The Secrets of Serotonin

What Richard Powers’ new novel gets wrong.

Novels can suffer from bad timing, and here I mean not in plot arc or prose rhythm but in the relationship of their publication dates to current events. I know this truth from experience. My only novel concerns a thoughtful anarchist who communicates with those he loves through blowing up buildings. It appeared to mostly good notices in August 2001; after Sept. 11, the book was all but undiscussable.

Generosity: An Enhancement, by Richard Powers, suffers a milder version of this bad karma. The novel is social satire in the form of literary science fiction, a genre that harks back to Walker Percy and whose ancestors include Swift and Voltaire. We are not in a world of droids on Tatooine but, rather, on a fictive Earth whose technology is a half-step ahead of our own. As Powers puts it, “This Chicago is Chicago’s in vitro daughter, genetically modified for more flexibility.”

The research that forms the basis for Powers’ fiction concerns the underpinnings of emotional resilience. In 2003, Avshalom Caspi and others reported findings about a gene on Chromosome 17 that affects the way the brain handles serotonin. Children with favorable versions of the gene (two copies of the long allele) seemed immune to stress. Adverse events, extending to deaths in the family and even child abuse, did not affect these subjects’ rates of depression later in life.

The Caspi results, reported in Science, were never neat. Children with two copies of the protective gene might suffer depression unrelated to painful events. And older studies conflicted with the new research. In Against Depression (2005), I wrote that the Science report had “raised eyebrows on a number of grounds,” and I expressed doubts that the finding of absolute stress immunity would hold up.

When it came, the debunking was dramatic. In June of this year, scientists reviewing numerous studies for the Journal of the American Medical Associationfound no evidence that the serotonin gene offers stress protection or, indeed, any protection from depression. The authors suggested that in the case of disorders like depression, in which many genes may make small contributions to vulnerability, limitations in statistical methods will make it difficult to trace specific interactions between experience and heredity. Then, in the stiff language of the scholarly monograph, they effectively chided doctors, trial lawyers, and science reporters for racing to embrace a correlation that had looked shaky from the start. I don’t know whether the last word is in on the gene Caspi studied, but the news reports seemed to say that the model of inborn imperviousness to adversity was dead. I was reading advance galleys of Generosity when the JAMA analysis appeared. With empathy, I thought, What very bad luck.

Powers’ book turns on the notion—now cast in doubt—that the right genes can make a person absolutely invulnerable to stress. A Berber Algerian refugee, Thassadit Amzwar, takes an evening writing course at an art college in Chicago. Knowing that Thassa lived through the horrors of civil war in her homeland, her teacher, Russell Stone (the tale’s shambling humanist), finds Thassa’s upbeat manner striking. When she is almost raped by a classmate who envies her “effortless glow,” Thassa again proves resilient. Her special qualities come to the attention of a researcher and entrepreneur, Thomas Kurton (the reductive scientist). Invoking findings about the serotonin transporter gene, Kurton convinces Thassa to become his prime research subject. Kurton’s lab finds in Thassa the “optimal allele assortment—the happiness jackpot.” The result has implications for drug development and genetic engineering. Thassa becomes a celebrity, with the risks that status confers. She flees, pursued by friends and documentary journalists. The denouement reveals the extent and limits of her equanimity.

Thassa’s fate is a stand-in for our own. Powers is asking us to consider where we will land on the spectrum spanning C.P. Snow’s two cultures, art and science. At least, that’s what one might expect, a contrasting of the storyteller’s detailed, sometimes self-contradictory take on happiness with the geneticist’s coarse and systematic approach. But the struggle never develops, or, rather—unintentionally, I suspect—Powers casts a plague on both houses.

Powers complicates what is, in essence, a sentimental farce with metafictional devices that further distance the reader from both of his sparring protagonists. Of Stone, whose perspective would otherwise dominate, a nonomniscient authorial voice says: “I can’t see him well, at first. But that’s my fault, not his.” Kurton appears via the text of a film script that begins: “Enhancement. Why shouldn’t we make ourselves better than we are now? We’re incomplete. Why leave something as fabulous as life up to chance?” Soon, these techniques become a lazy convenience for the author: “Forgive one massive jump cut. This next frame does not start until two years on.” With so much mechanism intruding, we never feel the allure of the humanistic embrace of life’s mixed pleasures.

Worse, despite the high-literary devices, Powers clings to the low-art techniques of genre fiction. Here, I should confess to a bête noire, intolerance for the method (I date it to Ian Fleming’s naming of Gordon’s Gin and Kina Lillet in James Bond’s Vesper martini) of signaling a character’s worth by cataloging his tastes in branded products. Powers lists Stone’s fictional preferences:

Okay, Elizabeth Bennett, an early, inchoate lust for wit. … With Dorothea Brooke, he took long rambles through the countryside. … Lily Bart appalled him on two continents, but by the end, he would have done anything for her.

Well, good for Stone. But Powers never tries to suggest how the work of Jane Austen, George Eliot, or Edith Wharton informs notions of well-being.

Nor is the medical side of the happiness debate developed in any interesting way. In Against Depression, I made what I hope is a complex argument about the association of melancholy and literary creativity, suggesting that the fashions of the Renaissance left the West with an aesthetic that paired depression and creativity, while devaluing joyous art and epic narrative. Kurton’s exposition is the Spark Notes version:

For most of human history, when existence was too short and bleak to mean anything, we needed stories to compensate. But now that we’re on the verge of living the long, pain-reduced, and satisfying life that our brains deserve, it’s time for art to lead us beyond noble stoicism.

And Kurton is ever the straw man:

The whole grandiose idea that life’s meaning plays out in individual negotiations makes the scientist wince. Intimate consciousness, domestic tranquility, self-making: Kurton considers them all blatant distractions from the true explosion of human capability. Fiction seems at best willfully naïve.

Do the scientists you see on Charlie Rose suffer that narrow play of mind?

Powers never elaborates the counterargument: that engineering an end to melancholy cheapens humankind, while bringing imagination to bear is ennobling. Debating Kurton on the issue of enhancement, a Nobel Prize-winning novelist simply concedes the principal points. Of course, we should combat illness, “[a]nd if we can prevent the harmful, why not promote the helpful?” His objection is only to execution: “Enhancement will mean nothing in the long run. The remodeling of human nature will be as slapdash and flawed as its remodelers.” We are likely to agree with a therapist who attends the debate and supplies this verdict: “I’m afraid it was Optimism by a technical knockout.”

In the realm of social commentary, the role of fiction is to inform through means that are richer than straightforward argumentation. It’s a problem for Generosity that in the field of enhancement, the medical ethics literature is so strong that it reads like accomplished science fantasy. Look, for example, at Carl Elliott’s Better Than Well (for which I wrote an introduction)or at the theoretical contributions, my own aside, in the anthology he helped edit, Prozac as a Way of Life. There you’ll find philosophers assessing neuropsychiatric research in detail and using it, often in playful fashion, to construct thought experiments that frame precise critical questions: What are our objections to resilience brought about in this way with those side effects in that sort of society?

As I worked my way through the Generosity, I came to think that Powers was not simply unlucky. Uncharacteristically, this respected novelist, known for integrating complex science into his fiction, seems inattentive to nuance. To transcend the philosophical discussion might require a different genre, one that allows readers to savor bittersweet happiness, contrasting its intricacy with the blandness of the relentlessly upbeat variety. Instead, Powers has inserted his paper-thin representatives of art and science into a plot that gains momentum until it achieves an attention-deficient high energy. The buoyant, postmodern narrative embodies the aesthetic of a speed-addicted, technology-besotted culture, as if the battle Stone and his allies might wage were already lost.