Generosity: An Enhancement
By Richard Powers
304 pages; Farrar, Straus and Giroux

National Book Award–winning novelist Richard Powers has made a career out of the instability of human identity. Approaching the subject as a kind of scientist, he uses his fiction to explore such knotty matters as personality-altering neurological disorders, artificial intelligence, video game hyperreality, terrorism, and imprisonment, and now, in Generosity , the possibility of a gene for happiness. Happiness is a good subject for Powers: He's a deep and moody writer, who frequently evokes the nuanced colorations of a late Sunday afternoon. But here he's more sprightly; he actually skips a bit down the narrative path. Russell Stone, the novel's main character, is (stand-in-ishly) an intelligent and unorthodox writer teaching a workshop in personal nonfiction. One student, Thassa, a young woman from Algeria who writes about seemingly unendurable experiences, nevertheless strikes Stone as the most dynamically upbeat person he's ever met. Eventually this ebullience lands her—through a counselor with whom Russell has an affair—in a formal psychological study. One hyperambitious geneticist comes to believe that through her he can isolate the "happiness gene." Modern mayhem ensues. Powers is a brilliantly imaginative writer, working here with a lightness of touch, a crisp sense of pace, and a distinct warmth. What's more, this is real literature—so we know happiness can't last. In unfolding his inevitable outcome, Powers shows both his reach as a student of humanity and his mastery as a storyteller.

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