Egan, Powers, and Post-Modernity

In a recent review of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad in the LRB, Pankaj Mishra made much of concepts of Americana, modernity and post-modernity. In a review of the book on his blog, David Hebblethwaite is somewhat less convinced that Egan nails these or any other subjects, and perversely this makes me want to read the book more; but Mishra is adamant: “Egan commemorates not only the fading of a cultural glory but also of the economic and political sumpremacy that underpinned it.” She does, so he argues, through a fragmented, at times hyperactive, account of the lives of a series of pop and rock music impresarios and hangers-on – America’s great gift to the world, presumably, being youth culture. In dealing with these themes, Mishra places Egan in no less august a lineage as that of Delillo and Pynchon, those chroniclers of late capitalism characteristic dissolution and atomisation.

I note this all as preamble to a further consideration of Richard Powers. I’ve recently read his Generosity for a review of this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist (part two of which was published today). Powers, it seems to me, is tilling the same ground Mishra suggests Egan combs. Here he is, for instance, on the writer of the core text on the course taught by his protagonist: “But place is in danger, Harmon claims. Our sense of here is rapidly disappearing in the globalizing, virtual onslaught.” [pg. 33]  This is a commonplace of contemporary commonplace (Mishra quotes DeLillo on “a landscape of consumer-robots and social instability”), but Powers seems less sure that this is true. Generosity is a kind of argument about the type of fiction which can construct as well as critique so changed an environment (its subtitle is ‘An Enhancement’). One of the key ways in which Powers dramatises this change, driven by increasingly consumerist and transformational science, is in the conflict between men like Thomas Kurton, the man who seeks to find beneficial genes and sell them, and a staid scientific community still in hock to old ideas about probity and stores of protected knowledge.

The betrayal in question splits along generational lines. In one corner, the old-style university geneticist, hands full of reagent, head full of a slowly accreting body of knowledge. In the other, the molecular engineer, hands on the computer simulations and head full of informatics, working for a start-up drug company that reduces even the research professor to a licensed client. Patience versus patients, say the old-style professors. Law versus awe, say the upstarts. [pg. 212]

Powers is uneasy about this: Kurton in particular is a weirdly liminal character, a hero in one reading and a villain in another. This multivalent characterisation reflects the instability of the emerging world – the emerging markets – he chronicles. If the novel is uncertain about Kurton, Kurton is certainly no fan of the novel. “Worse, fiction’s perpetual mistaking of correlation for causation drives Kurton nuts,” we read. “Even Camus can’t help deploying bits of his characters’ histories as if they explained all subsequent behaviour and beliefs.” [pg. 249]  Powers asks not just what place America in post-modernity – but what place the novel. According to Abigail Nussbaum’s round-up of Clarke reviews, I can read Hebblethwaite’s take on Powers, but not yet Mishra’s. How he relates to Egan in these regards might be interesting study.