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Whimsical Novel Puts Happiness Under Microscope

Since 1985 and the publication of his erudite Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, Richard Powers has made a specialty of writing novels that probe the boundary between science and art, human and machine. His speculative fictions have spun out of chaos theory, artificial intelligence and neuroscience, raising such intriguing questions as: Might virtual reality supplant the human imagination? Part of the fun of reading Powers is pondering these questions and watching him work them out in the flawed characters who inhabit his elaborately constructed universes.

In Powers' 2006 National Book Award-winning novel The Echo Maker, the victim of a truck accident suffers from a brain affliction known as Capgras syndrome. Because he can't remember and retain the emotional connections to others in his life, he considers his sister and his dog impostors. Powers' new novel, Generosity, explores an inverse neuroscientific oddity. It features a mysteriously exuberant and accessible Chicago film student who just might carry the holy grail of human genetics.

We first meet Thassadit Amzwar, a young Algerian Berber refugee from a brutal civil war, in the classroom of adjunct Russell Stone, whose creative nonfiction class is called Journal and Journey. Assigned to write about her hometown, Thassa describes Algiers in what she calls the "Time of Horrors": her father's assassination, her mother's quick death from pancreatic cancer. "But still, she writes, it is so beautiful there."

Enchanted by her preternatural buoyancy, the class dubs her "Miss Generosity." Russell, whose mood tends toward depression, grows concerned about his student's chronic upbeat mood and consults Candace, a college counselor. As their discussion shifts from professional to personal, Russell, Candace and Thassa form the triangle that becomes the major, meandering narrative thread of the novel.

Powers paces the secondary, scientific thread briskly. Thomas Kurton, a charismatic entrepreneurial geneticist who believes happiness is chemical, gets wind of the joyous Thassa and flies her to his lab in Boston for a genetic workup. (Novelist Powers just happens to be one of a handful of humans ever to have had his entire genome sequenced — all 6 billion data points. Quick summary: He has three genetic variants associated with intelligence, and one "novelty seeking" allele.)

Thassa confirms Kurton's research, and he publishes a paper about his discovery of the genotype for happiness in a subject code-named "Jen." A blogger reveals Thassa's identity and soon she is caught up in an information-era frenzy that culminates in an appearance on an Oprah-like TV show. It all meshes effortlessly into one of Powers' favorite themes: Does profit now play a bigger role in the laboratory than truth?

As is his habit, Powers interrupts Generosity with authorial asides in which he unveils the process of "making the fiction." "I give myself a first assignment: Russell Stone in one hundred fifty words," he writes. The conceit has lost its freshness; more compelling is the rare warm and comic tone unleashed when Powers turns his remarkable descriptive gifts to the psychological state of happiness. It's as if the morose and brainy novelist we know has fallen in love and suddenly tells a new sort of story, one filled with unexpected delights: tender love scenes, surprising friendships, a euphoric flinging about of human whim.

Is happiness catching? Certainly it has inspired Powers. Generosity is his most whimsical, pleasurable novel to date, up to and including his curious twist on a happy ending.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jane Ciabattari is the author of the short-story collections Stealing The Fireand California Tales. Her reviews, interviews, and cultural reporting have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Daily Beast, the Paris Review, the Boston Globe, The Guardian, Bookforum, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and BBC.comamong others. She is a current vice president/online and former president of the National Book Critics Circle.