FROM THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD–WINNING AUTHOR OF THE ECHO MAKER, A PLAYFUL AND PROVOCATIVE NOVEL ABOUT THE DISCOVERY OF THE HAPPINESS GENE
When Chicagoan Russell Stone finds himself teaching a Creative Nonfiction class, he encounters a young Algerian woman with a disturbingly luminous presence. Thassadit Amzwar's blissful exuberance both entrances and puzzles the melancholic Russell. How can this refugee from perpetual terror be so happy? Won't someone so open and alive come to serious harm? Wondering how to protect her, Russell researches her war-torn country and skims through popular happiness manuals. Might her condition be hyperthymia? Hypomania? Russell's amateur inquiries lead him to college counselor Candace Weld, who also falls under Thassa's spell. Dubbed Miss Generosity by her classmates, Thassa's joyful personality comes to the attention of the notorious geneticist and advocate for genomic enhancement, Thomas Kurton, whose research leads him to announce the genotype for happiness.
Russell and Candace, now lovers, fail to protect Thassa from the growing media circus. Thassa's congenital optimism is soon severely tested. Devoured by the public as a living prophecy, her genetic secret will transform both Russell and Kurton, as well as the country at large.
What will happen to life when science identifies the genetic basis of happiness? Who will own the patent? Do we dare revise our own temperaments? Funny, fast, and finally magical, Generosity celebrates both science and the freed imagination. In his most exuberant book yet, Richard Powers asks us to consider the big questions facing humankind as we begin to rewrite our own existence.
About halfway into Powers's follow-up to his National Book Award winning The Echo Maker, a Nobel Prize-winning author, during a panel discussion, talks about how "genetic enhancement represents the end of human nature.... A story with no end or impediment is no story at all." This then, is a story with both. Its hero, at least initially, is Russell Stone, a failed author of creative nonfiction turned reluctant writing instructor who cannot help transmitting to his students something of his flagging faith in writing. One of them, a Berber Algerian named Thassadit Amzwar, is so possessed by preternatural happiness that she's nicknamed "Miss Generosity" by her prematurely jaded classmates and has emerged from the Algerian civil war that claimed the lives of her parents "glowing like a blissed out mystic." After Stone learns that Thassadit may possess a rare euphoric trait called hyperthymia, her condition is upgraded from behavioral to genetic, and Powers's novel makes a dramatic shift when Thassadit falls into the hands of Thomas Kurton, the charismatic entrepreneur behind genetics lab Truecyte, whose plan to develop a programmable genome to "regulate the brain's set point for well-being" may rest in Miss Generosity's perpetually upbeat alleles. Much of the tension behind Powers's idea-driven novels stems from the delicate balance between plot and concept, and he wisely adopts a voice that is sometimes painfully aware of the occasional strain ("I'm caught... starving to death between allegory and realism, fact and fable, creative and nonfiction"). Like Stone and Kurton, Powers strays from mere record to attempt an impossible task: to make the world right.