Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Richard Powers, _Generation_

A SLENDER VOLUME, by Powers's standards -- the first to weigh in at under 300 pages, by my reckoning. It does not really have what I think of the characteristic Powers device -- two or more seemingly independent narrative strands that wind up intersecting -- but otherwise it is certainly Powersian: lots of fine-grained local detail (about Chicago, in this instance), a tablespoon of metafictional leavening, above all the incorporation of ideas from the frontiers of mathematics, medicine, and the natural sciences (this time, bio-engineering). Powers has carved out something of a niche for himself as the Michael Crichton of literary fiction.

There's something new, though, too -- a lightness, a deftness, a willingness to risk a joke. (The best has been cited in most of the reviews: "Dada: it's not just for umbrellas anymore.") And there's Thassadit Amzwar, an Algerian refugee film student, whose DNA encodes some kind of neural chemistry that keeps her ever emotionally buoyant, delightful to be around, joyful. Her natural resiliency and cheerfulness make her an object of attention first to students and faculty of her college, then to a local paper, then to a cutting edge bio-researcher/entrepreneur, then to the Oprah-like Oona O'Donough, then to every tabloid/talk-show/preacher/clinic/you-name-it of the United States. Will her joyfulness survive such an onslaught?

For the novel to work, Thassa has to be awfully damned charming -- and to Powers's credit, she is. He has created compelling women characters before -- Laura Bodey and Karin Schluter would be my examples, and Candace Weld in this one makes a third -- but Thassa is something else again. Of Powers's previous female characters, only "Helen" of Galatea 2.2 lights up the page quite the way Thassa does, and "Helen" is a computer program. She's not sweet or angelic, really, not selfless or any kind of paragon, but Powers somehow succeeds in making it entirely credible that everyone who meets her finds her wonderful. As the forces that seek to strip-mine Thassa's being rise up and surround her in the last chapter of the novel, as Powers multiplies the examples of how in our society attention is toxic, I was genuinely terrified for her.

What the novel is at bottom most interested in, though, is how the not-yet-existent mysteriously leaps the threshold into actual being. Technological breakthroughs, theoretical breakthroughs, fictions of all kinds, inventions of all kinds... and babies of all kinds, of course. A small fragile hopefulness about the future flutters at the edge of vision in Generosity, rather as it did in Plowing the Dark, and at my age I tend to treasure such things.

No comments: