`People Want Everything. That's Their Problem'


By Richard Powers

Farrar, Straus & Giroux 355pp $25

Richard Powers has created a rare thing: a contemporary business novel that is also an important work of fiction. At once an insightful history of American capitalism, a formula-wielding primer on soapmaking (yes, that's right), and an intimate portrait of a woman who is dying of ovarian cancer, Gain is a demanding volume that will leave readers marveling at the author's erudition and troubled over the apparent price of civilization.

The book's chapters focus alternately on the fictional Clare International Corp. and on Laura Bodey, a 42-year-old real estate saleswoman who resides in Lacewood, Ill., the home of Clare's agricultural products division. Bodey is hardly alone in her illness: Numerous Clare employees have also been diagnosed with various cancers. Two lawsuits have been filed charging the giant company with responsibility. Moreover, an Environmental Protection Agency report on Clare's toxic discharges has local people worried and angry. The poison, concludes one character, is "in the air and in the water, and now it's in the ground. Builds up in the food. Every year a little more."

But don't expect a simple indictment of corporate polluters. Rather, Gain bears a philosophical resemblance to Edward Tenner's Why Things Bite Back, an account of technology's "revenge effects" against a humanity that seeks to dominate rather than to coexist with nature. Progress, the author tells us, comes at a price.

The company that we encounter in the book's initial chapters is a far cry from a remote, evil corporate despoiler. Instead, it is an early 19th century, family-run startup, the product of brothers Resolve and Samuel Clare's inspiration and Irishman Robert Ennis' skill at making candles and soap. Back then, "saponification was a complex affair," we learn in one of Powers' several forays into the mysteries of applied chemistry. Ennis "gauged the soapy strings adhering to his stirring paddle, awaiting the exact moment when the soap grained and salted out. He cut the steam and drew off the salt lye and glycerin, letting his broth set like a temperamental souffle."

Powers' recounting of the company's steady expansion, weathering the decades' economic ups and downs, and its regular ability to adapt to the consumer market provides an early indication of the author's considerable skill. Botanist Benjamin Clare, for instance, supplies the key ingredient for a mid-century killer-app product, Native Balm soap, each cake stamped with the profile of an Indian warrior. The product, which "smelled like the liniment that the angels applied in God's own sickroom," promised a natural cure for "pimples, Salt Rheum, freckling" and the "graver bodily illnesses" of an industrializing society. Its patent-medicine appeal "cut across social strata." And although many companies sought to develop a similar product, not even the formidable British could steal the market.

The Civil War provides Clare with a steady customer in the form of the Union Army. The succeeding decades see the company's incorporation, its increasing emphasis on laboratory research, and its ingenious development of paper soap wrappers ("Safe--Hygienic for country, town, city"), which align Clare's product with a growing public desire for "purity." This in turn helps to rescue the company from ruin during the depression of the 1870s. Later, Clare initiates corporate welfare schemes to win workers' loyalty, and it displays a flair for promotions and advertisement. (Bits of Clare advertising copy appear throughout Gain, providing a history in miniature of American hucksterism.) When the 20th century rolls around, Clare has become a conglomerate, producing not only soap but also detergents, fertilizers, cosmetics, hair products, herbicides, and food.

At first, the historical chapters are more engaging than those focused on Laura Bodey. Indeed, who would choose to read harrowing accounts of surgery and painful, ineffective cancer treatment? As the patient struggles to comprehend her medical problems, doctors respond with stupefying medico-jabber: "`You'll need to do half a year of dual-agent therapy. Taxol plus cisplatin. And by the way, we don't know for certain whether you are Stage One C. Even though your washings are negative, there is still some chance that you may be Stage Three."' After surgery, the patient inspects her scar, "a blood-gorged leech licking the cream of her belly." Four subsequent chemotherapy sessions leave her feeling "light, insubstantial, emptied, yet sick beyond imagining."


But ultimately, Powers, whose previous books include such challenging and well-reviewed novels as The Gold Bug Variations and Galatea 2.2, makes us care about Bodey. Like her distracted kids, we begin to share Bodey's torment. Like her ex-husband, who prods Bodey to join a lawsuit against Clare, we feel that she deserves "somebody owning up, some compensation."

That idea has little appeal for Bodey. Rejecting her ex's entreaties, she reflects that, if chemicals are to blame, "she brought them in, by choice, toted them in a shopping bag." In the end, the victimizer is not so much a corporate evildoer as it is humanity itself: "People want everything. That's their problem," she announces from her deathbed. Indeed, we do want it all, and, as Powers reminds us in this somber yet ultimately incandescent work, there are few indications that we'll stop trying to get it.

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