I consider the Labor Day Weekend a complete success. I enjoyed a visit from old friends, AND I read a whole book, “Generosity: An Enhancement” by Richard Powers.
I chose “Generosity” because it’s one of the titles on this year’s Notable Books List from the American Library Association. I’ll be making a presentation on these books at the Nebraska Library Association/Nebraska Educational Media Association Conference in Grand Island next month. Once that presentation is prepared, I’m happy to make it to other interested groups, so if you need such a presentation for a group, contact me.
My overall review of this book–great set-up, somewhat disappointing resolution. The book opens with the narrator describing a young man on the El, in Chicago, in the somewhat near future. He’s on his way to teach his first writing class. His name is Russell Stone. His class includes an amazing woman, Thassadit Amzwar. She is happy. She is contagiously happy. She is happy despite what happened to her and her family in the Algerian war. She is so happy that her smart and cynical classmates love her and are made better by her presence. She’s a living work of art.
Part of this future is the common use of drugs to enhance happiness. Russell chooses not to participate in such use. He has his own story of unhappiness to savor. I happen to love this part of the story because it makes Russell seem both talented and flawed. Russell had some early success with creative nonfiction pieces. Then he heard from the people on whom his essays were based (and from the people who loved them), and they loathed him and what he said about them. He cannot get over the harm he did. I imagine David Sedaris-like pieces, and poor Russell with his thin skin.
And then…an array of others, including a school counselor, the host of a popular science show, a researcher on the science of happiness, and a talk show host who seems suspiciously like Oprah, all become fascinated by Thassadit. She becomes an object of public fascination. She actually grows miserable, and Russell tries to save her.
I did finish the book. I tend to be interested in research about happiness; I’m familiar with much of the information that Powers works into the story. I appreciate the way that the story explores these issues. Is happiness really mostly about chemistry? What kind of people can’t tolerate this level of happiness in others? Is Thassadit crazy to have experienced such horror and yet remain happy? How essential is misery? How authentic is emotion?
Despite the clever way that Powers weaves all of these people and all of this plot together, the complexity of the story steals too much from the simple power of Thassadit’s happiness. While I don’t see myself recommending this book to many people, I would welcome conversation with others who’ve read it. I respect the choices of the Notable Books committee, and I’m open to being convinced.