Generosity: An Enhancement

A new novel from Richard Powers poses a disquieting question: Is it abnormal to be happy?

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When it comes to the mad scientists of American letters, no one sees more clearly through his safety goggles than Richard Powers. In his new novel, Generosity: An Enhancement, the National Book Award winner (“The Echo Maker”) and recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant takes something quintessentially American – the pursuit of happiness – and sends it spinning through the radioactive centrifuge of modern genetics.

Russell Stone was, briefly, a literary wunderkind who published essays in the New Yorker and scored a gig as a satirist on NPR. It turns out he wasn’t “merciless and mean enough for real creativity,” and after a crisis of conscience, Russell ends up editing self-help pieces for a magazine called “Becoming You.”

As the novel opens, he is offered a job at a Chicago college teaching creative nonfiction. There, one of his students turns out to be something as rare as a unicorn: a truly happy person.

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Thassadit Amzwar is an orphaned refugee from Algeria who radiates such perpetual well-being that her classmates nickname her “The Bliss Chick” and “Miss Generosity.” “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.”

Russell, for his part, is dumfounded and terrified for her. “All he can think is: It’s not safe out there. Happiness is a death sentence.” He’s worried that Thassa’s effervescence is somehow disguised trauma, and starts obsessively researching both Algeria and happiness. He stumbles across a term called “hyperthymia” that might cover Thassa’s “condition,” and consults with one of the college counselors, a woman named Candace Weld, who becomes as entranced with Thassa as everyone else.

Then Thassa foils an attempted rape, and Russell gives an ill-advised report to the police. Soon, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, Thassa comes to the attention of a geneticist named Thomas Kurton.

“Frankenstein” has already been written, but Kurton is just spoiling for a cosmic beating, spouting catchphrases designed to catch the attention of both venture capitalists and jealous deities: “I don’t believe in God, but I do believe that it’s humanity’s job to bring God about.” His business plan involves hunting down and wiping out misery and creating a society where “anger will be less of a concern than ringworm.”

Instead of better living through chemistry, it’s better living through genomics, and Powers lays out economic and ethical implications that are already playing out in life science labs throughout the US. (He’s not the first: Years ago, I remember reading a story where a man is on the run because a lab owns his genes and wants their asset back.) But Powers is after something more complicated than allegory. His narrator is a wryly rueful presence, acknowledging “a loss of nerve” and pronouncing himself “caught, starving to death between allegory and realism, fact and fable, creative and nonfiction.”

Kurton studies Thassa to see if he can map a “happiness gene,” and the resulting furor turns her into a media sensation. As she’s paraded out “like some trained seal of elation,” Russell and Candace watch with growing alarm. Russell, especially, thinks the whole thing is bogus and exploitative, and blames himself for calling in the experts. “We’ve been given this amazing gift and somebody wants to take it apart and look inside without voiding the warranty. She’s not an object.”

Powers never pinpoints the source of Thassa’s joy – although the atheist herself rules out faith. “My father was so disgusted with religion that he wouldn’t let it in our house. I don’t know, myself. If there is God, he is just laughing at every religion we invent!”

Thassa is, understandably, befuddled that being consistently happy is enough to label her a genetic oddity. The way she sees it – at least before the bloggers, pundits, and “very Christian people with too much time” get hold of her – happiness is merely a matter of common sense. “Everyone alive should feel richly content, ridiculously ahead of the game, a million times luckier than the unborn. What more can she tell them?”

Besides, happiness is a warm puppy. I thought everyone knew that.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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