Happy People Need Love, Too

Generosity: An Enhancement
By Richard Powers

Review By Jan Alexander

Everybody loves Thassadit Amzwar. She is champagne and sunshine, always effervescent, perpetually radiant. Her creative nonfiction classmates at fictitious Mesquakie College in Chicago nickname her Miss Generosity. She gives away happiness, free of charge or obligation, to everyone around her.

Still more amazing, her happiness is not a detriment to her artistic inclinations. She wanders through bleakest Chicago with a video camera, turning ordinary lives and events into something dazzling. When she reads her creative nonfiction assignments aloud, “her voice is one of those mountain flutes, somehow able to weave a second melody around the one it plays,” writes Richard Powers, whose own literary voice is an endless display of post-modern maximalist pyrotechnics. Russell Stone, Thassa’s professor—an adjunct, called at the eleventh hour to teach this class and a man who has grown to expect little from life --gets wrapped up in the cadence of her sentences. You would love Thassa too. Just reading about her makes you want to spread a thick layer of cheer over our recession-era despair.

Thassa is, in short, a freak of nature in a bummed-out ironic world. An accidental charismatic in a culture waiting open-mouthed for its daily media feeding, a young woman doomed to wake up one day on a sizzling media platter. She has survived the civil war in her native Algeria and emerged happy; maybe she has a special genetic composition? She might not survive media frenzy in America, however. Stress and depression, like the plague bacillus, can lie dormant for years and years.

Albert Camus concluded that part about the plague long ago, in his novel by the same name, and it is no accident that Powers made his happy heroine a Berber Algerian. Her native hellhole could have been Iraq or Afghanistan or any number of war-infested countries, but to tie her to the birthplace of Camus is to reinforce what we know the author hopes – that human nature, for all of its flaws, is stronger than science. If you read The Plague as a metaphorical treatment of resistance to both Nazi occupation – ie. human carnage of any time and place – and the absurd, you can truly appreciate the homage Powers pays to Camus. As when Powers has a character named Thomas Kurton, a Cambridge-dwelling celebrity geneticist who believes humankind can remake itself, who read The Plague in his youth and decided to study science in spite of Camus’ warnings of its limitations. Now, as the story unfolds, Kurton is listening to an audiobook of The Plague, contemplating as he drives that “intimate consciousness, domestic tranquility, self-making; Kurton considers them all blatant distractions from the true explosion in human capability.”

The idea that science might, however, become the inevitable determinant of the human condition – eliminating pain and taking art down with it – is familiar ground to Powers, who has both a National Book Award and a MacArthur “genius grant” in his trophy case. He had no shortage of scientific inspiration for his latest novel. Scientists have indeed identified evidence of certain genes that result in personalities predisposed to happiness whatever their circumstances. Powers had his own genome sequenced in 2008, on assignment for GQ.

Having seen a glimpse of the future, Powers has also become known as one of the twenty-first century’s notable writers of big cosmic novels to make frequent use of that most nineteenth century of literary devices, the omniscient narrator. Paul Dawson wrote in an essay that appeared in Narrative, in May of this year, that “Contemporary omniscient narrators can no longer claim the luxury of being spokespersons of authority.” We no longer accept the narrator as the voice of God, as readers of an earlier age might have. But using a narrator, as Dawson notes, is also a way of reclaiming literary authority in a multimedia world.

Power’s narrator, in fact, is a mortal fighting for his life against a technological advance that might not merely offer more instant entertainment than the novel, but might render the angst-ridden human condition obsolete, might program the human brain so that it isn’t a product of a million major or minor childhood traumas. In a species bred for the happy gene, who would need to ponder life through the comfort of literature? This narrator is a disillusioned character. He (I’m sure he is a “he”) offers this as a philosophy of life: “…the whole human race did something stupid when young—pulled some playful stunt that damaged someone. The secret of survival is forgetting. If evolution favored conscience, everything with a backbone would have hung itself from the ceiling fan eons ago, and invertebrates would be once again running the place.”

Further evidence that science is winning comes in a public debate between Thomas Kurton and a Nobel Prize-winning novelist. Kurton wins, hands down, with wittier sound bites and the message that most people would rather be happy than live as fodder for the great tragicomedy that art can make of life. Sputters back the novelist: “Enhancement will mean nothing, in the long run…… We’ll never feel enhanced. … The misery business will remain a growth industry.”

In short, human nature will keep upping the ante in the pursuit of happiness. Thassa’s bliss could be evidence of that – maybe she’s happy because she has escaped from war with her youth, health and limbs all intact, while the Americans around her wallow in complacent misery, forever expecting more than life has dealt them. Powers and his narrator do not ponder this, but then the narrator is reassuringly mortal and flawed. And indeed, what I find most indicative of the narrator’s merely mortal existence is that he can’t bring himself to snoop around in Thassa’s head. Maybe she intimidates him. Certainly he is far more comfortable hanging out with Russell – and so, in keeping with Richard Powers’ proclivity to invent male protagonists whose names, like his, start with “R”, the novel unfolds mostly from Russell’s point of view. Here is a psyche that would feel like a comfortable couch for anyone whose stock in trade is the angst of the beautiful loser. Russell first appears on a Chicago subway, the narrator watching him and describing a 32- year- old man with shoulders that apologize for taking up any public space at all, who dresses for being overlooked, with eyes that halt midway between hazel and brown. He also has a face that would have made “a great Franciscan novice in one of those mysteries set in a medieval monastery,” and in fact his life has been full of self-righteous self-flagellation

Something else you should know about Russell: He was once a rising star of the creative nonfiction genre. He made his career on the strength of three essays about quirky, down-on-their-luck people. But then family members of his subjects and a certain Native American tribe publicly denounced his insensitivity to unstable drifters, and one of his subjects tried to commit suicide. As if to prove to himself that he wasn’t insensitive, Russell shriveled gradually, the narrator tells us. When we meet him he hasn’t written in years. He goes through the motions of being a decent guy, but in the name of punishing himself for his insensitivity, he has deleted the fine-tuning in his brain. He no longer registers the scales of happiness and sadness, having learned that a peak is generally followed by a valley deep enough to swallow him. “Self examination makes him seasick,” the narrator says in an early appraisal that sums up why, in a world where Thassa has stood firm and exuberant in the face of war and attempted rape, ultimately Russell’s damaged emotional register could do her in.

In drawing Thassa from an awed distance, Powers has produced at least a passing resemblance between this character and Helen, the not-human computer intelligence of his earlier novel Galatea 2.2. Helen becomes human enough that she longs to assimilate fully with her human counterparts. Thassa assimilates instantly with all of humanity, yet the narrator seems to lack the courage to scrutinize her romantic and sexual appetites. He alludes only briefly to the idea that she has a crush on Russell. By then Russell’s one semester as an adjunct at Mesquakie is over and ethically the idea rests easy. But Russell himself is so tone-deaf to self examination that he misses any special light from Thassa.

Besides, though he is only nine years old than his former student, Russell has come to think of himself as her protective foster guardian. From early on he has worried that “he’ll never be able to protect her from her own promiscuous warmth.” And to complicate matters, Russell has joined forces with a co-guardian, Candace Weld, who besides being a psychologist at Mesquakie Psychological Services Center, happens to be an attractive woman closer to his age. They meet when Russell seeks a professional opinion of Thassa’s euphoric condition. Candace, divorced with a young son, protective of her professional reputation and her mortgage, trained to motivate failed writers, is, on paper, unquestionably a more appropriate girlfriend for Russell, though she knows all the rules about boundaries and gets permission from the head of the counseling center to date him.

Their romance begins in long phone conversations, then segues into a night of sexual gymastics while watching Thomas Kurton on television. Not surprising: their excuse for being together on Candace’s bed is that Kurton is talking about a new discovery whom he calls “Jen” to protect her privacy, but he’s talking about Thassa. After they make love, missing much of the program, Russell thinks, “Thank you for raising me from the dead.” There he goes again – wallowing in his own despair. And Candace, only human and therefore prone to worrying about her own place on the planet, is trapped right there with Russell in the vale of stinginess; as a unit the two of them are tight with any kind of generosity of spirit. Individually Russell and Candace can perhaps each be forgiven for having little happiness to spread around. But late in the story, something happens that made me pass judgment upon them and decide that as a couple, they are the last two people you want to sit next to at a dinner party.

What happens has everything to do with Thassa’s rapturous trust of her two slightly older friend/protectors. The counseling center director accuses Candace of inappropriate emotional intimacy with a client. At first she thinks he means Russell. No, he says, he’s talking about “your boyfriend’s girlfriend.” Colleagues have seen Thassa in Candace’s office, and she is a student at the college. Therefore a personal friendship is inappropriate. What does a competent therapist do? Even the narrator wonders, saying “I thought (Candace)would be my mainstay and now she’s breaking.”

What she does is end it. Keeps her authority figure demeanor, turns cold just when Thassa most needs her. Thassa, you see, has by then become famous. The Happy Gene Woman was snapped up by the producers of a certain game-changing TV talk show. You know of the host, who is based in Chicago. Powers writes “It’s less a show than a sovereign multinational charter. And its host ....has the power to create instant celebrities, sell hundreds of millions of books, make or break entire consumer industries, expose frauds, marshall mammoth relief efforts, and change the spoken language.” Powers makes her Irish American and calls her Oona. After The Oona Show Thassa experiences a new sensation perhaps best described as distraught. She has to move to hide from the mobs of fans and foes. She is in a dilemma over whether to sell her eggs to a lab that offers her $32,000 to make her happiness gene available on the open market.

I didn’t truly hate Candace until the scene where she sends Thassa off into the night, then says to Russell, “I think it went pretty well. How about you?”

For a different sort of protagonist, this would have been grounds to leave his lover. But Russell needs his anchor. Still, he gets one more chance to learn about generosity, maybe even happiness, in the form of a phone call from Thassa, desperately in need of a knight in shining armor who will drive her from Chicago to Montreal, where her aunt and uncle will provide her with safe shelter from the media-crazed hordes.

Thassa’s briefly-hinted-at crush on Russell is believable, considering that deep in her soul she probably realizes that she needs protection from the unhappy world. Granted, Thassa deserves better – someone worldlier, sexier, more successful, more antsy to embrace life and road trips, more generous with the very word “love.” But in a seedy motel room at the Canadian border the entire story could take a twist; she could rescue Russell. Alone in the room, for a moment something lifts Russell “up bodily, from the inside out. Happiness.” Virtue might say that he should resist Thassa’s sexual cues, be her protector instead of her lover; the trouble is he might have to be one to be the other. He might have to choose on the spot, between his appropriate girlfriend and his young charge.

Without giving away the end, I will say it leaves us with revelations that are unexpected, painful, and ambiguous – like life but larger. You would expect nothing less of a writer as revved up as Powers, that he will lead humanity back to its artful tragedies, even if there are suddenly a lot of happy looking babies with similar features appearing in the United States. Anyway, it turns out happy people need love as much as anyone else does. Maybe even more.

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