A blissful war refugee ignites a media circus

By Alexander Theroux
December 27, 2009

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When Russell Stone, in the course of teaching a creative nonfiction class, encounters a 23-year-old Berber Algerian refugee who has seen much hardship, he is struck by her disturbingly luminous and blissful presence. Thassadit Amzwar’s open-hearted exuberance, indeed her radiance, both entrances and puzzles the melancholy Russell, a run-of-the-mill writer and a nerd of sorts but also something of a seeker.

Stone becomes determined, in his amateur way, to get to the source and nature of this civil war orphan’s apparent state. He starts to read popular happiness manuals and doggedly begins doing research on her war-torn country. Might her condition be naiveté? Hypomania? Hyperthymia, a rare condition that programs a person for unusual levels of elation?

The nature of happiness then becomes the central theme in “Generosity: An Enhancement,’’ Powers’s 10th novel and a relatively simply structured one compared with earlier efforts that even he has described as “idea-crazy.’’ Dubbed an enigmatic and prodigious brainiac by many, Powers from his very first novel, “Three Farmers On Their Way to a Dance’’ (1985) has loved in his fiction to hybridize disparate elements in different ways. “Prisoner’s Dilemma’’ (1988) juxtaposes Disney and nuclear warfare. “The Gold Bug Variations’’ (1991) ties together genetics, music, and computer science. “The Echo Maker’’ (2006) links neural impairment, topology, and sandhill cranes.

One is therefore not surprised to find in his new novel another eventual nod in the direction of genetics. Thassa’s joyful personality, her capacity to befriend anybody and everybody, becoming the cynosure of wider and wider attention.

Dubbed Miss Generosity by her classmates, a.k.a. “The Bliss Chick,’’ she becomes an enigmatic challenge to all, not excluding one morbid and out-of-control student, John Thornell, a huge, impassive lout whose clumsy attempted rape of the confident and psychically stronger woman is thwarted by what might best be called Thassa’s happiness, a sort of St. Maria Goretti theme in the novel that leads to the speculation that goodness and ethics are distinctly aligned with joy.

Eventually Thassa comes to the attention of not only the video journalist Tonia Schiff and her spadework film, “The Genie and the Genome,’’ but also to the notorious scientist and advocate for genetic enhancement, Thomas Kurton, a laboratory egghead and something of a dull stick-figure in the novel whose research leads him to describe his search for the genotype for happiness.

We hear the owlish Kurton earnestly referring to the “dopamine receptor D4gene on chromosome 11, whose longer form correlates with extroversion and novelty seeking,’’ as well as to the “serotonin transporter gene on the long arm of chromosome 17, whose short allele associates with negative emotions.’’ (If Powers becomes aggravating at all in his work, it is invariably when he tries a little too hard to show us he is a Whiz Kid.) “We’re studying a genomic network that’s involved in assembling the brain’s emotional centers,’’ pronounces Kurton. Soon we are wondering what exactly will happen to life when science identifies the genetic basis of happiness?

In this unholy mess, Stone seeks the help of the attractive college counselor, Candace Weld, a slightly older divorcée who also falls under Thassa’s spell.

Stone and Weld, now lovers, fail to protect Thassa from the media circus growing around her. Her congenital optimism is soon severely tested. She is prodded as a living prophecy, her genetic secret being broadcast to the country at large. The simple Algerian is becoming, famously, the “Happy Gene Woman.’’ The telephone starts ringing. She gives interviews. People and Self magazine call. The media circus culminates in her television appearance on “The Oona Show,’’ Powers’s mercilessly satirical portrait of TV’s cash-cow Oprah Winfrey.

Exploited for financial gain, abused by network shysters, pursued, harassed, and badgered by common people in the street, Thassa in the end desires only to leave the country and flee to Canada.

Powers, who as something of a polymath not only knows all the stops on the literary organ but has possibly invented some, cannot seem to be satisfied by the lineaments of a straight narrative. As we have seen with him before, he has chosen to rely in “Generosity,’’ I think gratuitously, on authorial intrusion, and like Henry Fielding and John Fowles, to name but two masters of the self-interrupted narrative, Powers pauses in places to start chatting to the reader about his craft, disquisitions on the romance novel, self-conscious confessions of difficulty, and so on.

It is my understanding - and my explanation for it - that it is an example of Powers himself in a fit of generosity sharing the candor of cognition, the art of his craft, its burden, but it is an unnecessary distraction, a superfluous metafictional indulgence. At the same time, “Generosity’’ as a tour de force on a theme, virtually a study like an essay on Montaigne’s on the various vicissitudes of happiness, is very accessible.

Alexander Theroux is the author of many books, including “Laura Warholic: Or, The Sexual Intellectual.’’

By Richard Powers
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 304 pp., $25

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