Richard Powers, for all his talents, isn’t much for laughs. The only true clunker of a moment in his new novel, Generosity: An Enhancement is when he attempts to mimic a late-night comedian’s gags. This is something of a blessing. Like many big-idea novelists, Powers has an interest in mass culture, but he’s less interested in mocking or satirizing it than explaining why it has such a pull on people; his obsession with viral messages in Generosity matches his longtime obsession with diseases and genetics.
Given his typically respectful tone, it’s a pleasant surprise to see Powers succeed at bringing the funny in a new story in the latest issue of the Paris Review, “Enquire Within Upon Everything.” It’s not online but worth seeking out (same goes for the lengthy “Art of Fiction” interview with James Ellroy). “Say a boy is born in a middle-class suburb of the large Midwestern metropolis of C,” it opens, and from there details the life of the man, affecting a “Shouts & Murmurs”-ish tone to show his increasing immersion in the soup of online information. As he grows older, he “discovers that the entire Web is tending toward an accuracy of about fifty-five percent. His estimate itself turns out to be about seventy percent correct.”
Powers’ quips serve a familiar message: Our willingness to allow electronic messages to control and define us makes our existence absurd. (“Over the course of his lifetime, the boy is told forty-seven times by humans, and two hundred and thirty-one times by bots, to read the stories of Borges, but somehow fails ever to do so.”) And eventually the tale becomes somber enough to let the gravity of that message come through. But there’s plenty of playfulness in the story as well, and it’s fun to see Powers reveal that side of himself. The story will be published next year in un-funnily titled collection Switching Codes: Thinking Through New Technology in the Humanities and the Arts, edited by Thomas Bartscherer and Roderick Coover.