Friday, February 17, 2012

Generosity: An Enhancement / by Richard Powers

Russell Stone is a new teacher of Creative Non-fiction at a small Chicago-area college. It's a dismal prospect for the once highly regarded author, a step down after a promising career went south. But his class holds something special for himself, and indeed for everyone else, in the form of a uniquely exuberant Algerian refugee named Thassadit Arnzwar. Thassadit isn't just a happy-go-lucky type of person; she's not merely a high-energy optimist, expressively spiritual or just another average perky personality. She is the only genuinely blissful human being Russell Stone has ever met. That goes for everyone else as well, the other class members inspired by the young woman's (really just a girl in her mid-20's) almost superhuman charisma and benevolence. Her joy and contentment (unshakeable to its core) warrants all the more recognition considering the horror-show past she's endured. Thassadit's experiences include a harrowing childhood spent in a war-zone, the violent deaths of several family members, multi-cultural displacement (she's lived in 5 different countries on 3 separate continents) and a currently near-destitute housing situation.

The girl is such an anomaly that Russell starts seeking out answers on the nature of her happiness and the subject of happiness in general, starting with general psychological research and expanding his investigation into the human genome project which has simultaneously begun to map the various traits which apparently endow an individual biologically with natural happiness. He concludes temporarily that Thassadit must have some form of hyperthymia, an extremely rare personality condition characterized by an infectious, elevated mood, boundless positive energy and unparalelled optimism. Wanting to confirm his hunch, Stone engages psychologist Candace Weld who, upon meeting Thassadit, can only conclude the same to the point that she sponsors the girl for clinical research. Something of a public novelty now, Thassadit, nicknamed Miss Generosity by her classmates, swiftly comes to the attention of the scientific community, specifically renowned geneticist Thomas Kurtin, a scientist mapping the genes for human happiness who soon begins to publicly exhibit Thassadit as his prototype.

It would have been better if this book based its story on an actual case study, or at least structured its premise around more likely events. Powers, a commendable writer, likely researched his topic carefully and based his content on solid scientific principles, but the plot suffers from too many manufactured sequences. No doubt people like Thassadit exist--Hyperthymia is a valid condition. But the nuance associated by her instant emergence into society, in an academic setting no less, and subsequent rise through the ranks from anonymity to celebrity defies plausibility and makes the book play out like a fairy tale. The concept is an intriguing one, but maybe not quite enough for a novel. There's a little too much emphasis on psychology and not quite enough on characterization. A conspicuously omniscient narrative tells the audience a lot about each character but doesn't particularly engender them with any distinctive intimacy. Russell's very cognitive but isn't rendered substantially enough to promote sympathy and Thassadit, whom he falls for, simply doesn't seem real. Powers won the National Book Award for his previous novel, The Echo Maker, a book with a similarly cutting-edge medical science theme and one which evidently resonated a more credible scenario. He's a good writer, no question, casually loquacious without pretension, his prose reading very much like the work of a talented, experienced author who knows what he's talking about. Those wanting a story about genetic engineering or curious as to why some people just seemed programmed for more happiness will discover a story that's not just based on a hypothesis, but a factual account that's been proven in some capacity. (FIC POWERS)

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