a lot of books are later made into movies. Perhaps thats one
of the reasons that modern novels are often rather cinematic. Reading
a book, you can almost see the movie of the book unfold as you read.
Not that I am accusing all authors of writing for a future screenplay
deal. Actually, I think the main reason for the seepage of cinema
style into novels is that the structure, pace and ambiance of movies
has influenced the current generation of writers (and everybody
else). This is not necessarily a bad thing; the movies are a dominant
cultural form, and we reflect that. Patterns repeated over and over
again start to engrave themselves in our minds. When they are repeated
too many times, of course, they become clichésbut talented
and imaginative people can escape those. A subtler influence, I
believe, is the feeling
of cinema. It is rare to read a book
published in the last decade and a half that doesnt feel like
the author wrote with a silver screen in the back of his mind.
One example of a
book that will never be made into a movie is Gain,
novel by Richard Powers. Gain
has a dual structure, alternating
sections of two related stories. One half of the book deals with
the unglamorous and non-cinematic topic of the history of the corporation
as a commercial entity. The other half deals with a womans
struggle with cancer. Two less blockbuster subjects would be hard
to find: the authors description of the corporation in America
is, while novelized, truly a history, involving long discursions
into the nature of colonial marketing, for example. And the drawn-out
and technical process of real-estate agent and divorced mother Laura
Bodeys cancer is far from the languishing, dramatic diseases
of movie heroines.
section of the book is actually the history of one (imaginary) corporation,
Clare Soap and Chemical. That Mr. Powers picked the name Clare for
his corporation is the first hint of both his skill and his attention
to detail. "Clare" is an appealing hybrid: suggesting
clarity and cleanliness, easy to say and remember. It also sounds
like a persons name, which is an important point; Mr. Powers
makes it clear that incorporation actually gives the status and
rights of an individual to a collection of company elements, thereby
rendering it almost invulnerable. The saga of Clare begins with
a penniless Englishman, Jephthah Clare. His sons begin a soap factory,
and the Clare brand is born. The early years of the struggling business
are engaging. Mr. Powers tries to give us human faces for every
stage, generations of Clares and their hopes for the future of their
company. But when Clare incorporates, which is perhaps the most
crucial turning point for both Mr. Powers and the company, the going
gets harder for the reader. The very essence of the corporation
is that its own transformation into a "person" diminishes
the importance of the leaders. In a twist, this new, modern "person"
is faceless. Clare lives on, no matter who runs the show. This part
of the book is less enthralling to read, as Clare develops new lines
and builds factories. Still, Mr. Powers livens it up with additions
that I imagine he very much enjoyed writing. Every switch between
the two plotlines in the book ends with some snippet of a commercial
or marketing text from Clare. They range from quaint discourses
on the powers of Clares first bestseller, Native Balm, to
manipulative and sentimental tracts by the Biological Materials
Group of Clare International.
The story of Laura
Bodeys decline is told to us concurrently with the rise of
Clare. Mr. Powers suggests that Clare itself is the cause of her
illness, yet he hints that perhaps it is not. Laura has ovarian
cancer, which we are told does not cluster. Later, Laura is involved
in a class-action suit against Clare, along with other cancer patients.
The author also makes some references to the fact that Laura is
prone to psychosomatic reflections of other peoples illness.
Has Laura picked up the illness of the town, which is the illness
of America? This uncertainty reflects real life much more than any
"evil big corporation against heroic little guy" resolution
would. More importantly, by leaving us with uncertainty, Mr. Powers
is able to bring up a much more central, and frightening, point.
The chilling knowledge
that we have surrounded ourselves with harm, both physically and
mentally, is really the moral message of the novel. Early on in
the novel, Laura potters around her house. She has lived all her
life in Clares company town, so long that she doesnt
even really think notice Clare anymore. "She hums the corporate
theme song to herself, sometimes, without realizing." She is
immersed. This mental state is reflected in the actual objects of
her house. "Two pots in her medicine cabinet bear the logo,
one to apply and one to remove. Those jugs under the sinkAvoid
Contact with Eyesthat never quite work as advertised. Shampoo,
antacid, low-fat chips. The weather stripping, the grout between
the quarry tiles, the nonstick in the nonstick pan, the light coat
of deterrent she spreads on her garden. These and other incarnations
play about her house, all invisible." The list is familiar
to almost all of uswe only have to look in our own cupboards.
The actual progress of Lauras cancer treatment is as fascinating
and detailed as the history of Clare. I would recommend that readers
who are uneasy about cancer and cancer treatments bear in mind that
Mr. Powers tells his story straightforwardly, without shirking.
It is never maudlin, only realistic.
Mr. Powers manages
something in Gain
that is truly difficult. He presents a
dilemma: we have made a consumer culture for ourselves that can
actually kill us. We dont even know what immensities of distance
and invention go into the simplest manufactured item. We only see
the surfaces, which means we dont see much. Yet the corporation,
which maintains and perpetuates this chain of consumption and provision,
is part and parcel of our way of life. To succeed, to grow, to make
moneyClare has the same goals as everyone. The original family
of Clare is part of the history of Americasomething the author
illustrates by references to other, non-fictional, brand names.
Clare shares our values, so who is responsible? It is a feat that
Mr. Powers has managed to hand us this dilemma without making too
many judgments, and without letting us get confused. He describes
a situationour situationand makes connections, letting
us come to our own conclusions. What happens behind the surface
of our supermarket world is too vast and strange for us to grasp.
Mr. Powers distills it for us, but it loses none
of its awful force.