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Meet the Author: Richard Powers–the smartest novelist now writing?

October 21, 2009

PowersThat’s what the Los Angeles Times said about Richard Powers, among the top writers at Miami Book Fair International, in a review of his 2006 National Book Award-winning novel, The Echo Maker. “Formidable” is another word he’s often tagged with. But reviews of his latest novel, Generosity: An Enhancement, name it his most accessible yet.

What makes Powers’ work formidable is his fascination with science, and his deep grasp of its technical details. His characters are usually engaged in some struggle between reductive science –chaos theory, artificial intelligence, neuroscience — and the messy humanity of their personal lives.

After wrestling with these issues for several hundred pages, Powers comes down on the side of art, emotion and the human spirit. But it’s a close call. As the Cleveland Plain Dealer notes, “His books are cerebral teases, his stories always recursive feedback loops…But with Powers, the journey matters.”

Take Generosity: An Enhancement, a recursive feedback loop centering on Thassadit Amswar, an Algerian refugee who survived the depredations of civil war to find her way to Chicago and the creative nonfiction writing class of Russell Stone, an adjunct professor and magazine editor.

Despite Amswar’s suffering — her father was assassinated, her mother died of cancer — she remains profoundly, charismatically happy. Her enchanted classmates dub her “Miss Generosity,” but Stone, a depressive by nature, notes NPR, worries about her “chronic upbeat mood.” Might it be pathological, something like hypothyimia, or perhaps hypmania? He seeks advice from a college counselor, Candace Weld, who also falls under Amswr’s spell and becomes Stone’s lover. (There’s usually romance in a Powers novel, mucking up the machine of science).

Amswar comes to the attention of Thomas Kurton, a geneticist and entrepreneur who believes in genomic enhancement, that happiness can be reduced to a string of DNA on a chromosome. Making Amswar his principle research subject, he finds in her genetic code the “optimal allele assortment—the happiness jackpot.”

This is not a happy development. News of Kurton’s discovery turns Amswar into a celebrity — a kind of stress even she cannot resist.

In Generosity, we have the archetypal array of Powers characters and conflicts. Stone is the shaggy humanist; Kurton the reductive scientist, Weld the brainy love interest. The tussle is over human consciosuness — is it real or is it an illusion of biochemistry? Can science improve it? Should it?

The reading may still require a bit of commitment, but this is probably the first Powers novel termed “whimsical” by a serious reviewer.

“Generosity is his most whimsical, pleasurable novel to date, up to and including his curious twist on a happy ending,” purrs NPR.

Powers is the author of nine previous novels, including The Gold Bug Variations, a Time magazine Book of the Year for 1991; and Galatea 2.2, called “a tour de force” by The New York Times in 1995. He teaches multimedia storytelling and creative writing as an endowed professor at the University of Illinois. In 1989, he received a MacArthur Fellowship (the “genius award”). He is a big deal, at least in the incredible shrinking world of literary fiction.

For more on Powers, visit his website. A long and meaty interview, circa The Echo Maker, can be found at Powells.com. And for a contrary review of Generosity by Peter D. Kramer — hey, I found it on Power’s own website–go to Slate.com. (Kramer later partially took back his critique, the part having to do with science, in a post at Psychology Today.)

An Evening With Richard Powers will be among the premier events at this year’s Miami Book Fair International on Wed., Nov. 11, at 7:30 p.m. at the downtown Miami campus of Miami Dade College. The other “Evening With” authors are poet Elizabeth Alexander; novelist Margaret Atwood; food writer and memoirist Ruth Reichl; novelist and memoirist Barbara Kingsolver; memoirist Jeannette Walls; actress and writer Isabella Rosselinni; and Nobel Prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. rachel permalink
    October 21, 2009 2:08 pm

    In this photograph he looks like Mulder’s doofier brother.

    Chauncey Mabe, have you ever read/reviewed any of his books? Sounds interesting and apparently he has won a lot of awards. But I hate things that are overly academic, I don’t mind brainy, I hate overly academic and I find it most in poetry and it just completely turns me off. Also, I would be curious to see whether his human emotion and character interaction is realistic or superficial.

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    October 21, 2009 2:14 pm

    I confess I have not read Richard Powers — so many books, so little time, etc., etc. — but he’s on my list of writers to catch up on. From what I’ve learned about him, he sounds like a worthwhile country to explore.

  3. Tommy permalink
    October 21, 2009 2:31 pm

    Doofier? Have not heard that word since middle school, thank you. I was going to ask the same question about Powers, so thank you again. Yes, Powers has now been put on the to read list. The “What’s wrong with you, why are you happy?” aspect to Generosity has piqued my curiosity, so triple thanks.

  4. Candice Simmons permalink
    October 21, 2009 2:46 pm

    I love it when humanity wins out, even if it is doofy.

  5. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    October 21, 2009 3:40 pm

    Me, too. Sometimes, the doofier, the better.

  6. October 21, 2009 11:23 pm

    Thanks for the introduction to a writer I didn’t know at all. He looks so young too to have such nice credentials.
    Your blogs are really informative. Good credentials to you . . .!

  7. Connie permalink
    October 22, 2009 1:35 pm

    I recently read “The Echo Maker” and I have to say, it was pretty damned good. Intelligent, yes, but accessible, too, and incredibly interesting. The science is fascinating, but the human relationships are, too. And that’s not even getting into the environmental messages. I’m looking forward to reading Generosity.

    Also, not that I would have done it anyway, but Mr. Powers has convinced me NEVER to live in Nebraska.

  8. March 24, 2010 3:18 am

    You have any interest in sharing this wp design with me? ;D I know you probably don’t but it can’t hurt to ask right?

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