Monday 4 January 2010

'We're already us'

by Richard Powers

Powers has featured on this blog a couple of times and is a writer I am always interested in as his background in physics means that his novels are always likely to test the grey cells. The flip side to a combination of literature and science is that he can sometimes test your patience too, the literature sometimes suffers at the expense of the science, but when it works (most notably for me in The Gold Bug Variations), there is something genuinely invigorating about being pulled in lots of directions at the same time. His last novel The Echo Maker may have won him the National Book Award but I found that examination of identity through Oliver Sacks-like neuroscience a slightly slow and depressing read. His latest seems a far cheerier proposition: What if there was a gene for happiness?

In America his latest novel is not subtitled as such but instead ": An Enhancement" which relates I think not only to the contents but also the style in which they are presented. The authorial voice is hard to pin down at first, breaking directly through the text to address us and speaking of the central character, Russel Stone, as if he were not the very person writing the book, which he is.

'I can't see him well, at first. But that's my fault, not his. I'm years away, in another country...'

Stone becomes a teacher in Chicago, tutoring in creative non-fiction and it is amongst his class that he encounters Thassa Amzwar a Berber refugee from Algeria, who seems to radiate a happiness not in keeping with her troubled family history and flight from death and danger.

She's shorter than Stone thought. She's wearing a kind of needle-work, coral-colored shift. She could be from southern Italy. But her round face shines with precisely the light he remembers, the flushed look announcing that the most remarkable thing has happened to her, just now, down this hall, outside this building, on the streets of this improbable city. A thing that redeems everyone, for years to come.

Could there be some genetic cause to this seemingly unbreakable optimism? At first Stone assumes that she is on some kind of new medication (the world we are in is one where mood enhancers come in pill-form, where it is assumed everything will one day be treatable) or perhaps giddy from her trauma. The first hurdle for Powers is how to create a believable character from such a set-up but he does well, not only in describing her attitude but in showing the impact on it from what happens when others discover her gift. In such a society she could be a seriously valuable commodity and one man looking for just such a person is Thomas Kurton, a geneticist who has been working on the genetic basis of happiness and only needs the perfect subject to prove his hypothesis. This develops effectively into a struggle between the two men for what Thassa offers, although of course this isn't something that she actively offers, aware of its value, just simply who she is and that she chooses not to withhold.

Powers does a brilliant job of commenting on his society, a slightly enhanced version you might say of our own. For Stone, who has learnt to his cost the power of his own words once they're in the public domain, the current fascination for transparent social lives and a total loss of privacy leaves him feeling protective.

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 cafes, capital campaigns, catalog copy, even warzone journalism all turn confessional. Feelings are the new facts. Memoir is the new history. Tell-alls are the new news.

In such a society you can imagine the media circus that kicks into action once they get a hold of Thassa. A medical marvel, a living prophecy, a foreign danger; there are many ways she can be interpreted and her appearance on America's largest talk show, Oona (think of an Irish-American Oprah and you have the idea), provides the moment that creates her myth and allows Powers again to critique the speed of modern communication. Her moment of near meltdown and recovery becomes a much copied and parodied YouTube sensation.

"Oona, listen," a pretty Vancouver Eurasian lip-synchs, in her own shot-perfect recreation of the segment. "I promise you: This is easy. Nothing is more obvious."
A stocky blond high school junior wearing a Berber blouse in her Orlando bedroom recites for the lens, "People think they need to be healed, but the truth is much more beautiful."
Atlanta: "Even a minute is more than we deserve." Spokane, Allentown: "No one should be anything but dead." San Diego, Concord, Moline: "Instead, we get honey out of rocks. Miracles from nothing."
"It's easy," all the Thass Amzwars across the globe swear to anyone who'll listen. "We don't need to get better. We're already us. And everything that is, is ours."

Getting back to style, that strange authorial voice is the result of Stone's rehabilitation as a writer. His romantic relationship with a counsellor encourages him to put pen to paper again and we are ostensibly reading his own creative non-fiction, his rendering of events. Some sections begin 'So there's this scene...' for example and at other times the interjections are more blatant, stressing all the time his failure to make the most of his material.

I'm 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.

Quite a frank admission from an author and one that the uncharitable might use against Powers rather than Stone at times (Buridan's ass if you didn't already know (I have my own hand in the air here) is an illustration of a paradox in philosophy in the conception of free will. So now you know). There are also still those moments where scientific language is used to describe the scientific thinking of his scientific characters and you wonder whether scientists really think like that (Goose bumps run up Kurton's neck - piloerection, puffing up against danger - archaic reflex pirated by that spin-off of no known survival value: awe). As I've said before, Powers isn't to all tastes, but there's no doubting his willingness to tackle not only big science but also the big themes that spin off from that. The dryness of facts and reason are often counter-balanced by the very human mistakes people make trying to find love or companionship. Order runs alongside disorder and with Generosity he has written a book which dares to take a look at some of the most fundamental questions about what it means to be human and even where that very idea comes from.


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