TOKENSby Polly Rosenwaike, Raina Lipsitz, and Julia Powers
Generosity: An Enhancement
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2009
“I can sympathize with people’s pains, but not with their pleasure,” said Aldous Huxley, author of the 1932 novel, Brave New World. “There is something curiously boring about somebody else’s happiness.” In Huxley’s futuristic world, with its genetic engineering and ubiquitous drug, soma, “Everybody’s happy nowadays.” But it’s an artificial happiness, and it depends on a horrifying system of social control. Generosity: An Enhancement, a new novel by Richard Powers, takes up some of the questions Huxley poses about the nature of happiness. But while Brave New World gives us a Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning, an Assistant Director of Predestination, Alpha Pluses, and Gamma Minuses, Powers offers a familiar cast of 21st century types: a talk-show host, a geneticist, a college counselor, and an adjunct writing instructor who has lost the desire to write. Happiness is boring (and worse), Huxley’s novel insists. Powers, on the other hand, can’t stop marveling over it, at the risk of losing the reader’s sympathy.
The novel revolves around Thassadit Amzwar, a young Algerian woman with a tragic past and an indefatigably cheerful disposition. Everyone who meets her is enthralled, including Candace Weld, the college counselor who becomes Thassa’s friend. “Candace Weld could count on her two elbows the number of people in life who always made her feel lighter than she was. She’d met both of those people before she’d turned this woman’s age. And yet here was this knocked-about refugee putting her, within twenty minutes, high up on a thermal, reluctant to do anything but circle and enjoy the view.” So hyperbolic are the numerous exclamations about Thassa that they strain credibility. A genuinely sunny personality, I suspect, is more difficult to convey on the page than a sincerely dour one. Though Thassa is charming, I couldn’t muster up much feeling for her. Happiness can be the strongest of shields, as anyone knows who fusses and fumes at a sanguine rival (or lover.) As Thassa’s famed joyfulness grows, everyone wants to know her secret—enter the geneticist, the talk show host, and the unhappy hordes. Her privacy and her well-being are ultimately threatened, but I found it hard to care about her fate.
Still, there is much to enjoy here. Happiness comes from the little things, as a million self-help books have said. Powers’s energetic sentences propel the story forward, even when the action idles. Finding himself surprisingly joyous one morning, Russell, the disillusioned writer, “can’t remember the last time that breakfast seemed such a brilliant plot twist. The winter air through the wall cracks braces him, and the table spreads itself. The boiling teapot sings like a boy soprano. The raisin muffin crisping in the toaster smells like muscatel. He’s on a houseboat, moored on one of those mythical rivers that Information has not yet reached.” It’s a pleasure to read Powers’s zingy prose, especially when it serves to enliven the experience of the everyday. Through their interest in Thassa, Russell and Candace fall in love, and the portrait of their hesitant relationship offers moments of tenderness in the muck of the world around them.
Over dinner one evening, Candace tells Russell about a study in which subjects were asked to photocopy and then fill out a questionnaire about life satisfaction. One group found a dime on the copy machine; the other group found nothing. Candace reveals, “The lucky group report[ed] significantly higher satisfaction with their entire life.” Generosity: An Enhancement is filled with shiny dimes. But they don’t add up to a satisfying novel.
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2009
A nearly perfect first novel is an extraordinary achievement. Michael Idov’s thoroughly enjoyable Ground Up belongs to that category. Mr. Idov, whose author bio notes that he is “a frequent contributor of Russian-language columns and criticism to major Moscow publications,” is a wonderful writer of English. His novel has a plot, action, and dialogue, and his prose is superb. The story revolves around a husband and wife who decide, romantically, if foolishly, to open a Viennese coffeehouse together. The beauty of this novel is that it is at once larger and smaller than a story about an ill-fated small business and a troubled marriage. It combines grand themes (love, money, and failure) with minor, everyday experiences (shame, disappointment, and misunderstanding).
Mr. Idov’s images are lovely, distinctive, and memorable. The novel’s narrator, Mark Scharf, describes his wife, Nina, as “beautiful, I suppose, in the way accidental patterns are beautiful, the radial splatter of spilled milk or quills of sunlight refracted through a crystal ashtray: every minute, something about her would flicker and shift.” Wishing his wife “would just cut loose and cry her eyes out,” Mark observes, “She was so tiny lately, so hard, so thin—and yet stretched so taut by swallowed words, blinked-back tears, expired grievances.” Contemporary fiction has yielded many narrators who are enamored of or infatuated with their wives, but few who are capable of describing those wives with such penetrating sensitivity, or as something other than improbable dream girls. Though we see her only through Mark’s eyes, Mr. Idov accomplishes the task of bringing Nina to life as a person we can imagine existing with or without her husband.
In addition to being sympathetic, Mr. Idov’s characters are thoughtful and funny. He resists the fatal mistake of attributing to them lengthy, digressive, or tedious interior monologues. When Mark thinks, the reader is interested in and often amused by his thoughts, not slogging glazed-eyed through reams of bloated paragraphs, scanning desperately for a refreshing stretch of dialogue. Pondering “one of the adverse side effects of acclimatization to a new place,” “the disappearing notion of the place as a whole,” Mark sagely concludes that “the city cracks along one’s daily transit routes, bridges unclasp like bra straps, and, before you know it, only the ground floors exist.”
Mr. Idov is adept at translating the everyday thoughts of a certain type of New Yorker into spare, vivid miniature poems, and often paeans to and about New York. There is “the strangely musical whine of metal on metal as a newer-model Bombardier subway train jerks into motion” and “the hairy-arm graffito by one Mr. Neck Face that reappears, with some regularity, on various municipal surfaces.” Ground Up deserves to be read by people who, like Mr. Idov, observe their lives, relationships, and surroundings with care and clarity, but refuse to bore others by taking any of it too seriously.
City Lights, 2009
This latest book from doughty New York poet Anselm Berrigan collects two long “experimental suites,” with one shorter poem in between. The first and best of these, called “Have A Good One,” is composed of more than 90 sections, and each section is itself also titled “Have A Good One.” Beginning as they do with that odd sort of goodbye, they give the impression of jumbled journal entries, a chronicle of Berrigan’s adventures with words. “Paid loan payment before / sending masters / on their way. Time / you ruinous agent of / possibility, will you ever / truly get your point across?” He records likes and dislikes—“I hate progressives / and their inexorable drive / toward emphasis”—but manages to confess only language—“I like the way this bug / is walking up the finger. / Or we, the convivial / trainwreck, like it.” Which is to say, there is little reason to trust a voice so constantly playful, but when at one point he tells us he’s a “good listener,” it so happens we can believe him. He digests and mercilessly composts an endless variety of speech, with an excellent ear for the comedy of the banal—the sounds of corporate brainstorming sessions, rich people, even the unsympathetic reader. If the combinations are sometimes grating, they are only the worse for it when they also seem puerile; “treason in the land of cheese / eating surrender monkeys,” for example, reminds me most of a ninth-grader coming up with names for his band. More often, though, he is highly aware, poised at the limits of sense and syntax. “Don’t mind seeming / like I might / if pushed,” reads one section in its entirety, the last word hanging over the abyss of the page with a certain quixotic bravado.
“I do take relentless / as a compliment,” Berrigan declares, and here again one might be reminded of Quixote. His talent for relentlessness is truly on display in the last section of the book, “To Hell with Sleep.” It is structurally formal, after a fashion, with mostly six-syllable lines arranged in more than seventy uniformly zigzagging stanzas, while syntax-wise it’s anything and everything; the formula makes for a high-speed monotony, occasionally broken by a stroke of genius, where recycling meets invention. When he writes “I like moving / your careful parts about,” he must be addressing Language, and reading this poem one gets the impression Berrigan may go on moving her parts indefinitely, as he follows the ominous momentum of these poems “Back to the brink, as ever.”