after all, a novel about human beings attempting to design their own characters and, in a sense, narrate their own biological stories. With Generosity, Powers has performed a dazzling cross-disciplinary feat, linking the slippery nature of 'creative nonfiction' to the moral conundrums of genetic engineering. Although you might expect a novel so weighted with medical and philosophical arguments to flatten its characters into brittle stereotypes, ultimately that's the most impressive aspect of this meditation on happiness and humanness. As Generosity drives toward its surprising conclusion, these characters grow more complex and poignant, increasingly baffled by the challenge and the opportunity of remaking ourselves to our heart's content."—Ron Charles, The Washington Post Book World"Electric . . . A flashy novel of ideas that share qualities with others Powers novels related to consciousness, Galatea 2.2 and, most recently, The Echo Maker . . . The narrator yearns for a novel that could 'break free' from the story . . . In Generosity it may be here."—Art Winslow, Chicago Tribune"Powers fuses riveting narrative and spot-on dialogue with thought-provoking social analysis."—Dan Cryer, Newsday"Generosity is Power's most whimsical, pleasurable novel to date."—Jane Ciabattari, NPR"You can’t corner Powers. Early on in his follow-up to the National Book Award–winning The Echo Maker, Powers puts one of his protagonists, hapless and hopeless adjunct writing professor Russell Stone, on the path to his classroom . . . Powers is such a gifted novelist that even when he’s tackling issues most often consigned to The New York Times or Scientific American—here, it’s genetics—we’re happy to be on his kind of journey . . . Powers has made a career of examining the ramifications—and most important, potentialities—of persistent technological advances. In that sense, Generosity fits right in with the rest of his work: Constant is the question of whether happiness is chemical, and if it is, if anything is lost in its commodification. But while we love the science-fiction and science-nonfiction moments in Generosity, it’s Powers’s more subtle, humanities-based exploration of emotions that makes the book so fascinating. While working out the big questions, Powers addresses more intimate quandaries. When assessing Russell’s failure to even recognize what brings him pleasure, Powers writes, 'We’re shaped to think the things we want will make us happy. But shaped to take only the briefest thrill in getting. Wanting is what having wants to recover.' And his depictions of Thassa make it easy to see why nearly everyone falls in a vague, fraternal love with her, 'She draws like she breathes—a gull enjoying a gust.' Intellectually invigorating and emotionally astute, Generosity will, in all likelihood, land Powers on the National Book Award finalist list again this year. It’s the kind of book you cancel plans to keep reading. And it’s the kind of book that amps up that happiness chemical dosage in the reader, who’s happy to just be on the journey."—Jonathan Messinger, Time Out New York“In unfolding [the] inevitable outcome [of Generosity], Powers shows both his reach as a student of humanity and his mastery as a storyteller.”—Vince Passaro, O, The Oprah Magazine“Early on in [Generosity], Powers puts one of his protagonists, hapless and hopeless adjunct writing professor Russell Stone, on the path to his classroom. He makes his way through Chicago, but the geography is slightly off. Powers, though, knows it, and intercepts the gotcha: ‘No you’re right: those streets don’t really run that way. That neighborhood is a little off . . . This place is some other Second City. This Chicago is Chicago’s in vitro daughter, genetically modified for more flexibility. And these words are not journalism. Only journey.’ Powers is such a gifted novelist that even when he’s tackling issues most often consigned to The New York Times or Scientific American—here, it’s genetics—we’re happy to be on his kind of journey . . . Powers has made a career of examining the ramifications—and most important, potentialities—of persistent technological advances. In that sense, Generosity fits right in with the rest of his work: Constant is the question of whether happiness is chemical, and if it is, if anything is lost in its commodification. But while we love the science-fiction and science-nonfiction moments in Generosity, it’s Powers’s more subtle, humanities-based exploration of emotions that makes the book so fascinating . . . Intellectually invigorating and emotionally astute, Generosity will, in all likelihood, land Powers on the National Book Award finalist list again this year.”—Jonathan Messinger, Time Out Chicago"One of the rare writers who understand that a scientific point of view has the potential to render a fictional world that much richer . . . Generosity explores the themes of science and technology with a matery that would put any scientist at east and with Powers's signature feat of remaining simultaneously accessible and cerebral . . . Powers has secured a place as one of our most exciting contemporary novelists . . . unafraid to place humanity under science's microscop. He has the guts to use the novel to explore the realities that undermine the very premise of the novel. All that, and it's a relaxing and enjoyable read."—Amanda Gefter, The Philadelphia Inquirer“Richard Powers [is] now fully established as a major American writer. His 10th novel glows with a luminosity of goodwill, curiosity and concern for his fellow humans.”—Bob Hoover, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette“No writer of our time dreams on a grander scale or more knowingly captures the zeitgeist than Richard Powers.”—Chris Tucker, The Dallas Morning News"It's among his finest achievements."—Mark Athitakis, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)“Stunning . . . [Generosity] succeeds in engaging its scientific subject matter honestly, and therefore that much more significantly. It is this respect for—but distance from—the science that allows Powers to arrive at the book’s core issue: Genetic engineering, for all the moral qualms that arise from it, gives humanity a chance to rewrite, to edit, to choose its own genetic story. This is the central idea behind the novel, and Generosity explores it in endless, and often brilliant, variations . . . What makes the book truly interesting resides in Powers’s ability to be formally experimental while remaining fully readable, and totally earnest. A strange, authorial ‘I’ punctuates the book, deliberating the text’s future and reflecting on its past. ‘I know what kind of story I’d make from this one, if I could: the kind that, from one word to the next, breaks free. The kind that invents itself out of meaningless detail and thin air. The kind in which there’s no choice like chance.’ We are not merely reading a story, but rather we are watching the creation of a story, like a life form rising from dancing nucleotides. Powers’s books have a propensity to remind the reader of their role, yet nowhere in his oeuvre does he do it so thoroughly, or effectively, as in Generosity. Powers manages this postmodern trope without creating an ironic distance. There is the prevailing sentiment that Powers has too much at stake to mask his work in the presumptions of irony. Far from simply instructing the reader, Powers is discovering his truths as he writes. As the book self-consciously asserts itself as a novel being written by a novelist, one can sense it struggling with the rush of mediums we’re subjected to as modern Americans. Generosity moves out of prose, adopting styles that range from mimicking a screenplay—in a particularly moving scene—to a collage of YouTube videos. Instead of rejecting changing modes of communication, Powers accepts them, explores them, and engages with them on their own terms . . . The book’s final punchline comes from its subtitle. Just about every cover of a Powers book has the subtitle: ‘A Novel.’ For Generosity, the subtitle is: ‘An Enhancement.’ Here is where Powers’s ability to transcend the boundaries of the story simply shines. As genetic enhancement is the insertion of an externally synthesized gene into the human genome, a novel is an externally synthesized story added to the reader’s memory, the reader’s experience. Reading gives us a chance to live other lives, to experience things we otherwise wouldn’t have, to make mistakes on the page so that we don’t have to make them in real life. In this way, we leave the novel, letting our eyes adjust to the light of the real, changed, with a new experience doing its work in us that will effect us for the rest of our lives. We leave our reading experience, ourselves enhanced.”—Adam L. Palay, The Harvard Crimson"It is difficult for a novelist to create a truly benign character, with unfailing good cheer, but Powers pulls it off."—National Post (Canada)"Powers's writing is exuberant, erudite, and absolutely crackling."—Edmonton Journal (Canada)“This book follows on the heels of The Echo Maker, which won the National Book Award, but Generosity is perhaps an even better novel . . . Once again, Powers has produced a fascinating story partially constructed around his impressive acumen in the sciences. He also creates exquisite sentences, whether musing about love (‘just a minor node in a vast network pushing toward new and unimaginable exploits . . .’) or language (‘When white guys walking on strangers' roofs in Oak Brook start using any given street argot, it's time to seal the word up in the dictionary mausoleum’)—in fact, the reader might feel obliged to underline a passage on virtually every page of Generosity. With each novel Powers has added to his reputation, and this one is no exception.”—Allan Vorda, Rain Taxi“[Generosity is] genius: It soars, it boggles.”—John Domini, Bookforum"In his provocative, vibrant tenth novel, National Book Award winner Richard Powers once again explores the impact of technology and scientific discovery on our lives . . . [Russell Stone's] students confirm his worst fears about the future—in a world where the private is public, writing is becoming less an act of reflection than of exhibitionism. But one student captivates him: Thassadit Amzwar, an Algerian refugee whose unwavering joy earns her the nickname of 'Miss Generosity' from her peers. Thinking Thassa may be bipolar, delusional or worse, Russell consults college psychologist Candace Weld, who suggests that Thassa might be 'hyperthermic,' or excessively happy. When Thassa's exceptional capacity for joy comes to the attention of geneticist-entrepreneur Thomas Kurton—who is on the verge of announcing the genotype for happiness—Russell and Candace are powerless to help her. Thassa finds herself at the center of a raging public debate about genetic modification. Does it signify progress, improving our quality of life as so many scientific advancements have, or will it do away with identity itself? Will it provide even greater advantages to the children of the rich? Will we be testing each other's DNA in job interviews, and before we get married, to figure out just what it is we're getting into? Heralded by some as a living prophecy and derided by others for her role in ending human nature as we know it, Thassa begins to bend and break under the strain, changing the lives of those around her forever. Though at times Generosity feels overly deliberate—it's no secret that the book is carefully organized around a particular ideological debate—it is never didactic. While Kurton may seem the obvious villain, he is guilty of nothing but exuberance, and of belief in that greatest and most basic of human narratives: 'that the future will be slightly better than the present.' The beauty of this book lies in Powers' ability to capture human passion—for art, for scientific discovery and for one another."—Lindsey Schwoeri, BookPage"Nothing less than the phenomenon of happiness is explored in this rich, challenging novel from polymathic Powers. Think of it as an extended Socratic or Platonic dialogue, animated and communicated by three generously imagined characters . . . A lesser writer might have made this a 21st-century Frankenstein. Powers instead channels his heady confluence of ideals and motives into suspenseful intellectual drama, set in painstakingly realistic Middle-American urban jungles populated by intelligent, well-meaning people who aim to do good by any means necessary. Even the irresistible Thassa comes abrasively alive, in her exasperated response to Christian fundamentalists determined to claim her as one of their own: 'I'm a Maghreb Algerian Kabyle Catholic Atheist French Canadian on a student visa. I can't help these people.' The mystery of Thassa's impermeable optimism is never explained; it neither should nor could be. Exuberant, erudite and satisfyingly enigmatic."—Kirkus Reviews"Offering some very meaty ethical issues, this fast-paced, science-laden story offers each character a chance to become heroic in his or her own way. Intelligent, thought-provoking, multilayered, and emotionally engaging, this [book] astonishes with its depiction of our annoying cultural habit of creating, exalting, and disposing of celebrities within the span of a few minutes. Master storyteller Powers has a keen eye for the absurdity of modern life. Highly recommended."—Susanne Wells, Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County, Library Journal (starred review)"Much of the tension behind Powers's idea-driven novels stems from the delicate balance between plot and concept, and he wisely adopts a voice that is—sometimes painfully—aware of the occasional strain ('I'm caught . . . starving to death between allegory and realism, fact and fable, creative and nonfiction'). Like Stone and Kurton, Powers strays from mere record to attempt an impossible task: to make the world right."—Publishers Weekly
Richard Powers is the author of ten novels, including Generosity, Gain, The Time of Our Singing, Galatea 2.2, and Plowing the Dark. The Echo Maker won the National Book Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Powers has received a MacArthur Fellowship and a Lannan Literary Award. He lives in Illinois.