I am having a difficult time sharing my thoughts on the novel Gain by Richard Powers, because it could be one of the best books I have ever read. It deserves more than the sloppy stream of consciousness style post on which I am making my name. It needs a dissertation, a New Yorker article. At least a well planned essay. Perhaps I need to teach it as a graduate course novel, as Mary the person who recommended it to me, has done. But I haven’t the energy for such intellectual pursuits at this time. So let’s start with the basics:
In Gain, Richard Powers puts our modernity through the wringer once again. This time, though, he points the finger at one villain in particular: rampant, American-style capitalism, as exemplified by a conglomerate called Clare International. His novel, it should be said, is no piece of agitprop, but an intricate lamination of two separate stories. On one hand, Powers describes the rise (and fall and rise) of the Clare empire, beginning in its mercantile infancy. The author's Clare-eyed narrative amounts to a pocket history of corporate America, and a marvelously entertaining one. Lest we get too enamored of this success story, though, Powers introduces a second, countervailing tale, in which a 42-year-old resident of Lacewood, Illinois, is stricken with ovarian cancer. Lacewood happens to be the headquarters of Clare's North American Agricultural Products Division, and lo and behold, it seems that chemical wastes from the plant may be the source of Laura Bodey's illness.These two stories are woven together with such subtle delicacy that I was left wanting at the end of each chapter. In the story about the rise of Clare, the reader is treated to a muck-raking ,journalistic narrative seeped in historical fiction. A clear and objective narrator tells the tale of a small soap company that transforms into a multi-national corporation over the course of a hundred years. The voice telling the tale is born of both Ayn Rand and Upton Sinclair, in that the reader is never quite sure what it is trying to tell about the rise of capitalism in the Untied States. At times, the narration is sharp and critical of the often ruthless purity of the American business-- “Industry’s raw inputs were endless, the land fecund enough for any machine dream. A nation come of age possessed no greater peacemaker than power.”
This is not solely an anti-capitalist tirade, however. At times, Powers begs us to consider that perhaps business, tainted with it’s altruistic hue of science and technology, only exists to make our lives better and easier. But, no matter which side of the moralistic coin you choose to dwell, this is a novel that will force you to think about the current state of global capitalism by examining it’s history.
The novel acts as textbook for American history, economics, business, class struggle, marketing, as well as chemistry, environmentalism, and technology. It is a petri dish of discussion topics. But the beauty is that, it is not a textbook, but rather a beautifully crafted novel of intense beauty and poetry. The words drift and float leaving traces of sentences that when sorted into paragraphs leave lasting impressions. The sections of the book that tell the story of Clare, undertake a more formal tone, but are accented with hints of Whitman wordplay and Dickens storytelling in their charm and civility.
Then there is Laura. There is the cancer. The anguish. Tears and soft smiles and goosebumps. The deterioration of the same dream building up on the other side of history. Just as easily as Powers unleashed his powerful lecture on the rise and sometimes awe inspiring beauty of capitalism, with a voice of unquestionable expertise and authority, he now tells the fragile and honest story of a family in crisis in a voice much like Franzen. A quick wit and humor infused with a underlying joyless reality are the back drop of the story of Laura’s cancer. The reader will be left laughing with tears in their eyes at the injustice of a disease that can only survive by growing beyond it’s means-- cancer or capitalism?
Please do not accuse me of hyperbole, when I say this is one of the best books you will ever read. I will read this book again. I will read everything Richard Powers has ever written. Someday I will teach this book. If you respect my opinion on anything, please do yourself a favor and read it.
Be warned, you will not look at the world the same again. It has altered the way I think about technology, science, marketing, America and the very objectives of our species--We have been taught to think that America is leading the train. That science and progress and technology and the cloak of marketing in which it has all been wrapped will save us from the terror that lurks in nature, that somehow the myth of Genesis married to Manifest Destiny, married to expansion and growth and progress and pre-emptive war and the American Dream will somehow save us. From what? No one stops to ask. There has to be something different out there...this novel will force you to stop and ask why you have never thought to question a system that is killing us all in one way or another.