Sunday, December 6, 2009

Complex narratives in science as in art (Books - Generosity - an enhancement by Richard Powers)

I wrote in my first post about Richard Powers's new novel Generosity that I was afraid this was going to be one of his novels that I couldn't get through. I am glad to say it did not turn out that way. For about the first 100 pages, Powers's narrator, Russell Stone, struggles with paralyzing self-consciousness to have enough gumption to live his life and to love another person in the novel's present time frame, and to write this novel in the future. This reader had to wonder if it wasn't really Powers's struggle we were witnessing. Too many writerly exercises: - riff-like paragraphs that are nothing more than lists to effect a jump-start:
Blogs, mashups, reality programming, court TV, chat shows, chat rooms, chat cafes, capital campaigns, catalog copy, even war-zone journalism all turn confessional. Feelings are the new facts. Memoir is the new history. Tell-alls are the new news.
I felt at times like I was watching someone trying to unplug and when he was finally released he was unwilling to shut off the flow.

Or the narrator writing about his self-consciousness, his disbelief in narrative, so that those words, no matter how doubt-filled, in the act of dropping onto the page, create the very narrative he fears eludes him.
Plot is preposterous: event following event in a chain of clean causes, rising action building to inevitable climax and resolving into meaning. Who could be suckered by that? The classic tension graph is a vicious lie, the negation of a mature grasp of reality. Story is antilife...
I feared that the novel would bet mired in this Escherian act of self-reflection, and at times it got a little cutsie, but in fact, that act became useful and to answer your question, dear narrator, it is I who could be suckered by that. It ultimately became, as this book's title suggests, a generous act to have this struggle before us. The act of creating an artistic narrative became a stand-in for the narrative that we "write" as our identity, and moreover the narrative that nature assembles of our amino acids, abbreviated A, C, T, and G, that are arrayed to write the long narrative of our genome - yet another way that units are strung together to make up individuals and their characteristics. These intertwining themes of narrative are assembled in a simple plot that makes up a complex book. Simple in that Russell's writing class tells us there are only 12 possible plots. This one concernins Russell (a writer), Candace (a psychotherapist), and Thassa (an Algerian refugee and film student). Thassa, despite a life of suffering, violence, and displacement, strikes anyone who meets her as the most irrepresibly joyous and self possessed person alive. An entrepreneurial geneticist, Thomas Kurton, learns of Thassa and studies her. He claims that her genome contains the genetic code that most disposes people toward happiness. This turns her into public property. I won't tell you whether she triumphs or becomes the victim of this attention, since that is the plot and was, for the first half of the book, what kept me reading. The book is rendered complex because it contains yet another layer of narrative in the character of Tonia Schiff, a television science journalist who is making a program about Kurton. It interweaves the questions of what it means to make a narrative that is "true" or "false" - fact or fiction. Can the story that is oneself be changed? Psychotherapy would say that it can. The book probes in some technical detail the inter-influential forces of nature and nurture on the development of personality - is happiness a thing or a concept? Is it contained in a chemical sequence? Is there a secret that can guarantee anyone happiness? Is it ethical to profit from such knowledge, whether it is Kurton who could profit from his discovery of Thassa's genome or Thassa who receives lucrative offers from companies that wish to harvest her eggs?

I am glad to say that about one third of the way through the book, the writing got over its attack of the cutsies and tells a story compelling for its complexity and its convincing characters and, once in a while, there is even some terrific writing:
He actually sits to eat, like it's some holiday. It is: spontaneous Healing Day. He closes his eyes and hold a winter strawberry to the tip of his tongue. The fruit is spongy and sublime. The Arabica - as thick as his confusion - gingers as it hits the back of his throat. He can't imagine what Thassa's standing state of grace feels like; an hour of being her would blow him away. But this morning's gratuitous pleasure gives him an inkling...
When Powers gets out of himself about the writing (or out of Russell's self if the self-consciousness that occupies the 1st part of the novel is indeed all a creation) he knows how to let a moment bloom in all its detail - to give birth to an entirely new world that exists only in his head and yet becomes totally alive for us and to makes us not only believe that this content exists for the moment but to enjoy the form with which he gave it life for its originality.

There are many times when the scientific and artistic themes of this book overlap perfectly.
This whole thing is bogus. Nothing as complicated as feeling can possibly reduce to genetics.
In attempting to create a work of art whose original impetus was the complexity of some experience, what artist has not encountered the same gulf - the same certainty of failure? That is the success of the melding of themes Powers has wrought in Generosity. Early on in the book, I felt Powers writing was too simplistic. He telegraphed his ideas to the reader to make sure we would get them. Later, he goes off on jazz-like paragraphs about signal-to-noise ratio, protein synthesis, alleles, Lamarckism, feedback loops, and color-enhanced fMRI without pausing for breath. I think there is still much to enjoy without getting every word of these paragraphs. They become like musical refrains about our technology-obsessed age that are not critical to following the plot. Although I think it is Powers's synthesis of these topics in all their technical rigour, together with an acute ear for the zeitgeist, a hilarious spoof of Oprah in a television host named Oona (and a scathing critique of her obedient sheep-like audience), and a love story for geeks with real verisimmilitude, that made this book truly satisfying for me.

He tries in this entertaining book to communicate some notions worth entering general knowledge such as the idea that:
Genes don't code for traits. They synthesize proteins. And single proteins can do incredibly different things, depending on where and when they're produced... We have no gamplign gene, no intelligence gene, no gene for language or walking upright or even a single gene for curly hair, for that matter. We certainly possess no set of genes whose function is to make us happy.
But, you know, even if we possessed knowledge of such genes, this novel says, we would not loose the pain of anticipation, the thrill of possessing a secret, or obviate the power of falling in love. The mystery of experience can be embraced through the lens of science but it cannot be explained away.


Sheila O'Malley said...

Wow, what a turnaround!! I am so happy to hear it. Some of your words here remind me of Salinger's "Seymour: An Introduction", where you get the sense that Salinger himself (or his narrator - interchangeable) is struggling with language itself. Slowly, the parentheticals take over the narrative - he loses himself in the parentheticals, because he is obsessed with being accurate - yet how can one be 100% accurate when you are trying to describe another human being? - and at some point, you feel Salinger give up. "Forget it, I can't do this anymore." He gets lost in one of the parentheticals and never came out. It's one of the most honest struggling-with-language pieces I have ever read - up there with Finnegans Wake (which is more of a triumph over the problem with language - than a surrender - but still: similar struggle).

Ted said...

Seymour an introduction is one of my favorite pieces EVER. Yes, the struggle becomes the point and any imperfections seem besides the point. This can go on the Powers A list. Still am trying to get around to your piece - hopefully this weekend but if not, then on the plane to London!