Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 296 pp., $25
Is there a biological basis to happiness? A genetic marker that disposes us toward joy? Such questions are at the heart of Richard Powers' 10th novel, "Generosity: An Enhancement," the story of Thassadit Amzwar, a 23-year-old Algerian woman living in Chicago who seems incapable of sadness -- until she becomes a media sensation and is slowly but irrevocably pushed to the edge. Thassa is a refugee, a survivor of enormous tragedy, and yet her enthusiasm is so infectious that it appears an emotional dysfunction. At least, that's what concerns Russell Stone, her creative nonfiction teacher at art school, and Candace Weld, one of the college's counselors, both of whom, separately and together, seek to protect her from a culture in which, as Powers writes, "[i]nformation may travel at light speed. But meaning spreads at the speed of dark." This is how we live now, suspended between information and meaning, and as "Generosity" progresses, that emerges as a key idea.
Ideas, of course, are Powers' stock-in-trade, the fundamental substance of his fiction, which has addressed everything from photography to virtual reality, pediatrics to nuclear war. His last novel, "The Echo Maker," revolved around a man with Capgras Syndrome, a brain disorder in which one becomes convinced that close friends or relatives have been replaced by impostors; the book won the 2006 National Book Award.
"Generosity" operates in a vein similar to "The Echo Maker," investigating the nature of reality, of personality, the way factors beyond our control (brain chemistry, genetics, information flow) influence and even mandate our interactions with the world. A more direct antecedent, however, is Powers' 2000 novel "Plowing the Dark," an epic examination of the imagination that juxtaposes two story lines -- of a software designer in Seattle and an English teacher held hostage in Beirut -- to parse the interplay of memory and perception that defines what we understand as identity. "Everything in life is imagination," Powers wrote in that book. "But in fact it is reality. Whoever knows this will need nothing else." The same might be said of "Generosity," especially after Powers introduces Thomas Kurton, an entrepreneurial geneticist who sees in Thassa the manifestation of one of his greatest fantasies: the eradication of unhappiness, the fulfillment of humanity as a species predestined for ecstasy.
That it all goes wrong is to be expected; we are programmed for "negativity bias," after all. As Candace explains: "We remember a compliment for about three and a half days, but we hold on to a criticism for months. We think unpleasant events last about sixty percent longer than same-length pleasant ones. Threatening images get our attention faster, and we have to fight harder to look away. We need about five positive events to compensate for one comparable negative one." But more to the point is the notion of interpretation, the idea that reality is in how we read it, in the shapes we build out of the formless information, the meanings we construct.
This is the true subject of "Generosity," which is a book that's very aware of its own artifice. From its opening lines -- "A man rides backward in a packed subway car. This must be almost fall, the season of revision" -- Powers evokes the shadowy presence of a creator, whether as author or character, though, it's not quite clear. And he gleefully plays with the line between fact and fiction, making Stone a failed essayist who lost the nerve to expose his real-life subjects, while Thassa, who writes movingly about Algeria, succeeds by creating composites.
In part, Powers suggests, the issue is one of ethics and survival; "If evolution favored conscience," he writes, "everything with a backbone would have hung itself from the ceiling fan eons ago."
And yet, in the end, there's something else at stake -- not just existence but what it means. "Do we really need characters?" Stone asks Candace late in the novel, after they've decided to collaborate on a project that may or may not be "Generosity" itself. "I hate characters. It's such a cliché, characters." Candace's reaction? "Okay, fine. No characters. That's new. That's fresh. I like it. So what's this thing about?"
Such a comment might apply to all of Powers' writing; the flip side of his intellect is that his characters are, in places, two-dimensional. Clearly, their emotional lives interest him less than the ideas they stir up, and here, secondary figures such as Kurton or television journalist Tonia Schiff function more as animated plot devices than human flesh and blood.
Not unlike "The Echo Maker," though, "Generosity" doesn't so much suffer from these limitations as it uses them to frame a rumination about identity and artifice, nature and nurture, the inexplicable forces that make us who we are.
In such a landscape, how can we not come off as somewhat programmed, as if authenticity itself were just a veil? It's all encoded in the writing, which is itself another form of illusion, another overlay. "Say that the six thousand years of writing are a six-hundred page novel," Powers conjectures. " . . . The last chapter is filled with deus ex machinas, and on the very final page, the very last paragraph, the characters throw off the limits of the Story So Far and complete their revolt."
Whether this leads to happiness or a new kind of unraveling, "Generosity" doesn't tell us; indeed, the measure of the novel lies in its ability to encompass both.
Ulin is book editor for The Times.