Novelists play God. They create the world to their standards, the characters to their specifications. But seldom do they discuss their creative strategy with their readers like Richard Powers, at 52, now fully established as a major American writer.
His 10th novel glows with a luminosity of goodwill, curiosity and concern for his fellow humans. The thoughts and doubts of its creator move "Generosity" beyond the realm of the conventional. He tells us that the world we are watching is made up, that its people sprang from his imagination and that it's up to him to make something happen.
"I am caught like Buridan's ass, starving to death between allegory and realism, fact and fable, creative and nonfiction" he says, referring to the example of a donkey paralyzed to act when offered two choices of hay. "I see now exactly who these people are and where they came from. But I can't quite make out what I'm to do with them."
Farrar, Straus & Giroux ($25)
"These people" fall into two groups -- three Chicagoans, Russell Stone, a 32-year-old failed writer, Candace Weld, 38, counselor at the art school where Stone teaches a writing course, and his student, Thassa Amzwar, 23, an Algerian exile; and a science documentarian, Tonia Schiff, and her subject, inventive, wealthy geneticist Thomas Kurton.
The time is 2020, but the human condition has worsened since the present day. Kurton and his biotech company hold out the promise of better times through genetic mutations that can produce healthier, smarter children. Can they also create happier people if they locate the "happiness gene?"
Or, as Powers wonders, can they turn "humanity into a fast-food franchise?"
It appears Thassa, with her perpetually sunny disposition and guileless expressions of kindness, traits that earn her the nickname of "Generosity," might possess that gene. How she moves from an ordinary art student interested in filmmaking to a hunted worldwide curiosity, enhanced, as Powers might say, by the pervasive nature of the Internet, is the rich-with-possibilty plot.
It includes a wonderful send-up of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" -- "the world has seen no talk show like the one that has evolved in this particular Chicago" -- an insightful explanation of how psychotherapists work and an accurate, funny description of young art students.
The Chicago trio is the far more compelling group, more real and nuanced than the geneticist Kurton and the conflicted Schiff, whose quest for "the truth" is frustrated by the mentality of entertainment TV.
The other voice in this novel, a version of Powers, is the most interesting and helpful, our guide to the fiction-writing process. Once set in motion, this process can run on its own steam, the author believes.
"I always knew I'd lose my nerve in the end," he confesses. "All I wanted was for my friends to survive the story intact. All the story wants is to wreck anything solid in them. No one would write a word if he remembered how much fiction eventually comes true."
Can the search for the "happiness gene" truly find happiness?
Powers answers: "Happiness, the scientist says, is not a reward for virtue. Happiness is the virtue."
Contact Bob Hoover at 412-263-1634 or firstname.lastname@example.org .