A Post-Industrial Complex From a Post-Ironic Hero

Gain , by Richard Powers. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 355 pages, $25.

On a day scrubbed clean by early summer sunshine, Richard Powers wandered through Washington Square, musing on the bruised darkness of his new novel, Gain . He argued with gentle persistence that any relief from gloom remains unconvincing without “a full look at the worst.” When I paused to jot down that last phrase, he added, still gently, as though to play down his own towering literary talent, that he was quoting Thomas Hardy.

At age 40, with six novels to his credit, a MacArthur Foundation grant and a collection of blurbs proclaiming him the rightful heir to Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo, Mr. Powers was in Manhattan for the first event of his first-ever publicity tour-the kickoff was a reading at the New School for Social Research. A man without acquisitive instinct (“I can still store everything I own in the trunk of a midsize car,” he told me cheerfully), Mr. Powers, it seems, is not even greedy for new readers. But his publisher, like every publisher with an acclaimed, accredited genius in its grasp, can’t help trying to turn a cult following into a mass movement.

Tall, clean-cut, casual, pleasantly handsome, with blue eyes, a strong jaw and a cleft chin, Mr. Powers proved an effective advertisement for his work. Like his books, he radiated well-meaning, focused brain power.

Gain is about soap and death. Maybe that sounds too easy for the rightful heir to Mr. Pynchon, et al. Try this, then: Gain is a business novel, the chronicle of a corporate behemoth that began modestly, making soap and candles, and grew to Procter & Gamble proportions. This all-American saga of capitalist success is balanced and humanized by another story, a middle-aged Midwestern woman’s losing battle against ovarian cancer.

Getting these two parts to harmonize is the kind of brilliant technical feat Mr. Powers has made his signature. His project, as he put it, “is to integrate discursive material and narrative material-head and heart-in the same vessel.” Worried, perhaps, that his language aimed more for the head, he pushed his point with a backyard metaphor: “We’re all this two-stroke engine.”

As his publisher claims, Gain is Mr. Powers’ most accessible book. But in this case at least, accessible is no euphemism for dumbed-down. Get ready for a crash course in “saponification”; get ready for dizzying aerial views: Soap manufactured on an industrial scale, as Mr. Powers explained on our Washington Square stroll, meant huge advances in hygiene-“which brought us to the point where we have the luxury to lament industrial illnesses.”

Now we can afford to sue if we suspect that our cancer has “environmental” causes. Gain is about the pain that hides in progress, the germ of death implicit in all growth.

In 1830, two sons of a Boston trader enlist the soap-making talent of a recent Irish immigrant. They set up J. Clare’s Sons, “Manufacturer & Wholesaler of All Imaginable Soaps and Candles.” Some 30 years later, a third Clare brother, a botanist, convinces his siblings to make a soap using extract from a plant he brought back from Fiji. Thus was born Native Balm, each cake stamped with the profile of an Indian brave, the product that launched the Clare empire.

As Clare Soap and Chemical expands, the story of its success speeds up. Mr. Powers told me that this effect is deliberate, that he intended to induce a kind of vertigo in the reader. “The acceleration of the narrative pace,” he said, “mirrors the temporal compression that technology creates.”

By the time we reach the Vietnam War, with Clare pitching in by helping to supply the Army with defoliant, a decade can flash by in a paragraph. The stages of the company’s progress from workshop to limited-liability corporation parallel changes in the American Zeitgeist , and so reading these sections of the novel is a bit like skimming through the notes you took for that hip American Civilization survey course. The other half of the novel reveals the impact of all this history; it shows the personal consequence of an impersonal process.

Laura Bodey is a real estate agent in Lacewood, Ill., home of the North American Agricultural Products Division, Clare International. Aside from that geographical coincidence, she has no link with Clare. She is a very ordinary American woman, divorced, with two kids and a married lover. Mr. Powers writes, “Her life has no problem that five more years couldn’t solve.”

But when we meet her, she’s on the point of discovering that one of two cysts on her ovaries is cancerous. We stay close by her side as she endures cruelly punishing chemotherapy, the poisonous attempt at cure. The intimacy is nearly unbearable: “The scar has lightened. Once it was a livid, blood-gored leech licking the cream of her belly.… The scar is less jarring than her pelvis, jutting up through her skin. She would have killed once for this much waist definition.” The prose is thick with pain and bitter insight; the story brutal, blunt and effective, like hammering a nail.

Laura’s disease kills her, but not before it opens her eyes to the here-and-now she has casually ignored. She scorns the blind boosterism of our instinctive faith in progress: “We must be mad.… Thinking we could housebreak life, beat the kinks out of it, teach it to behave. Complete, collective, species-wide insanity.”

Laura’s home, like every American home, is stocked with Clare products. Cancer rates are high in Lacewood: The Environmental Protection Agency’s annual “Toxic Release Inventory” contains alarming news. A class-action lawsuit is in the works. But this is no simple case of cause and effect. Clare is not the enemy. Business is not the enemy. As Mr. Powers told me, he wanted to avoid the victim/victimizer trap. He hoped the novel would say: “We’ve met business, and it is us.”

Laura knows her cancer is “an inside job. Some accomplice opening the latch for it. She cannot sue the company for raiding her house. She brought them in, by choice, toted them in a shopping bag.” I see how Clare’s corporate history and Laura’s private hell fit together. I admire the ambition of the project, and the craftsmanship with which it was worked out. A master engineer, Mr. Powers makes literary machines at once exquisite and durable. But though I marvel at his skill, I never actually felt the full force of the idea behind Gain ; except when I was reading about Laura’s suffering, it remained for me a brilliant abstraction.

There are many moments when the ideas absolutely dazzle. There is an astonishing segment at the end of the novel about a throwaway camera left by accident in a bedside drawer after Laura’s body has been removed from her hospital room. Mr. Powers dissects the camera, at the same time sketching a colossally complicated global manufacturing process. The systems that created the camera are light-years beyond the consumer’s comprehension. But the camera hides other mysteries: undeveloped snapshots of Laura’s last days. Images of banal human tragedy. A nurse’s aide, readying the room for the next patient, tosses out the camera. After all, it’s a throwaway-“A disposable miracle, no less than the least of us.”

Mr. Powers talked about Gain with just the kind of earnest, high-octane intelligence you would expect from the author of The Gold Bug Variations and Galatea 2.2 , his two best-known books. As he did his best to make his somber new book seem a little less bleak, I thought about a scene from Gain in which a dying Laura looks up at the nighttime sky. There are the stars: “Fuzzy, dispersed, polluted with all the light that this frightened crust is desperate to generate.”

A Post-Industrial Complex From a Post-Ironic Hero