In the intertwined histories of Clare International, a conglomerate grown from a soap company started in Boston in the 19th century, and of the ovarian cancer within Laura Bodey, an estate agent in Lacewood, Illinois, a town dominated by its Clare factory, Richard Powers created a magnificent fictional double-helix.
If its synopsis resembles the picaresque of John Barth’s Sot-Weed Factor crossed with the environmental horror of A Civil Action, Powers' synthesis creates something different. Yes, Clare Soap’s transformation from a cottage industry, one craftsman with kettle working for the three Clare brothers, into Clare International, makers of everything from pesticides to whiskies, is a potted history of American business. But Powers’ microscope reveals patterns which resonate today. Ideologues would have us believe history ended with the death of the Soviet Union; capitalism achieved some sort of triumphal stasis. If America is capitalism’s most perfect laboratory, Gain reveals such delusions of triumph to be self-satisfied bleating from a system which merely crested at another peak of its inevitable cycle. George Santayana said ‘those who cannot remember history are condemned to repeat it,’ but who in America today even remembers Santayana?
Powers is concerned with cycles, because he knows there is no stasis. His persistent reference to systems is reminiscent of Thomas Pynchon’s early obsession with entropy. Powers litters Gain with examples. Industrial systems that build off their own waste, “internal production loops”, a reed-player’s circular breathing, even perennial plants: the constants by which we seek to convince ourselves that the systems we live in are not closed, will not someday run down and die. Clare itself seems to be ever-expanding; it changes from a few individuals, to a corporation, with an individual’s rights but not his responsibilities, to a conglomerate with the ability to slip its problems between borders, put governments and individuals alike on the equivalent of a toll-free number’s permanent hold.
Of course, the other side of gain is loss; we will all run down and die. Laura Bodey’s disease adds a human scale which makes this the most accessible of Powers’ six novels, like mixing Pynchon with Alice Hoffman. Powers sets off the inhuman elements of Laura’s fight against her cancer, the treatments beyond endurance or understanding, in stark relief against the very human minutiae of her suburban life. It all comes movingly into focus because the prose is contrasted so elegantly to the tone and pace of Clare International’s story. The reader twists the stories together, makes connections long before the characters have even begun to consider them, long before the stories resolve in mirror images. Bad publicity over cancers causes Clare’s stock to drop, leaving them vulnerable to takeover. Laura’s illness draws her alienated children and divorced husband back into their own company, the family, again. Her body, as clued by her name, creates a whole even as it is disintegrating, even as Clare disintegrates in its growth.
This tour de force comes from a writer whose risk-tasking and prodigious intelligence recall a mode of writing many believed had itself entropied two decades ago. Because its formidable scope is anchored so movingly in the human, Powers’ perfect ouroburous of a book may be the first great novel of this millennium.
FOOTNOTE: This was written originally for London Magazine, where Alan Ross had the lovely habit of praising my pieces inordinately, and the frustrating one of holding them until they were well out of date (which in the case of LM was only an issue or two). In fact, Gain was, I believe, originally published in 1999, so strictly speaking it was the first great novel only in the British version of the millennium, which ran late due to the wrong kind of snow falling that winter.