‘Brainiac’ novelist Richard Powers: Meaning trumps happiness
Standing on stage at Miami Book Fair International last night, Richard Powers began his response to one reader’s question by saying, “You’re dangerously close to bringing out the inner geek in me.” No offense, Richard, but newsflash! You’re geek all the way through.
Really, that should surprise no one seeing the National Book Award winner for the first time. As introducer Ellen Kanner said, he’s a “brainiac” of a novelist, a former physics major-turned-author whose 10 novels are preoccupied with the effect of modern science and technology on the human spirit.
Powers’ unique talents were recognized early. His second novel, Operation Wandering Soul, set in a pediatric ward, was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1993. Galatea 2.2 (1995) takes on the risks of artificial intelligence. Plowing the Dark (2002) involves virtual reality. And The Echo Maker, the story of man struggling with identity after suffering brain damage, won the 2006 National Book Award.
But if Powers is a science geek — and standing somberly at the podium last night, he looked like nothing so much as a university physics lecturer — he’s a geek with a giant literary talent attached.
And fortunately, for an age in which one biological, digital and technological discovery after another threatens to swamp our sense of humanity with mounting evidence of determinism, he’s a geek with a sense of humor.
“I became the 9th person on earth to have my entire genome mapped,” Powers said. “Courtesy of GQ. The last I heard the cost was $350,000. I hope the magazine didn’t pay full sticker.”
With the kind of sly irony layered in his novels, Powers said he provided four vials of blood, which were then sent to China for DNA analysis. “Yes, they outsourced my genome.”
The results, though, were startling. Powers learned he had three genetic markers for intelligence. Check. He also possesses the notorious “depression gene” identified in a Duke University study six years ago. Um, check. And he has 11 genes for Alzheimer’s disease. Tough break, man.
But Powers also has 18 of 24 genetic markers for obesity — a revelation that got an appreciative laugh from the audience. Rail thin and boyish at 52, Powers provided a visual refutation to genetic determinism. “You choose your numbers and you take your chances,” he said dryly. (Here’s a link to the loooong article Powers got out of the experience, “The Book of Me”).
Powers read from his latest novel, Generosity: An Enhancement, which he termed a “social satire,” and a much sunnier book than The Echo Maker. It’s the story of a young Algerian refugee with such a bubbly disposition, given the horrors she’s seen, that she comes to the attention of a researcher determined to find — and market — a “happiness gene.”
The section he read was a pitch-perfect parody of an Oprah-like talk show, with the heroine set up, by the host and the other guests, to be a media symbol for America’s hopes of happiness, and perhaps a pitch woman for a new happiness pill. When she finally gets to speak, it’s a chills-down-the spine moment: We should all, she says, be dead.
Powers noted, just before he started reading, that “happily” this year brought news calling the “depression gene” study into question. “I was exhilarated,” Powers said.
“It turns out happiness is complicated,” Powers said. “We are confusing happiness with gratification. Happiness is not a commodity that can be bought and sold. It is a process, a long process. We don’t want happiness, we want meaning.”
And a good place to find it is in the challenging, provocative and sometimes funny and romantic novels of Richard Powers.
Miami Book Fair International continues tonight. An Evening with Isabella Rossellini starts at 7:30 ($10 admission). Get there early for free food and drink at the Twilight Tasting (5-7:30), with cuisine provided by Xixon Cafe. All book fair events are at the Wolfson Campus of Miami Dade College, 300 NE 2nd Ave., in downtown Miami.