Why Is She Smiling?

by Jay McInerney

For the past 20 years or so, Richard Powers seems to have been engaged in a prodigious attempt to redress the imbalance of knowledge that was the subject of C. P. Snow’s famous “Two Cultures” lecture. That, you will recall, was the one in which Snow, a British scientist and novelist, bemoaned the breakdown of communication between the sciences and the humanities. Unlike most of his novelistic peers, Powers speaks fluent science and technology. As a longtime reader of the mostly rapturous reviews of his novels, written by humanists who seemed deeply intimidated by his mastery of arcane branches of scientific knowledge, I managed — until recently — to avoid cracking any of them. As it turns out, his new novel, “Generosity,” is an excellent introduction to Powers’s work, a lighter, leaner treatment of his favorite themes and techniques.

The new novel is certainly more buoyant than Powers’s last, the National Book Award-winning “Echo Maker,” which was, among other things, a dense and intricate exploration of neuropsychology with side trips into ornithology. While that book revolved around a young man who suffers serious brain damage, the central figure of “Generosity” is a woman ostensibly afflicted with hyperthymia — an excess of happiness. The new book poses the question, What if there were a happiness gene? Curiously enough it features a public debate between the two cultures, in which a tortured, charisma-challenged Nobel-winning novelist fares badly against a glibly articulate scientist arguing the case for genetic engineering. more

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