Richard Powers on Reading, Writing, and the Genomic Code

Generosity is a pure fiction and something of a social satire, one that traces how evolutionary genetics and the idea of determinism propagate through society with lots of errors in transcription at every step.  But I wanted to be informed enough about the real science behind the story’s genomics to write meaningfully about a society that continues to move farther along from chance to choice.  And in the course of working on the book, I got the extraordinary opportunity, courtesy of GQ magazine, of all places, to become the ninth person on earth to have my entire genome sequenced.

So read Richard Powers this past Tuesday, speaking to an audience at the Barnes & Noble store on Union Square in New York City. I had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Powers on stage that evening, but before we launched into our conversation, he shared with the audience an essay he’d written about his own experience of genomic self-discovery.

Generosity is Powers’s new novel, his tenth, and it continues his exploration of the character of narrative (and the narrative of character) within the context of provocative and puzzling scientific and cultural ideas. It is the story of a creative writing instructor, a therapist, a geneticist, a television broadcaster, and an Algerian woman named Thassdit Amzwar, possessed of what comes to be called “the happiness gene.”

From his debut in 1985, Three Farmers on the Way to a Dance, to 2006’s, The Echo Makers, which won the National Book Award, Powers has not so much stretched the boundaries of the novel as he has reoriented our perception within those borders, like a naturalist whose microscope describes new details in the course and contours of our lives.

It is his gift not only to engage complex ideas like those he deals with in his new book — genomics, genetic engineering and related issues of ethics, intellectual property, and human nature — but to do so in a way that is both playful and transporting. I’ve read several reviews of Generosity at this point, but none has communicated the sheer fun of reading it. I turned the last page with a feeling of exhilarating pleasure that gave me an inkling of the natural state of the book’s heroine. If you haven’t read it yet, I commend it to you.

I am grateful to the author for permission to post here the closing paragraphs of the talk the Union Square audience was lucky enough to hear Tuesday night.

However slow or fast, cataclysmic or invisible, everything that the science of personal genomics discovers is in the process of changing who we are.  It’s time that fiction catches up with that fact.  My own foray into personal genomics utterly changed the novel that I thought I was writing.  I started out writing about state-of-the-art science, but my story gradually mutated into one about the most ancient of fears and desires.  Nothing in my young Algerian woman’s suite of happiness genes succeeds in predicting what networked humankind tries to turn her into, and no amount of inherited predisposition can protect her from that massive, collaborative story in progress-consumer society in the post-genomic age.   I started out writing about science, and ended up writing about hope, fear, prophecy, will, friendship, confusion, crowds, and markets.  Finally, for all its attempt to portray the turbulent, transgenic newborn that we have given birth to, Generosity turned out to be about the oldest and most socially disruptive technology of all: writing.

Every week in my writing seminar in Illinois, we resurrect some genetic variant of the old refrain that all writing is rewriting, a refrain that has taken on an eerie new meaning as we arrive at a moment when all kinds of ancient plot-reworking impulses are about to be let loose with a new vengeance.  I am increasingly convinced that people who study the deep needs at the center of human consciousness-call them fiction writers-have something to contribute to such a moment.  Genomics, it turns out, is filled with questions of narrative.  Just how fixed is the text of our body and its temperaments?  Can we start to rewrite human inheritance, with only the slimmest understanding of its grammar?  Are we prepared to say where repairing the text leaves off and enhancing begins?  Is assuming a virtue be almost as good as having it?

Suppose, as I’m sure will happen, some research team does soon announce very specific mechanisms for the physical basis of well-being-a basis for both depression and exuberance.  Suppose we’re shown how the key to most of our happiness lies not in ourselves but largely in our stars?  Will it make us any happier to believe that new story?  What will happen to the older stories we’ve told ourselves for so long?  Once upon a time, the happy life meant taking what cards we were dealt it and making the best of them.  As we move from chance to choice, we have started to think that happiness depends on asking for a new hand of cards.

Genes in endless combination, shaped by nothing but natural selection, have propelled life from bacteria to 100-billion-celled brains.  Stories have propelled those big-brained creatures from flint shards and pointed sticks to genomics.  The novelty gene, the curiosity gene, the dissatisfaction gene, the problem-solving gene, the constantly recombining genes for restless leg, restless stomach, and restless mind have pushed right to the verge of recasting themselves.  For a very long time, we have been moving from scripted characters to the co-authors of our own scripts.  The personal genome is one more tentative step from fate to agency, from fatalism to risk management.  We are determined not to be determined.  The code is loose and always has been.  For good or ill, there’s never been a bottle that can hold this genie.  Does this story have a happy ending?  That depends on who is doing the rewriting.  But what we make of the story in progress depends entirely on our skill as readers.  Six billion personal genomes of six billion base pairs each: It’s time to learn how to read those thirty-six billion billion novel plot twists, all over again.

[ Excerpt copyright 2009 Richard Powers]