This was a fine recommendation that I found in the San Francisco Panorama and from the folks at McSweeney’s. Ever since reading a book about books by Nick Hornby (published by McSweeney’s I think), I’ve had good luck with their recommendations or recommendations by their affiliates. This book also appealed to me because the author is a local guy and it takes place in my neighborhood.
Richard Powers has put together a pretty solid career in literature and I didn’t hear about him until I read a San Francisco newspaper. That’s my fault dammit. What kind of Chicagoan am I? Heck, he won a National Book Award in 2006 for The Echo Maker. I should actually be ashamed of myself, but that would give me too much credit (like I pay attention to the art scene around here). Generosity blew me away. It’s my favorite work of fiction so far this year. And plus, I don’t feel one bit guilty classifying it as literature – the guy won a National Book Award dammit.
It’s the story of five people, really, but most of the story revolves around one of the five. She’s Thassa, a twenty three year old film student from Algiers attending a fictional south loop university. Thassa just may have a genetic predisposition for happiness. I wouldn’t say she’s the main character because you get the perspective of the other four characters (mostly as it relates to Thassa) more than you get Thassa’s. The strange thing is that I wasn’t able to tell who was narrating this book until the very end. Confusing at times, but not in a bad way. In fact, it was confusing in more like a childlike wonder kind of way.
Now I’ve finished and I have some feel for the narrator. But we’ll save that for after the Plot Killer warning. Before we get to that, besides the story, I want to talk about why this book was so enjoyable.
First off, I loved the author’s grasp of Chicago. My wife and I live in one of the neighborhoods that the characters often pass through:
The walk from Logan Square to the South Loop takes hours. He’s healthy, and the hike should be effortless. But he’s winded by Bucktown. On foot, Milwaukee Avenue is another country. He knows nothing about the place where he lives. By Wicker Park, he’s overheard six languages. And all the more recent ethnic groups supposedly live on the other side of town.
And the weather, he has it pegged:
Mid-November, the semester’s home stretch, and the city drops into real chill. The sky molds over, and even the two-block walk from the El to the college cracks Russell Stone’s skin. Now the lake effect begins to work against this place, and the vanished autumn is just a tease that he should have known better than to trust.
Chicago is all over this book. Powers just has captured the feel and tone of the city. He takes us through parts of the north side, the south side, and even a little bit of the suburbs. I found myself constantly saying, “Yeah, that’s right.”
Then there is the underlying commentary on our society and the reliance on technology. It’s a relevant topic today and one I find myself thinking about a lot. Stuff like this:
The price of information is falling to zero. You can now have almost all of it, anytime, anywhere, for next to nothing. The great majority of data can’t even be given away.
But meaning is like land: no one is making any more of it. With demand rising and supply stagnant, soon only the dead will be able to afford anything more than the smallest gist.
Information may travel at light speed. But meaning spreads at the speed of dark.
Also, there is some great wry comedy. One of the main characters (Russell Stone, who doesn’t own a mobile phone or a car) often seeks advice or counsel from his brother, who really shouldn’t be disseminating it:
He calls Robert, who talks him through the steps of renting a car. His brother is shocked to hear his plans. “Are you sure? Canada, man? It’s a parallel universe up there. The queen on the dollar bills. The guaranteed health care. You are aware of the whole French thing?”
And finally, there is a serious intellectual commentary running throughout the book on science and, more pointedly, on the ethics and issues surrounding the human genome and potential manipulation thereof. It makes you think, a lot.
All this great stuff, and I have hardly touched on the story and the characters.
** PLOT KILLERS FOLLOW **
Powers has created this alternate universe a few years in the future. It’s a time when genetic manipulation of embryos is commonplace to insure that children don’t have diseases and such. His universe includes a famous Irish talk show host in Chicago named Oona and popular science TV show called Over the Limit, hosted by one of the main characters. As you can guess, science and the general public are highly interested in this happy woman’s genes. The story is about how the four other main characters deal with the discovery of Thassa’s genetic gift of happiness when it becomes public. Those four people are two of her closest confidantes (teacher Russell Stone and psychologist Candace Wells), a famous scientist (Thomas Kurton), and the talk show host (Tonia Schiff).
Sounds strange, maybe, but it’s not. It’s great stuff. It’s humorous and Powers keeps it light but mixes in plenty of thought-provoking, and often satirical, commentary on today’s society.
I was engrossed in the story. So engrossed, that I never stepped back and thought about how it was structured. I feel like a dumbass, but it really never hit me that the story teller was one of the characters in the story, until the last few pages that is. I felt a little cheated, but not really. The bottom line is, dammit, that I missed this piece of foreshadowing about a quarter of the way through:
Forgive one more massive jump cut. This next frame doesn’t start until two years on. It’s the simplest of predictions to make. Tonia Schiff will find herself on a warehouse-sized plane flying east above the Arctic Circle, unsure what she is hoping to come across at the end of the ride.
I was confused because the book jumps around sometimes, so this plane flight would have made more sense had I noticed that it was two years in the future. Sometimes I wonder how I get through books and enjoy them. I feel like I missed out on a whole bit of magic. It’s like I need to get better at reading. Can I really enjoy reading as much as I think I do when I make rookie mistakes like overlooking key foreshadowing? Answer: Yes! Does a 30 handicapper enjoy golf? Does a runner feel proud after a six hour marathon. Answer: Yes! Enjoyment has nothing to do with skill or ability.
Sorry to go off on a tangent.
It was a great book. I loved the characters. I thought the love story was decent. When I read the reviews on Amazon, Powers seems to take a hit for his character development, but I disagree. Granted, he splits his character development amongst five main characters, so maybe there just isn’t time to tighten every detail. The ensemble worked well for me.