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Commercial Fiction

In Richard Powers's "Gain," capitalism itself is the main character, and selling soap has never been so interesting.

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Gainby Richard PowersFarrar, Straus & Giroux; 355 pages; $25

Who will write the great Republican novel? Though the notion that the business of America is business is so widely accepted in the age of online trading that even most folk singers have dropped the issue, you might not know it by reading American fiction. Like those off-kilter, stock-footage traffic scenes Hollywood stuck in cars’ rear windows to convince us the vehicle is moving, the worlds of commerce and industry in fiction have generally served as stiff, soft-focus backdrops for stories of people loving, fighting, voyaging, and reflecting, but only rarely bookkeeping and marketing -- at least not passionately or heroically. Worse, those dumb oxes who do confuse their livelihoods with their lives are either George Babbitts or Willy Lomans; comic boobs or tragic dupes. Even when the nitty-gritty of empire building was temporarily deemed a Great Subject (from the turn of the century to the Crash), the Norrises, Dreisers, and Lewises did it dirty. Making things in order to make a fortune was evil, brutal, hollow, or farcical. And those were fiction’s last thoughts on the subject, reconfigured in books such as Bonfire of the Vanities but -- unless you count Ayn Rand’s crude Nietzschean paeans to square-jawed, screw-you, I’ll-build-it-my-way titanism -- never updated.

All of which leaves some large and colorful swaths of the current American scene -- happy land of geeky billionaires, line workers with million-dollar portfolios, 16-year-olds backed by venture capitalists, and stock tickers on every other cable channel -- profoundly unaccounted for by serious literature, which chose at mid-century to pursue the sex drive into its darkest, subterranean hideouts but lost track of the money trail lying in plain sight.

Gain is novelist Richard Powers’s attempt to make up this lost ground in one great pole vault; to loft the novel of American enterprise over the old swamps of socialism, Darwinism, and absurdism into a new place. And he succeeds. Gain makes commerce itself a character, more interesting, complicated, and resourceful than many human characters (including, unfortunately but perhaps inevitably, the people in the book). Born in a workshop in nineteenth-century Boston, the Clare Soap and Chemical Company is Powers’s protagonist, not alive or even all that lifelike, since Powers avoids the corporate-beast metaphors -- octopus, leviathan -- that have eaten his predecessors alive. Ever-changingly changeless in the manner of the best computer screen savers, Clare is one of those entrancing cusp entities that doesn’t surprise you but doesn’t bore you, either.

Powers, a member of the brainiac school of nineties male novelists who can’t write a book without using the word logarithm and dropping in a chart or two, goes for the gusto, paradoxwise, by counterpointing the story of the rise of a corporation with the tale of an individual’s death. Laura Bodey, a real-estate agent and divorced mother of two in Lacewood, Illinois, Clare’s headquarters, contracts ovarian cancer. And though the tumor’s probable cause isn’t determined for a while, not even the dust jacket plays it coy about what firm’s products are responsible.

Knowing Clare’s moral culpability, and that Laura’s cancer is terminal, full stop, rules out the story’s potential for cheap suspense so we can focus on its expensive ironies. Powers is a thematic neatnik, and in the end these ironies collapse into one tight package, Chinese-fan-style. The first has to do with the nature of soap itself: a substance made from fat whose purpose is to dissolve fat. Referring to man as “matter’s investment banker,” Powers never tires of counting the ways in which simple molecules are manipulated into the magical material tour that is modern life. “Turning soda and animal waste to balm. Sulfur and soda to bright bleaches and powders. Gaslight waste to fertilizer. . . . Chemistry rose from its own saved seed. The surplus of each harvest left the furrow a little longer for the next year.”

Powers, a sort of plainspoken Pynchon with the temperament of the good-guy nerd who patiently helps out struggling football players with their physics papers, reduces business to pleasing epigrams and symmetries. Again, the idea is perpetual regeneration. Clare’s breakthrough product, a soap called Native Balm, is stamped with the stereotyped profile of a native American even though its psychological purpose is to cleanse the consumer of any trace of savagery. And the company, founded on freshness, draws a huge boost from the bloody Civil War and later, in its heavy-industry phase, creates factories “more hostile to life than the center of Verne’s hollow earth.”

Clearly, gain entails much loss and purity much filth, the trick being to maintain an upside margin, however slim, that will buy the whole dubious project another fiscal year. Powers, the writer, revels in such conundrums -- they juice his giant light bulb head -- but how does he feel about them? Appalled, like Dickens? Angry, like Upton Sinclair? If one read only Gain’s corporate-history chapters, the conclusion would have to be: slightly skeptical but fundamentally awed. The price of rescuing the corporation from the behemoth cliché is to sympathize with it and respect it, Frank Norris and Ralph Nader be damned. And Powers does. His wide-angle fatalism about commerce even glints at times with Bill Gates optimism. Powers plays down but doesn’t rule out the chance that the wheel of invention, toil, and speculation just may land us all in heaven someday, virtual immortals with IRAs fat enough to last through all eternity.

But then there are the cancer chapters. The revelation that Laura, who lives for her backyard plot of herbs and flowers, is dying because of the very herbicide that made her garden grow, is poignant as all hell in theory but perhaps a bit too perfect in practice -- one of those truth-is-stranger-than-fiction phenomena that actually don’t work in fiction because, in books as opposed to life, we know there’s a human author back there somewhere applauding himself for coming up with them. What does work, though, in the same well-researched and thought-through way that the soap-making chapters do, is Powers’s slow-drip, excruciating rendition of contemporary chemotherapy. Here, in these lifesaving drugs that kill -- though every now and then not quite -- he finally has his master metaphor for the two steps forward, one and nine-tenths steps back procession of industry that, Powers hints, is what we collectively have for hope.


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