Generosity: An Enhancement by Richard Powers
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is one of those rare books to which I award more than five stars. It is a tour de force by the smartest man I know. Powers has almost created his own genre, an in-depth exploration of neurological puzzles in a way that is very understandable and readable by a lay audience.
In Generosity, Powers explores the extent to which emotions are controlled by genes. A young woman from Algeria is in Chicago, taking a night class in writing and entrances the teacher and the class with her constantly sunny outlook on life despite hardships that would cause normal people to despair. Eventually her genome is mapped by an entrepreneurial scientist who claims to have isolated a "happiness" gene. Who this person is turns out to be way more complicated than her genes, and Powers does a great job of explaining the nature/nurture duality of all of us.
For someone not used to post-modernist literature, Powers's style might take some getting used to. He inserts himself, as the author, into the book, repeatedly reminding the reader that this is a story that Powers is making up, as he goes. Powers starts the book by sketching the writing instructor stating right up front that "I picture him in the . . . " later saying, "The blank page is patient, and meaning can wait. I watch until he solidifies." At another point, describing a lunch between the instructor and a psychologist who becomes his girlfriend, Powers comments, "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." At another point he writes, "And, by a minor coincidence I don't know how to handle any other way, Candace Weld reads the Time article. . . ."
Although I don't usually like an author to act all authorly in his writing, I don't find Powers's playing around with the third wall as irritating as I might in a lesser writer. Or maybe I'm just prejudiced. In any event, read this book. Even if you're irritated at the tricks, you won't be bored.