He taps in extreme well-being. And right away, he's swamped. In a world of free information, the journey of a single step begins in a thousand microcommunities. Inconceivable hours of global manpower have already trampled all over every thought he might have and run it to earth with boundless ingenuity. Even that thought, a digitally proliferating cliche...
I think it's fair to say that Generosity (2010), by Richard Powers, was the outlier on this year's Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist. There's one every year - the leftfield pick, published outside the genre - and while I don't wish to suggest that I approached Powers' novel with a prejudging wariness, it's true that, over the years that I've been blogging the award, these lit-fic entries on the shortlist have rarely been to my taste. (With the exception of the marvellous Far North, which, if there was any justice, would have taken the prize last year.) It's not that I will only read sf, or am opposed to literary fiction (far from it); it's that the novels concerned don't seem to perform either of their modes particularly convincingly. It's as if the two genres somehow cancel each other out, leaving behind little but a bunch of ideas that genre-sf did to death decades ago, which are also couched in the overwrought sentences of a writer who thinks terribly, terribly hard about language, but still hasn't really worked out what to do with it.
Enter Generosity, and I think you can probably guess where I'm going with this. Alas, no, it's not another Far North. In Powers' favour, the treatment of his sfnal Macguffin (genetics), while hardly cutting edge for the genre, is both more or less topical and much less hackneyed than, say, Margaret Atwood's foray into the same field with Oryx and Crake. (As a rule, I adore Atwood's work, but Oryx and Crake is a not a very good novel.) Unfortunately, and for reasons that are at least thematically understandable, he chooses to pair genetics with postmodernism. Yay, it's another fictional story about how fictional fiction is! Largely narrated by a writer teaching creative writing! How astonishing and revolutionary! I never heard of such a thing before! As my esteemed co-blogger here at Alexandria is fond of saying, shoot me with a spoon. (Dreams of Speaking has nothing much to do with the point I'm making here, but any excuse to link to it again...)
Again, to be clear: it's not that I hate postmodernism, or am uninterested in interrogating the assumptions of narrativity, etc. etc. (Actually, the latter is kind of my day job.) It's that I'm bored with postmodernism for its own sake - when it's presented as if drawing attention to narrativity remains something revelatory in itself, as opposed to a technique that's at least as old as Don Quixote. Especially when it's this solipsistic and tedious:
This place is some other Second City. This Chicago is Chicago's in vitro daughter, genetically modified for more flexibility. And these words are not journalism. Only journey.
This appears to be turning into a rather grumpy post, so I think I'll call it a night and resume on the morrow.
Let those two little dashes stand in for the two and a half months in which I failed to resume this post. Ahem.
So. An early middle-aged man with stalled writing career, named Russell, takes a job teaching evening classes in creative writing at his local community college; he narrates the results to us, with excruciating self-consciousness, via a persona self-described as "hapless" and "flavorless", as if hanging a lampshade over some of his faults in advance might encourage us to indulgently overlook them, or to ignore the problems that go deeper than his self-deprecation. (It doesn't work.) Among his otherwise interchangeable students is a young woman named Thassadit Amzwar, an Algerian who has fled the horrors of civil war for a new life in Chicago, and whose primary quality is that despire all she has suffered - "misery that would have broken saints", Russell opines - she is happier than anyone else around her. She "radiates awe at ever having survived adolescence", we're told, and soon the others in the class are "addicted to the woman's elation".
Thassa's uncanny joy comes to attract attention from both science and the media, and at length she is being tested for the presence of a 'happiness gene', while Russell is, of course, worrying about what all this means for the future of writing fiction. There is some interesting stuff in here about how people might react to such investigations, and in particular the role that popular media plays in mediating public understanding of science, both responsibly and otherwise; we're shown snippets of sensationalist documentaries, online discussions, and even a televised debate as news of the discoveries begins to filter into public awareness. Russell, with predictable melodrama, reimagines Thassadit as a trafficked child sold into eeevil scientific slavery, reflecting gloomily that research into how genetics affect behaviour "would never have passed my ethics board", because he finds the idea of free will rather poetic, even if the reality is a bit more complex and even if understanding that reality might actually improve some people's lives.
For a while it seems like the intermittent postmodernism of the narrative might be a jumping-off point rather than a punch-line. The televised debate - between a novelist and a scientist - raises some interesting issues. The novelist becomes the harbinger of doom, declaring that
genetic enhancement represents the end of human nature. Take control of fate, and you destroy everything that joins us to one another and dignifies life. A story with no end or impediment is no story at all.
The scientist, by contrast, suggests that knowing more about human nature is unlikely to change it in any fundamental way. Even if it might be possible in the future to introduce the so-called happiness gene into a wider section of society, it will never stop us imagining other possibilities. Through him, Powers posits the emergence of a revolutionary new type of fiction:
We'll never feel enhanced. We'll always be banned from some further Eden. When fiction goes real, reality will need a more resistant strain of fiction.
And it's true that I wanted to cheer at a well-deserved put-down - with reference to Brave New World - of the novelist's idea that pain is somehow ennobling, and that we are lesser without it:
That book is one of the most dangerous, hope-impeding, ideological rants ever written. Just because the author is stunted by some virtuous vision of embattled humanism, the rest of the race is supposed to keep suffering all this time?
A shame, then, that so much of the book revolves around Russell's paean to human suffering, in the form of his essentially self-centred worship of Thassadit, and the novel's failure to problematise this in any compelling way. Thassadit, you see, is idealised and exoticised relentlessly; she is the Noble Savage transplanted to the 21st century, continually referred to as "the Algerian" or "the Berber" and extravagantly admired much more than she is treated like a human being:
"May I go next?"
Before Stone can wonder how she learned her modal verbs better than the native speakers, she starts her entry. Her voice is one of those mountain flutes, somehow able to weave a second melody around the one it plays. Russell misses the gist of the words, he's so wrapped up in the cadence of the sentences. It's something out of the dawn of myth, set in a Chicago all but animist.
I might have taken passages like this - in which Russell is so caught up in his imagining of Thassadit that he doesn't listen to, or report on, a damn word she says - as a commentary on how idealisation of the Other is no better than kneejerk denigration. The image of womanhood on a pedestal, the noble savage, the magical negro: this is just objectification with a smile, which essentialises and depersonalises its target even as it claims to Really, Really Admire it. (You know the school of thought: No, really, I'm not sexist, I'm just in awe of how women manage to find things in supermarkets while their menfolk wander around in passive aggressive, not-at-all-learned helplessness! And isn't it amazing how women are just naturally so much better at housework than men; it couldn't possibly be because I never lift a finger to help - or, gods forbid, to do something on my own initiative - because I'm too busy thinking big, manly thoughts. Etc.) The object is worshipped, but only if it continues to conform to the ideal form created for it; it certainly doesn't get to have thoughts or feelings of its own outside that mould.
Alas, my confidence in this as a reading drained away as chapter after chapter went by with neither voice nor much in the way of agency for Thassadit. (Well, there is one tiny point-of-view scene, on pp. 253-4 of the copy I read.) Then there's an exceptionally tone-deaf episode in which one of the guys from the class, overcome by Thassadit's inner glow, tries to rape her, only to be fought off by the sheer strength of her saintly forgiveness. (Russell, predictably, blames himself: "You know this story. Everyone knows this story but her. The Berber wouldn't know how to read this story for the life of her." Another character tries to jolt him out of this solipsism, but the way she does it is really not an improvement: the attack failed, so clearly Thassa can take care of herself, so clearly everything is all right!) Reader, I felt ill.
As the story wears on, Thassa becomes not more but less real. When she - guess! - starts to suffer the effects of unlooked-for world-wide fame (she has no antibodies against unhappiness, we're told), Russell's attachment to her grows to fetishistic proportions. This might be interesting - Thassa is increasingly subsumed into the role Russell once imagined for her, someone "who might have walked out of a story he once dreamed of writing" - except that there is nothing to challenge Russell's storyfication of her. The more the idea of new ways of writing are floated ("post-genomic fiction, one that grasps the interpenetrating loops of inheritance and upbringing so tangled that every cause is some other cause's effect"), the more this feels like an age-old story in which the lines of power are wearyingly familiar: the privileged write the world after their own, limited imaginations, and everyone else can either sit on their pedestals and beam, or be crushed in such a way to give the narrator something to angst over. Ennoblingly.