A new novel from Richard Powers poses a disquieting question: Is it abnormal to be happy?
When it comes to the mad scientists of American letters, no one sees more clearly through his safety goggles than Richard Powers. In his new novel, Generosity: An Enhancement, the National Book Award winner (“The Echo Maker”) and recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant takes something quintessentially American – the pursuit of happiness – and sends it spinning through the radioactive centrifuge of modern genetics.
Russell Stone was, briefly, a literary wunderkind who published essays in the New Yorker and scored a gig as a satirist on NPR. It turns out he wasn’t “merciless and mean enough for real creativity,” and after a crisis of conscience, Russell ends up editing self-help pieces for a magazine called “Becoming You.”
As the novel opens, he is offered a job at a Chicago college teaching creative nonfiction. There, one of his students turns out to be something as rare as a unicorn: a truly happy person.
Thassadit Amzwar is an orphaned refugee from Algeria who radiates such perpetual well-being that her classmates nickname her “The Bliss Chick” and “Miss Generosity.” “Ten years of organized bloodbath have reduced a country the size of Western Europe to a walking corpse. And Thassa has emerged from that land glowing like a blissed-out mystic.”
Russell, for his part, is dumfounded and terrified for her. “All he can think is: It’s not safe out there. Happiness is a death sentence.” He’s worried that Thassa’s effervescence is somehow disguised trauma, and starts obsessively researching both Algeria and happiness. He stumbles across a term called “hyperthymia” that might cover Thassa’s “condition,” and consults with one of the college counselors, a woman named Candace Weld, who becomes as entranced with Thassa as everyone else.
Then Thassa foils an attempted rape, and Russell gives an ill-advised report to the police. Soon, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, Thassa comes to the attention of a geneticist named Thomas Kurton.