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‘Brainiac’ novelist Richard Powers: Meaning trumps happiness

November 12, 2009

PowersStanding 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.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Colleen Lockwood permalink
    November 12, 2009 1:48 pm

    Excellent write-up! I knew it. Meaning, THAT’S what I’ve been looking for. Thanks for bringing this author to my attention. Look forward to reading him…

  2. rachel permalink
    November 12, 2009 1:50 pm

    I have to say that I enjoyed last night more than I thought I would. I really liked what he had to say about happiness not being gratification. I think he said something along the lines of: we do not want happiness, we want a story, we want our lives to make sense. I think that is why it is easier to look back on our lives and be satisfied, to think that we were “happy.” Because we see that our lives make sense, that one thing leads to the next, looking back we can see the narrative but while we are in it we cannot -we do not have to be as hard on our past selves as we are on our present selves. Our standards are different I think.

    In the Q&A portion of last night the subject of positive psychology came up which put me in mind of “The Happiness Hypothesis” by Jonathan Haidt. That book changed the way that I look at happiness, including my own. I wanted to ask Powers if he had read it, and I’m pretty sure the answer would have been yes. All the talk of happiness and genes and how much they determine and how our genes can change, and about how our environment factors in, and basically everything said reminded me of a professor I had at Bryn Mawr, Paul Grobstein. And then it occurred to me that he might know or have heard of Grobstein and I wanted to ask him that too. Alas, perhaps another time…the microphone was far away and afterwards I ran away to eat Cuban food.

    I’m looking forward to another great Book Fair event tonight with Isabella Rossellini.

  3. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    November 12, 2009 2:14 pm

    Meaning and story are always enriching subjects of contemplation, especially after a provocative talk by someone of the caliber of Richard Powers. But I have to agree with you on happiness. My happiness quotient always shoots through the roof in the presence of Cuban food. Wouldn’t it be great to talk about these things with Powers over dinner at Versailles restaurant in Little Havana?

  4. alexis permalink
    November 12, 2009 7:36 pm

    I really love that quote about happiness being complicated.

  5. November 12, 2009 9:37 pm

    Sold! Now, I’ve got to go read this guy. Thanks, C.

  6. Barry Lancet, Kodansha International permalink
    November 12, 2009 10:58 pm


    Interesting blog. Glad to see you covering some writers I like. Tried to drop you a line about new and upcoming titles but only have your outdated Sun email address. is there a new address I can reach at?

    Regards, Barry

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      November 12, 2009 11:29 pm


      Yes, I’m a busy freelancer now, writing this blog, ghostwriting books, and reviewing books for any publication that will have me. If you happen to check back here, you can reach me on Facebook, or at Look forward to hearing from you.


  7. Keith permalink
    November 13, 2009 7:21 am

    Happiness is complicated. And it is a process. But, it’s also attainable. An ancient Christian writer spoke of “the secret of being content in any and every situation.” We can share that secret. For more on how, you might enjoy Journey to Joy –

  8. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    November 13, 2009 10:07 am

    Is contentment the same thing as happiness? I’m not so sure it is. I suspect that what we mean when we talk of “happiness” is an almost entirely modern construct. Earlier generations didn’t have the luxury of leisure to worry about whether they were happy or not. They were too busy with the struggle of living. Contentment was the best most of them could hope for. I realize many people do not agree with me on this point.

  9. November 13, 2009 4:44 pm

    If you’re interested in a new approach to boost your happiness based on the latest positive psychology research, check out our iPhone app: Live Happy; it’s based on the work of Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of “The How of Happiness” and provides a unique method to create a personalized program to increase your happiness.

    You can also learn more about the iPhone app on our Facebook page</a

  10. Sofia Moreno permalink
    February 14, 2010 7:45 am

    Great author ! I just finished “Le temps où nous chantions”, the French translation of “The Time of our Singing”, and I thoughrouly enjoyed this great river of fiction and emotion. Too bad I coudn’t find the american original (in English) over here, in Spain. This is why I had to read it in whichever language I could find, namely French ! I love the characters, so close to true people because they not one-dimensional. They have many “layers”, just as any one of us. I truly enjoyed reading his book. Kinds regards from this beautiful country, Spain, where living is made easy and sweet, every day. I do recommend this country !

    Sofia Moreno

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