Generosity – An Enhancement, the new novel by Richard Powers (The Echo Maker, The Time of Our Singing) is a work of fiction qua non-fiction, that is so dense, so full of ideas, so miraculously constructed, yet so joyous to read, that a normal “review” simply cannot do it justice. Certainly, I can’t do it justice in the normal way. Perhaps I’m doomed to fail with any approach. But I’ll soldier on.
I want to think about this book in three ways: The fiction (the “story”), the meta-fiction (the “approach” to the story), and the ideas (the Gordian knot of the fiction and the meta-fiction). These will no doubt of necessity, blend together. Yes, I can feel the eyes rolling with the use of the term ‘meta-fiction’. There are many readers that hate it as an example of trampling on sacred ground. As if somehow interfering in the compact that authors should have with their readers. Feh! I’m not one of those, I have to say up front.
Powers intrusions (and I use the most pejorative word that is commonly the basis of objection) are mostly unobtrusive, and always non-gimmicky. These go to the very nature of fiction and non-fiction. J. M. Coetzee has in his own way, plowed these fields before. Some would say that non-fiction itself is a fiction. Maybe. I won’t say these moments go unnoticed, but for me, they are an integral part of the whole. I look on them as a ‘sharing’, an open source look at the author’s story development. They don’t leave behind that “look-at-me” aura, that slightly acrid aftertaste that can be so objectionable.
This is the best book I read in 2009 – I finished it in late December. It took me awhile to get my thoughts and notes together so I could post this. And so. Where to start?
The Story (The Fiction)
Our first look at our anti-hero, and we’re just not sure we want to spend a lot of time with him. He’s on the Chicago subway…
He cowers in the scoop seat, knees tight and elbows hauled in. He’s dressed for being overlooked, in rust jeans, maroon work shirt, and blue windbreaker with broken zipper: the camouflage of the non-aligned, circa last year. He’s as white as anyone on this subway gets. His own height surprises him. His partless hair waits for a reprimand and his eyes halt midway between hazel and brown. His face is about six centuries out of date. He would make a great Franciscan novice in one of those mysteries set in a medieval monastery.
Not promising. Who is this, Bernie Goetz? No, it’s only 32-year old Russell Stone, a newly appointed adjunct-teacher on his way to his first (night) class….His subject? Something called “Creative Nonfiction, Journal and Journey.” The text he has chosen to teach from is a deadly wooden and formulaic text called Make Your Writing Come Alice by Frederick P. Harmon. The place? Chicago: The Mesquakie College of Art. Russell is a failed writer. He’s assembled notebook upon notebook filled with his writings and observations, but has never been able to put it all together.
But even as he shrinks from it, the world graduates to runaway first person. Blogs, mashups, reality programming, court TV, chat shows, chat rooms, chat cafés, capital campaigns, catalog copy, even war-zone journalism all turn confessional. Feelings are the new facts. Memoir is the new history. Tell-alls are the new news.
He had some little initial success, but putting it out there was not a pleasant experience for him There were frustrations, set backs. Finally he gave it up and moved from Arizona to Chicago to edit a friend’s self-help magazine, Becoming You.
Becoming You took up the slack. Editing gave the same pleasure as hanging sheetrock. He fixed predications, aligned parallel structures, undangled participles, unmixed metaphors, and collared runaway modifiers
Russell turns out to be an uninspiring teacher, barely tolerated by his art school students. His first act is to have a brief introduction around the room by his eight students.
It’s easy to overlook what a fine writer Powers is. But take a glance at the little group assembled: There’s Sue Weston: “a small, hard woman who must run with both wolves and scissors. She has recently been pierced in all her few soft spots.”; there’s Charlotte Hullinger, big, bleached and “omnivorous”, “the left side of her mouth pulls back in permanent skepticism”; there’s Adam Tocar (“Cowboys crawl across [his] shirt and zoo animals parade around his baggy trousers”; Roberto Munoz”? “For the last four years,, painting has kept him off crystal meth”; Kiyoshi Sims (Machines are his people. Among them he’s widely and well loved.”; Mason Mason “worked briefly as a youth counselor, until someone heard what he was counseling the youth.”; John Thornell, “a massive, impassive monolith.”
Lastly (and luckily for Stone) there is an inspiring presence in the class: An 23-year old Algerian refugee, Thassadit Amzwar. A Berber Algerian from Kabylie. The entire class, including the teacher is drawn to the inner peace, calmness, and generosity of Thassadit. Miss Generosity, they dub her – the Bliss Chick. How is it possible to be so steadily and uniformly happy in the face of all she’s been through as a refugee from her war-torn country? Child of a father who was shot for merely writing a letter, her mother gone too. Much of Russell’s classes consist of assignments from the text and then reading them aloud at the next meeting. They all can’t wait for Thassa’s , and are mesmerized. “She must be the world’s most blissful refugee” he writes in his journal.
Quickly, Russell wonders if she’s not really deeply troubled. She has to be, right? No one can be that at peace with themselves and with their surroundings. So sure is he of this that he makes an appointment to see the school councilor, Candace Weld. He’s googled her to get an idea of what he’s in for. You can find out most anything on-line, he thinks to himself. One of Powers’ persistent themes.
It took the species millions of years to climb down out of the trees, and only ten years more to jump into the fishbowl.
He tells Candace about Thassa, haltingly at first, then more readily. She listens, unsure of his motivations, then fascinated by what he has to say. She sees Thassa. She sees Russell. Soon they are all profound friends – a breach of protocol for Candace which will play out later. For now these three (these two plus Thassa) form one side of the story . The other (Thassa & 2) that form the other half, (and they eventually come together, of course,) are genome researcher and business entrepreneur Thomas Kurton, and pop science tv journalist Tonia Schiff.
Tonia is a deep disappointment to her parents, even though she’s successful. They had envisioned more for her. A Doctor perhaps. He had hoped she’d “fight the fatuous” alongside him.
Instead, his daughter—his polyglot, caryatid, harpist daughter, National Merit Finalist, queen of the debating society, captain of the chess club, choral society soloist—was partying with the barbarians.
Kurton is the subject of one of Tonia’s shows, then a follow-up. Kurton has hypothesized that specific genes may be the key to Happiness, the good life. He gets wind of Thassa, and sees the possible real world link that might validate all his research. Things get rolling and as all hell breaks loose, their lives are changed forever.
The Meta-Fiction (Creative Non-Fiction)
As Powers introduces us to his first character, Russell Stone, he’s easing us into the proper viewpoint. He puts himself in his frame of reference (“the author”) and puts himself in our (“the reader”s) frame of reference. Neither know this character yet. “I can’t see him well, at first.” After all, the character is in Chicago, and the author is not only years, but worlds away. Clarity then, is hard to come by. It maybe is easier for the reader. But
the blank page is patient, and meaning can wait. I watch until he solidifies.
Author as Watcher.
I force my eyes back down over the scribbler’s left shoulder, spying on his notes. The secret of all imagination: theft
Author as Thief.
It’s Last Chance Cafe for Russell. “Death and resurrection: I know this story, like I wrote it myself.” Russell has asked all his new students to give their “Life philosophy”. “For convenience” the author says, he gives Russell his.
“When you’re sure of what you’re looking at, look harder.”
Remember that Stone had his students go around the horn with introductions, tell a little something about themselves. Again the author takes a dual perspective, his shoes and the readers.
I wish I could make out Stone’s students better. I can see how they disturb him. But I just can’t see them in any detail.
After the introductions both the reader and the author know what we’re dealing with. Interestingly, Thassa is not vague to him (“She I can see in detail”). Can we say that the author sketched out this character more thoroughly than the others? That makes her central, and she is.
Russell has given all his pupils assignments. The author gives himself one: “Russell Stone in one hundred and fifty words.”
Start with this: His earliest crime involved a book about a boy whose marvelous scribbling comes alive. He wrecked every page with crayon, aping the trick His mother never really forgave him…
He hates books with teacher protagonists…
Taped to the inside of the desk he inherited from his grandfather, he keeps the Schiller quote found in Melville’s desk after his death: “Keep true to the dreams of thy youth” His forgotten note awaits the discovery of death’s garage sale…
He’d be pleased to know that in my mind, he’s still mostly white space.
The author wonders if Russell (and isn’t this the same as asking it of himself?) has ever fallen for a fictional character. This is like asking if he’s alive. But which ones?
Okay, an early inchoate lust for Jo March. He burned with the need to befriend Emma Woodhouse…With Dorothea Brooke , he took long rambles through the countryside…much later Odette was great fun, until she wasn’t. He tried to protect Daisy Miller, and failed miserably. He tried to desire Daisy Buchanan, but failed to do much more than shake her till she whimpered.
Emma Bovary scared the crap out of him…his time with Anna Arkadyevna was full of insane letters and rash, stolen meetings…Lily Bart appalled him on two continents, but by the end he would have done anything for her…Like the authors of the world canon, Russell Stone had a disproportionate fondness for pretty suicides.
Writers, I guess…but certainly readers can relate to that grand passage.
Russell beats himself up for calling on experts to explain Thassa. That’s when it all went wrong.
It’s his own fault, for thinking that Thassa’s joy must mean something, for imagining that such a plot has to go somewhere, that something has to happen.
I know exactly how he feels.
And so the author (can I call the author Powers?) is compelled to lend meaning and satisfying plot to the characters he has assembled. From here, we cross over to the ideas that unite the fiction and the meta-fiction. Or is it that exactly? At some point the characters take on a life.. the plot writes itself?
I’d dearly love to keep all three tucked away safely in exposition. But they’ve broken out now, despite me, into rising action.
The Ideas, the Knot, and the What-Not
Powers has a scientific mind and a humanist heart. And it shows. It shows in his characters. They are dealt the same kinds of hands that many fictional heroes are dealt. They have the same doubts, the same fears, the same questions of the universe as fictional characters from other pens. Powers though, seems to want to get at the root of these questions with more scientific specificity than most writers. Many writers may ask (and ask provocatively, ask well) how we become who we are and then answer that question couched in the debate over destiny, self-determination, and the role of fate (God). Powers asks the same questions, but engages the reader in a debate over the development of the mind, can we diverge from the path laid out by our genome?
Here, simply put, the idea is Happiness: why do some people seem predisposed to happiness, while others to misery? The psychologist believes that the subject (the Algerian refugee) has learned to cope with her personal tragedies by acceptance. From tragedy she has taken serenity. Her writing teacher believes that she’s masking. This cannot be right. She must de suffering and deadened inside. The scientist believes she validates all his research, and that she proves there is a genome responsible for happiness. Because this is possible in theory, the theory as it becomes manifest in the real world brings along with it all sorts of moral ambiguities.
Fiction also itself is the subject here. The wonder of it. The difficulty of it. The relevance of it. Since I love fiction so, I’ve often had a fear that as I grew older (grew up?), I’d gravitate toward more non-fiction. It seems to happen with many readers after a certain age, and it worries me, to be honest. Powers calculates (extrapolates from supposition) that there must be a million or more works of fiction – and growing:
I try to calculate how many of those million-and-growing volumes are saddled with a romance [as Generosity is, of course] – bright or doomed, healthy or diseased. I can’t do the math. Surely it must be most of them.
Sexual selection, the surest and most venerable form of eugenics, has molded us into the fiction-needing readers we are today. Part of me would love to belong to a species free, now and then, to read about something other than its own imprisonment. The rest of me knows that the novel will always be a kind of Stockholm syndrome – love letters to the urge that has abducted us.
Fiction and non-fiction? Thassa’s story is sold as a commodity (starting with a stint on a Chicago based popular talk ‘n guest show, called Oona:
Reality has become programming’s wholly owned subsidiary.
The Oona show is wildly popular. Oona has built a media empire for herself. She has power. She’s named O’Donough and is Irish-American, but make no mistake, we’re talking Oprah here:
The guiding principle of her program..is the belief that fortune lies not in our stars but in our changing selves. She has told several thousand guests that blaming any destiny – whether biological or environmental – just isn’t going to cut it…anyone can escape any fate by a daily application of near-religious will.
Powers’ protagonist Russell Stone, writer-teacher, a failed novelist now teaches something he calls creative non-fiction. Here, an example of how Stone’s thoughts morph into Powers’ own. Stone is
…caught like Buridan’s ass, starving to death between allegory and realism, fact and fable, creative and nonfiction. I see now exactly who these people are and where they came from. But I can’t quite make out what I’m to do with them.
Somewhere in the middle there, Powers’ voice takes over Stone’s thoughts. And it seems that if Powers had his druthers, he’d not be tied down by ‘reality’. If things were different, perhaps if he were different, perhaps if his education had been different, he’d be a different writer. But he cannot be.
I know the kind of novel I loved to read, back before fact and fable merged. I know what kind of story I’d make from this one, if I could: the kind that, from one word to the next, breaks free. The kind that invents itself out of meaningless detail and thin air. The kind in which there’s no choice like chance.
In a three-way conversation between Weld, Stone and the scientist Kurton, the geneticist talks about the place of literature in our history:
“For most of human history, when existence was too short and bleak to mean anything, we needed stories to compensate. But now that we’re on the verge of living the long, pain-reduced, and satisfying life that our brains deserve, it’s time for art to lead us beyond noble stoicism.”
In short: if it’s getting too rich for you, get off the ride. The Nobel novelist looks like he wants to do just that.
The Nobel novelist is certainly not any of these three. When Weld asks Stone about the novel is process that he (supposedly) has begun to write, he admits that the fiction is a fiction. He can’t get off the dime. His head hurts just thinking about it.
He does not tell her the real problem: fiction is obsolete. Engineering has lapped it.
Time passes, as the novelist says. The single most useful trick of fiction for our repair and refreshment: the defeat of time. A century of family saga and a ride up an escalator can take the same number of pages. Fiction sets any conversion rate, then changes it in a syllable. The narrator’s mother carries her child up the stairs and the reader follows, for days. But World War I passes in a paragraph. I needed 125 pages to get from Labor Day to Christmas vacation. In six more words, here’s spring.
Merely a trick? Or as Powers intimates, a victory – time vanquished. And if only temporarily, then so be it. It has served its purpose. We are renewed. We live to fight another day. And a fiction writer creates something that can be the very embodiment of free will. The creator – the Gods, fate – only has so much control. I’ve always believed this – though I’m not a writer. I’ve seen enough great writers hint at this, that I believe it to be true.
I always knew I’d lose my nerve in the end. Kurton set free by his data; Thassa turning brittle; Stone an easy mark in the crosshairs of love. Now Candace, on the auction block. A part of me wanted to love this woman since she was no more than the sketchiest invention. I thought she would be my mainstay, and now she’s breaking. I don’t have the heart to learn her choice.
All I want is for my friends to survive the story intact. All the story wants is to wreck anything solid in them. No one would write a word, if he remembered how much fiction eventually comes true.
The scientist (Kurton) has his own view of fiction and its place as well:
The problem is with the craft of fiction. The whole grandiose idea that life’s meaning plays out in individual negotiations makes the scientist wince. Intimate consciousness, domestic tranquility, self-making: Kurton considers them all blatant distractions from the true explosion in human capability. Fiction seems at best willfully naïve. Too many soul-searchers wandering head-down through too many self-created crises, while all about them, the race is changing the universe…
Worse, fiction’s perpetual mistaking of correlation for causation drives Kurton nuts. Even Camus can’t help deploying bits of his characters’ histories as if they explained all subsequent behaviors and beliefs. The trick smacks of an environmental determinism more reductive than anything that has ever come out of Kurton’s labs. My upbringing made me do it . . .
Fiction qua non-fiction. The novel as a history of the writing:
Say that the six thousand years of writing are a six-hundred-page novel, suitable for getting you through the longest captive flight. Romance, mystery, thriller: a little something for everyone. At a decade a page, it’s a slow starter. Only belatedly does the opening hook—secret marks that hurl meaning magically through time and space—reveal itself to be a Trojan horse. By page 200, memory is embalmed beyond recognition, lamented only when anyone still notices it’s gone. If a thing isn’t written down, you can forget about it. The rest is history.
The plot starts to pick up on page 350. After a ridiculously long exposition, the development section starts at last. Characters emerge, cities clashing in the freshness of youth, driven by the varied needs of their patron gods. Wars spread and trade expands. The characters harden and age. They join together into sprawling clans. Freed from the present, papyrus starts to spawn new subplots. By page 400, the basic conflict becomes clear: preservers against revisers, sufficers against maximizers, those who think the book is coming apart versus those who think it’s coming together.
There are a few longueurs for some readers in the middle two-thirds. But this is when the story is at its most desperate: when techne and sophia are still kin, when the distant climax is still ambiguous, the outcome a dead heat between salvation and ruin.
Page 575 starts a series of quick reveals (although each one foreshadowed, early on). Every discovery triggers two more. The cast of characters explodes, as do the sudden reverses. The book makes one of those massive finish-line sprints—twenty-five pages to wrap up all the lingering plot points and force a denouement. The last chapter is filled with deus ex machinas, and on the very final page, the very last paragraph, the characters throw off the limits of the Story So Far and complete their revolt. The ultimate sentence is a direct quote—“Author, we’re outta here”—the happy ending of the race’s own making.
Endings are important to me. It’s possibly make or break time – in books as well as in film. The ending here sent shivers. So well conceived, so indicative of all that went before, I’ll want to go back to this one for a long, long time. It’s not “Author, we’re outta here”, but something unique and totally different. It reminded me of an ending I vaguely recall from a cartoon, or a documentary about a cartoonist. I want to say R. Crumb, but maybe not. Just perfect, in the context.
She slips the book back across the space between them. But just as Schiff takes it, the text disappears. Neither woman, I guess, will even flinch. The next to vanish off the table will be the camera, then the poems, leaving only their two half-finished teas, a condiments rack, and a menu.
As the two look on, the menu’s French fades. The Arabic follows it into white. So, too, do the sounds from the air around the café, until the only language running through the nearby streets is the one that existed in these parts long before the arrival of writing. T
Then the menus and the tea and the condiments dematerialize. Then the filmmaker’s bag. Then the filmmaker herself vanishes back into documentary, banished to nonfiction.
And I’m here again, across from the daughter of happiness as I never will be again, in anything but story. The two of us sit sampling the afternoon’s slow changes, this sun under which there can be nothing new. She’s still alive, my invented friend, just as I conceived her, still uncrushed by the collective need for happier endings. All writing is rewriting.