Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1655
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 consistent happiness, surfs the Web seeking information about a personality trait that mimics Thassa’s. He discovers, quite to his surprise, that there is information about such a condition: according to the Internet, Thassa may be experiencing either hyperhythmia, a durable state, or hypomania, a cyclical state. Hypomania is associated with bipolar disorder. Hyperhythmia appears to be a genetic condition.
Russell turns to Mesquakie College’s Psychological Services Center for further information and there he meets Candace Weld, a psychologist employed by the center. Candace seems to Russell to be remarkably like Grace Cosma, a novelist with whom he had an affair when he was a graduate student at the University of Arizona. Candace and Russell are immediately attracted to each other.
Powers has, in many of his novels, explored unusual pathological conditions, including Capras syndrome in his prize-winning The Echo Maker (2006) and progeria in Operation Wandering Soul (1993). In Generosity, he turns his attention to genomic mapping. He has been knowledgeable about this topic for as long as he has been writing, but his knowledge of the topic increased in 2008, when the magazine Gentlemen’s Quarterly (GQ) paid for him to become the ninth person in the world to undergo a complete sequencing of his genome. On the Monday following Easter, 2008, Powers flew from his home in Urbana, Illinois, to Boston, where, during the next few days, he was subjected to the complex procedures required for genomic sequencing. Thassa, in Generosity, becomes the subject of just such testing after her condition comes to the attention of Dr. Thomas Kurton, a genetic specialist. Powers’s genomic mapping was underwritten by GQ in return for an extensive article that Powers wrote about the experience and published in the magazine’s November, 2008, issue.
Kurton is a competent scientist. His entrepreneurial interests, however, are always foremost in his mind. He is the founder of Truecyte, a for-profit organization that derives much of its income from licensing fees associated with various genetic procedures. When Kurton learns of Thassa’s remarkable disposition, he elicits her help in tracking down a “happiness gene,” something that Truecyte can sell to prospective parents to assure them of giving birth to happy children. Kurton is convinced that genetic engineers can tinker with the genetic codes of embryos and with simple (but expensive and profitable) modifications can produce designer children who possess the salient qualities that parents think they want in their offspring, anything from longevity and happiness to blue eyes and ideal heights.
Candace Weld, when Russell tells her about Thassa, is eager to meet this effervescent student. When the two meet, Candace finds Thassa totally beguiling. The two become fast friends, even though Candace at this point has taken Thassa on as her patient and is expected to observe a professional detachment in dealing with the young woman. Thassa becomes a virtual daughter to Russell and Candace, with whom Russell is now romantically involved.
Thassa is very much an innocent. When a classmate, John Thornwell, walks Thassa to her dormitory after class one evening, she invites him into her efficiency apartment to see a volume of poetry in her native language that she cherishes. It does not occur to her that her invitation might be misread, as it turns out to be. John, twice Thassa’s size, attempts to rape her, but she forestalls him. Even this assault does not derail Thassa’s happiness. She refuses to press charges against John.
As Dr. Kurton’s experiments with Thassa progress, word leaks out that there exists in Chicago a young woman with a “happiness gene.” Before long, Thassa is a celebrity. People cluster outside her dormitory seeking her autograph. A bidding war for her eggs ensues. She, Kurton, and Tonia Schiff, host of Over the Limit, a popular science show, appear on the talk show The Oona Show, a fictionalized version of Oprah, resulting in Thassa’s being overwhelmed by people who want to meet her and exploit her. Thassa remains happy but eventually has to draw back. She cannot answer all of the Internet letters and respond to all of the telephone messages she receives day and night. Soon, she must have her telephone number changed to an unlisted one. Meanwhile, she attemps quite valiantly to finish her semester despite the effects her celebrity is having on her life.
During her appearance on The Oona Show, cracks in Thassa’s happiness begin to appear. She is under incredible pressure. She has difficult decisions to make. She is being offered money for her eggs. Finally, dealing with an offer of $32,000 for them, she realizes that she can use the money to help her brother, who is in Algeria, and to repay the money her aunt and uncle have lent her to pay for her studies.
As the novel reaches its end, Thassa has called Russell and begged him to drive her to Montreal, to the home of her aunt and uncle. He agrees to do so, but they have some trouble at the Canadian crossing and are forced to stay overnight on the U.S. side of the border. In their motel, Thassa attempts to overdose on sleeping pills she finds in Russell’s Dopp kit, but she is revived and survives this attempt.
In the end, Tonia is in Algeria shooting film for her show. She has an appointment to meet a woman in an Algerian town, but as she waits for her in the cafe designated for their meeting, it seems doubtful that the woman will appear. Just as Tonia is losing hope, Thassa comes walking toward the cafe and the two have their reunion. Thassa asks Tonia whether Candace and Russell have married. Tonia replies that she thinks they have.
Thassadit Amzwar is a remarkable creation, by far the most memorable character in Powers’s gallery of memorable characters. Again in this multiplot novel, the author has woven together with exceptional deftness the connecting threads of the tales he is spinning.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 73
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