I need to put some serious thought into this review - there's about 100 strands of plot, character and theme that I'd like to touch on. But right now, I can't do that - so suffice it to say, this book is fabulous. Don't be scared of it - even though it takes on some pretty weighty issues - freewill v. biological determinism; positive psychology and social cognition biases; and the absolutely fascinating, speculative fictional premise of what and how people would respond to a person who was genetically predisposed to having an off-the-charts level of extreme well-being. Happy all the time, in other words.
It's a slightly satirical, future-looking morality play - but it's also a tale just plain told well. It doesn't lecture or patronize (or worse, bore) its reader and although Powers grazes dangerously close to exposition, he doesn't make the same mistake Shriver does in so much for that -- putting all the heavy research findings and stats directly into his characters' mouths as dialogue.
Instead, he uses a meta-fictional technique of a very self-conscious, break-through-the-wall narrator to develop his plot, characters and themes. I couldn't decide what that was about at first, or whether it was annoying, but I realized quickly that it was an essential way to tell the story and AVOID the otherwise tragic need to put too much stuff into dialogue. (and that, in and of itself, highlights this theme of fiction-writing that he manages to explore - it's really complex, yeah? But fun! Like an Escher drawing).
So, while he also creates characters - Miss Generosity, Thassa Amzwar, herself; Russell Stone as depressive-realist Everyman; his love interest Candace, college counsellor who can interpret all the psych mumbo-jumbo in layperson's terms for Russell (and for us readers) who represents the "nurture" side of the argument; Thomas Kurton, mad scientist/geneticist who represents the "nature" side, they are also still characters in a compelling story (as the narrator reminds us), and interesting, likeable ones at that.
Last few things before I run ... Powers' reminds me quite a lot of Jennifer Egan in the way he makes contemporary technology and its influence on human behaviour a central theme while at the same time risking the anachronisms that are sure to emerge. Just two (three?) years post-publication, his references to MySpace, to facebook "pokes," to Kurton punching something into a Blackberry (oh, please -- the man's an iPad user if I've ever met one) and the lack of reference to twitter (word would NOT spread via blogs, it would be twitter all the way) -- are all outdated.
While all that's forgivable, I did truly stumble at some of his Canadian references. First, I laughed out loud when, in seeking some kind of explanation for Thassa's ever-present "niceness," Russell rules out "even the time spent in Canada." HAHAHHAHAHA. But then, Powers talks about "states" visible from the Sears tower: "75% of which are not ours." (Don't call Canada's provinces states. It pisses us off.) And he references, twice, "council flats" in Montreal - which is a U.K. term not used anywhere in Canada - it's public housing, low-income housing or subsidized housing. Finally, he talks about Thassa being sexually naive - and makes some reference to that being a fact of her time in Quebec. Uhhhh ... no. You could pin that on uptight Ontario, but never never on Quebec.
Anyway -- little quibbles -- kind of like the Doomsday Book's potatoes (right, Simon Evnine??) - that ultimately were only slightly distracting.
Looking forward to more Powers.