Back in the early 1990s, I took a class entitled “The American novel since 1945” taught by Brooks Landon at the University of Iowa. Many of the books on the reading list were my first forays into the work of authors I’m still following today. Here are three new novels by authors I first encountered back in class.
Generosity, the new novel by Richard Powers, is about euphoria. I have to admit that reading Powers’s work nearly always makes me feel euphoric. The National Book Award winner’s latest effort is no exception.
No one writes better novels about the intersection of rational science with far messier human nature. This is tricky territory that could result in fiction that is hokey, or alarmist, or opaque, or all of the above and more. Powers, however, delivers fiction that manages to be erudite, human, and for this reader, thrilling.
Generosity features Thassa Amzwar, a young woman from Algeria who seems to be blessed with an unusually elevated quotient of happiness. From the moment she enters Russell Stone’s writing course at a Chicago college, her irrepressible spirit affects everyone around her.
Powers convincingly tugs at the interconnected threads of the world wide web that bring Thassa to the attention of Thomas Kurton, a man wholly convinced that mankind is on the cusp of eliminating the biological causes of not only disease, but of unhappiness. Once Thassa agrees to meet Kurton, a maelstrom of scientific and ethical debate is unleashed in the most public of forums, and no character is left unmarked.
Powers has an uncanny ability to explore questions of science and philosophy within the framework of narrative fiction. His characters discuss the weightiest of issues and the most complex of scientific theories, and yet the dialogue never seems stilted or false. Generosity, like many a previous Powers novel, reads like the author is not only the smartest guy in the room, but also the most compassionate.
At least one critic believes Don Delillo is pushing the boundaries of what constitutes a plot. “What is the slowest speed at which a plot can move before it stops moving all together,” asks Sam Anderson in New York magazine, “thereby ceasing to function as a plot?”
It’s true that the action is limited in Omega Point, but the events of the novel are fraught with import.
Jim Finley wants to make an unusual film. It will feature one man, Richard Elster, facing a scarred wall and speaking of his experiences as an unorthodox war advisor. Together in a remote house in the California desert, freed from the hurried rhythms of their usual environments, the two men engage in abstract conversation while Finley endeavors to convince Elster to make the film.
The cadence of their sojourn changes when Elster’s daughter arrives. She changes the dynamics in ways both predictable and unexpected. Her absence changes things again.
Omega Point explores the ways in which concerns of global and personal importance combine to shape an individual. Delillo’s devastatingly beautiful prose packs layers of meaning into this quite brief book, producing the sort of existential dread for which the author is known.
The novel is framed by scenes set at the Museum of Modern Art in New York during a screening of “24 Hour Psycho,” an exhibition of Hitchcock’s film slowed so that a full viewing takes a full day. As he has demonstrated in other novels, Delillo is exceptionally good at describing the experience and the potential meanings of watching filmed moments, just as he is a master of unpacking the varied meanings of language. His impressive gifts in both areas are on full display in Omega Point.
Up through about the halfway point of Generation A, I was prepared to declare that Douglas Coupland has found his mojo again. By the end of the novel, I was less sure.
I am a big fan of Coupland’s first four fictional forays (Generation X, Shampoo Planet, Life After God, and Microserfs). The next couple of efforts (Girlfriend in a Coma and Miss Wyoming) didn’t really do much for me (even after I spent a very odd day driving Coupland around Iowa City prior to a reading in support of the latter). I haven’t read three of the last five novels, and I actively disliked the two I did read (Hey Nostradamus! and JPod).
Coupland’s title for the new book comes from a 1994 speech by Kurt Vonnegut in which Vonnegut rejected the “Generation X” label Coupland’s debut had made part of common parlance. In its place, Vonnegut suggested “Generation A,” arguing that the next generation was at the cusp of “astonishing triumphs and failures [just] as Adam and Eve were so long ago.”
Generation A is strong out of the gate. It stars five young people from around the world (including Oskaloosa, Iowa) who are each stung by a bee—which in the near-future of the novel are thought to be extinct. Each character relates his or her own story in alternating chapters and Coupland has created a distinct, likable narrative voice for each. The story rips along as scientists isolate the protagonists in an effort to discover why the bees chose to sting them. There’s a fair amount of social commentary built winningly into the narrative.
In the book’s latter half, the group is brought together and asked to tell each other stories. Coupland is up to a couple of things here, as he explores the nature and importance of storytelling while also offering up a plot framework that calls Vonnegut (or at least Kilgore Trout) to mind. The pace of the book slows down, however, and the book is less engaging. Nevertheless, it’s my favorite Coupland effort since 1995’s Microserfs.