Monday, September 28, 2009

Coming into an Author's Oeuvre Late, or What to Make of Richard Powers' "Generosity"

So I was off to Chicago for a trade show (yes, this happened a while ago) and I decide what I need is a book set in Chicago. So I pick up Richard Powers' Generosity and give it a go. Many books into his writing career, I'm late to the party. I'll never catch up, and I'll never be a fan the way the folks who discovered him back when did. My ex-coworker Jack was handselling Powers at Schwartz back with his first novel, Three Farmers on the Way to a Dance twenty years ago. Am I that old? Yes I am. End stream of consciousness here.

Sometimes just reading one book by the author can give you insight into his or her entire output. OK, that works a little better with Danielle Steel (I read Fine Things, since it was set in a department store) but most writers do have a certain style and care about overarching themes.

Generosity is from the perspective of a not-very-successful writing instructor. He realizes that in his class is someone who may have a condition known as hyperthymia--she's just pretty much always joyful, despite being an Algerian refugee who's been through the playbook on suffering. The story jumps back and forth between these two (and the guidance counselor who gets involved with both of them) and an futurist-industrialist who's looking for just this sort of breakthrough. Some chance revelations to the media spins the story out of control for all the characters. It's the kind of book that makes the mind spin; the future's just a bit closer and it balances on the precipice of dream and nightmare. I really enjoyed reading it, but it also made me nervous.

But without knowing too much, I wonder how Powers' works connect. Do they always have that meta quality? In Generosity's case, the author reassures us he's telling a story, despite the whole thing being ripped from today's headlines. Would the hordes of readers who jumped on the Powers bandwagon with the last NBA-winning Echo Maker happily go back into his collected work?

So I look back to his other books for clues:

Three Farmers...(1985)--Two plots spinning off the World War I-era photo. One of them involves a computer scientist.

Prisoner's Dilemma--A son recounts his father's mental decline

The Gold Bug Variations--An affair between two scientists intent on modeling DNA.

Operation Wandering Soul--A ward of refugee children, an overworked doctor.

Galatea 2.0--A neurologist teaches a model of a human brain English literature.

Gain--I always seem to think this is a historical novel about Procter and Gamble (of course it isn't it's set in Illinois), and as almost always, there's another parallel story about a woman with cancer.

Plowing the Dark--This novel is about research into virtual reality, and there's another story about a hostage. Get it? Both sort of contained in nothingness.

The Time of Our Singing--A white physician marries a black singer, and the kids sort of follow in their parents paths, sort of. OK, I had trouble figuring out exactly what the boys did from the reviews, but the daughter because a militant activist.

Echo Maker--Man has traumatic head injury. Thinks his sister is an impostor.

Heart and mind? Heart vs. mind? Science (one hand) and the effect on us (the other).

My idea. I'm going to try to suggest Powers to anyone browsing intently in our SCG (that's cognitive science) section and see if I successfully make a convert. I probably won't let them read Gain first. We'll see how it goes.

(Richard Powers' Generosity goes on sale tomorrow, September 29th).

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