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Little Miss Sunshine

By Ron Charles
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 7, 2009

GENEROSITY

An Enhancement

By Richard Powers

Farrar Straus Giroux. 296 pp. $25

Sixteen years after Peter Kramer's "Listening to Prozac," Richard Powers has heard the alarming implications of treatments that let us buy better moods and personalities. His 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.

The story begins on a deceptively small scale: Russell Stone is a cynical young editor for a cheesy self-improvement magazine called Becoming You. He's still recovering from a brief period of fame when his witty personal essays were sought after by NPR and the New Yorker. But now, at 32, he spends his days translating saccharine testimonies of personal triumph into Standard English. Lonely and depressed, he jumps at the chance to teach a night class in creative nonfiction at a Chicago arts college.

Everything in this provocative novel revolves around a mysterious student in Russell's class named Thassa Amzwar. She's an Algerian who came to Chicago by way of Paris and Montreal after losing her home and her parents "during the Time of Horrors." By any reasonable measure, she should be shellshocked or corroded with bitterness, but instead she's hypnotically happy, "the world's most blissful refugee," with a voice like "mountain flutes." Russell is immediately fascinated by her: "Ten years of organized bloodbath have reduced a country the size of western Europe to a walking corpse. And Thassa has emerged from that land glowing like a blissed-out mystic." Everybody in class soaks "in the glow of this woman, her eerie contentment." They quickly dub her "Miss Generosity," but Russell thinks she's "either on newly discovered antidepressants or so permanently traumatized she's giddy."

Powers can write lovely and heartfelt stories (he won a National Book Award in 2006), but he also 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.

In the main story line, Russell befriends Thassa and introduces her to a psychological counselor to make sure the young woman's striking happiness is not the manifestation of some mental illness. The three of them form a strange kind of support group, bound together in a dangerously ambiguous web of professional responsibility, love and sex.

A second story line involves a jet-setting scientist named Thomas Kurton, who stays on the cutting edge of genetic research and, as much as possible, in front of a camera. This irrepressible entrepreneur joins the august company of such literary scientists as Drs. Faustus, Frankenstein and Rappaccini, but Powers's Dr. Kurton is also a dead ringer for the real-life vitamin-popping futurist Ray Kurzweil. "Vaguely messianic," Kurton oversees an ever-evolving galaxy of pharmaceutical companies, and he loves to electrify the public imagination with "ecstatic pieces about the coming transhuman age." From his first genetic breakthrough while a student at Stanford, he's been on a tear to revise the chemical composition of our genes to save us from mortality. For a price. Equal parts scientist and huckster, he tells adoring crowds: "The script that has kept us in gloom and dread is about to be rewritten. Labs across the globe are closing in on those ridiculous genetic errors that cause life to suicide. Aging is not just a disease; it's the mother of all maladies. And humankind may finally have a shot at curing it."

The thrust of the novel involves Dr. Kurton's discovery of Russell's elated student, Thassa. A series of innovative tests reveals that she possesses a unique genetic mutation that makes her permanently content, although the announcement of that discovery threatens to burn her life under a glare of toxic publicity. By using her genetic material, Dr. Kurton suggests he may be on the threshold of ridding humanity of despair, coding soma right into our chromosomes. In a country where 10 percent of us take antidepressants -- "Generosity" is packed with such startling factoids -- that could be the greatest breakthrough since penicillin.

This seems like plenty of rich material for a relatively short novel, but Powers folds a third story line into the mix. As Russell struggles to guide Thassa through her interaction with Dr. Kurton, we also follow the work of the country's most popular science journalist, a savvy young woman named Tonia Schiff. What Powers makes so bracingly clear with Tonia's gradual disillusionment 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. One of the most depressingly realistic scenes shows flashy Dr. Kurton debating the benefits of genetic enhancement with a Nobel Prize-winning novelist. Needless to say, the novelist's wise objections are blown to smithereens by the force of Dr. Kurton's shiny optimism. There's also 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. "I'm caught like Buridan's ass," he writes, "starving to death between allegory and realism, fact and fable. . . . I know what kind of story I'd make from this one, if I could." It's easy to feel annoyed with this kind of authorial gamesmanship, particularly in a story that already boasts so many bells and whistles, but 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.

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