In the fall of 1999, I read in one of those inevitable look-ahead magazine articles that Richard Powers was a light to follow in the coming (pick one) decade, century or millennium.
I bit. Operation Wandering Soul (1993) got me started down the Powers path. Bookish types are obsessive this way—whether we love crime fiction or dense investigations of human destiny, we are serial consumers of authors. So I have read everything that Powers, who often scrutinizes the electronic and genetic codes that test our souls, has published so far this eon. And mostly I’ve found that magazine appraisal appropriate.
Two years ago, I was set to plunge into Powers’ latest, Generosity, when The New Yorker—an obsession predating Powers—halted me. Reviewer James Wood told me I’d been a fool to fall for Powers and his penchant for college-thesis inquiry and predictable romance: “[H]is novels lead double lives, in which the sophistication of his ideas is constantly overwhelming the rather primitive stylistic and narrative machinery … What falls in the gap is any subtlety of insight into actual human beings.” Wood also described Powers’ account of a kiss as the “prose equivalent of the Lifetime channel.”
Yikes. How could I have missed Powers’ obvious failings? And I call myself a critic …
So Generosity gradually acquired a column of more creditable books atop my nightstand, its still-visible spine accusing me of intellectual weakness whenever I noticed it.
Recently, however, I disinterred Generosity, about a failed writer’s concern for an unaccountably happy student. A profit-sniffing scientist discovers it’s literally in her genes and starts pumping human perfectibility. Nature and human nature grapple, and so do the writer and a college counselor.
Generosity is a slim book, relative to Powers’ others, and it showed me I had indeed overlooked his clumsiness in describing sex. No doubt I had donned blinders to dash through to meatier passages.
My greatest failing as a critic is my reluctance to be critical, but Wood’s takedown overlooked much that is genuinely brilliant in Powers. The Time of Our Singing, about the two gifted boys of an interracial couple, is often startling in its perception, and it says the least about science of any Powers novel. Generosity is clunky at times but still has much to recommend it.
Clearly, the reader’s obsession can be the critic’s liability. But the critic’s venom can sometimes poison the reader, too.