If anyone has ever had cause to be deeply depressed, a central character in Richard Powers’s Generosity, Thassadit Amzwar, can legitimately claim that distinction. An exile from Algeria, Thassa (as she is called) is the daughter of a professor of engineering. She has been forced to flee Algeria after her father was found in his classroom dead from two gunshots in the back. Nevertheless, she shows no outward signs of depression.
Thassa and her mother leave Algeria for Paris, where they have relatives. Before long, her mother falls ill with pancreatic cancer; within weeks, she is dead from this pernicious disease. Thassa relocates to Montreal, where her aunt and uncle live.
Thassa not only endures the deaths of her parents but also is wholly alienated from her background. She reminisces about the beauty of her native Kabylie, Algeria. It seems questionable, however, that she will ever be able to go home again. She cannot lay claim to her native language, Tamazight, although she cherishes a small volume of poetry in Tamazight and carries it with her.
Despite the trials this twenty-three-year-old has survived, she is possessed of an irrepressible joie de vivre, a deep-seated happiness that is so much a part of her nature that it appears to be genetic. The big question that Powers tackles in his novel is that of whether there is a happiness gene and whether nature or nurture can account for the kind of exuberance that Thassa exudes.
Thassa leaves the sanctuary her relatives have offered her in Montreal to go to Chicago on a student visa and continue her studies at Mesquakie College of Art, where she hopes to polish her skill as a filmmaker. She registers for a course called Creative Nonfiction, a name that some might consider oxymoronic. The instructor, Russell Stone, has been hired at the last minute to teach the course. As an adjunct instructor, he is issued a one-semester contract.
Russell, the novel’s protagonist, has a day job as a manuscript doctor for articles to be published in Becoming You, a self-help magazine. The magazine is owned and run by a former classmate of Russell who met him at a high school reunion shortly after he returned to Chicago from Tucson, where he completed a master’s degree. During his time in Tucson, Russell published three stories that seem to bespeak a bright future for their author. Russell, however, has quickly become disillusioned about writing for publication. Living with his mother in his boyhood home in Fox Valley, outside Chicago, he jumped at the opportunity to move to Chicago to take the pedestrian job, as he cynically comments, of turning other people’s bad manuscripts into even worse ones. The job requires him to go to the office only three days a week. The rest of the time, he works out of his studio apartment on Logan Square.
Thassa is one of eight students in Russell’s course. Because the course is subtitled “Journal and Journey,” Russell invites student participation, asking each to give his or her name and philosophy of life. As the course proceeds, students write and read to the class accounts of their journal reports of memorable events in their lives. Thassa surprises her classmates by writing “In my country? During the Time of Horrors.” She recounts the frightening life she has led, but she also exudes a genuine happiness, an exuberance that her past sorrows might have been expected to obliterate.
Thassa becomes the darling of the other students in her class. One of them, a youth who gives nicknames to everyone in the group, names Thassa “Miss Generosity,” and the name sticks. Thassa is a giver, not a taker. She talks to everyone she encounters, always eliciting from them the stories of their lives. She is both a competent listener and someone who makes those around her feel important and worthwhile. To know her is an enhancement.
Russell, observing Thassa’s unique and...
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