Generosity: Book summary and reviews of Generosity by Richard Powers

Generosity

An Enhancement

By Richard Powers

Generosity
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  • Published in USA  Sep 2009,
    304 pages.

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Book Summary

When Chicagoan Russell Stone finds himself teaching a Creative Nonfiction class, he encounters a young Algerian woman with a disturbingly luminous presence. Thassadit Amzwar’s blissful exuberance both entrances and puzzles the melancholic Russell. How can this refugee from perpetual terror be so happy? Won’t someone so open and alive come to serious harm? Wondering how to protect her, Russell researches her war-torn country and skims through popular happiness manuals. Might her condition be hyperthymia? Hypomania? Russell’s amateur inquiries lead him to college counselor Candace Weld, who also falls under Thassa’s spell. Dubbed Miss Generosity by her classmates, Thassa’s joyful personality comes to the attention of the notorious geneticist and advocate for genomic enhancement, Thomas Kurton, whose research leads him to announce the genotype for happiness.

Russell and Candace, now lovers, fail to protect Thassa from the growing media circus. Thassa’s congenital optimism is soon severely tested. Devoured by the public as a living prophecy, her genetic secret will transform both Russell and Kurton, as well as the country at large.

What will happen to life when science identifies the genetic basis of happiness? Who will own the patent? Do we dare revise our own temperaments? Funny, fast, and finally magical, Generosity celebrates both science and the freed imagination. In his most exuberant book yet, Richard Powers asks us to consider the big questions facing humankind as we begin to rewrite our own existence.

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Reviews

Media Reviews

"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." - Publishers Weekly

"Starred Review. Master storyteller Powers has a keen eye for the absurdity of modern life. Highly recommended." - Library Journal

"Exuberant, erudite and satisfyingly enigmatic." - Kirkus Reviews

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Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by Phil Oliver
Generously happy
One of my favorite early moments in Richard Powers' Generosity: An Enhancement comes when the preternaturally, transcendentally happy young Algerian woman Thassadit Amzwar (whose name means "liver") disputes conservative icon Milton Friedman's famous declaration that "there's no free lunch." He was talking market-based economics, her purview is wider:

"My father was an engineer. He always liked the English expression: There's no free lunch. That's crazy! There is only free lunch. We should all be nothing but clouds of frozen dust. This is what science says. All lunch is free. My father was a scientist, but he never understood this one simple scientific fact, poor man."

Poor humanity! In the existential economics of personal well-being, Thassa is saying, Richard Dawkins is right: we're lucky to be here. Existence, even the hardest of lives, is a gift. A bonus. And it's over in a flash. We should be happy.

Thassa "seems immune to anxiety. Her positive energy is amazing. She maintains a continuous state of flow." She seems happy, really happy. But can you be too happy? Is she sick or weird, hyperthymic or hypomanic? Can we get whatever she's got, in a pill or procedure? Should we want to?

We're reading Powers in my PHIL OF HAPPINESS class, as we read it last year in BIOETHICS and the year before in FUTURE OF LIFE, because it strikes yours truly as raising some of the most profoundly meaningful questions we face: questions about the very possibility of meaningful human experience as we move forward into our increasingly engineered, digitized, hive-minded, televised, entertained future, questions about our own authorship of the meanings of our lives, questions about fact and fiction and (sci-) fiction becoming fact. Will our successors even know what we meant by "happiness," let alone how to pursue it effectively?

Beyond all that, it's just a delightful, entertaining, at moments gripping yarn. The social critique of Oprah's America is right on target, the existential allusions and wordplay (a protagonist whose name means "liver," another with the Sisyphean name "Stone" etc.) are aptly amusing, the "creative nonfiction" angle on the meaning of our times and the risk of large-scale genomic engineering... there's simply a lot here to appreciate.

But beware: if you don't like a self-conscious narrator who reminds you periodically that you ARE reading a story (because the larger story of our lives remains to be written, and we're all writing it) then you might not like Powers' insinuating voice. But it's not gratuitous, it's there to draw our attention to the audacity of creation and re-creation that modern genetic science may be about to spring on us.

This is a "very good" novel, though I'm giving it a four because (as I think Richard Powers would agree) the quest for perfection is more risk than we yet know how to manage.

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Author Information

Richard Powers Author Biography

photo: Marion Ettlinger

Richard Powers (born 18 June, 1957 in Evanston, Illinois) has received numerous honors including a MacArthur Fellowship, a Lannan Literary Award, and the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Historical Fiction.  He teaches in the Creative Writing M.F.A. program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, teaching a graduate seminar in multimedia authoring and an undergraduate course in the mechanics of narrative.

He grew up in the northern suburbs of Chicago, the fourth of five children. Early in the 1960s his father, a high school principal moved the family to the north Chicago suburb of Lincolnwood; then, when he was 11 (1968) his father accepted a job at the International School of Bangkok, and the family spent the next five years in Thailand, where he ...

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