GAIN

FICTION BY RICHARD POWERS

William, Heinemann, 1998
ISBN: 0-434-00862-1
Nowadays, a lot of books are later made into movies. Perhaps that’s 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 clichés–but 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 doesn’t 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, the sixth 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 woman’s struggle with cancer. Two less blockbuster subjects would be hard to find: the author’s 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 Bodey’s cancer is far from the languishing, dramatic diseases of movie heroines.
        The "historical" 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 person’s 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 Clare’s first bestseller, Native Balm, to manipulative and sentimental tracts by the Biological Materials Group of Clare International.
        The story of Laura Bodey’s 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 Clare’s company town, so long that she doesn’t 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 sink–Avoid Contact with Eyes–that 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 us–we only have to look in our own cupboards. The actual progress of Laura’s 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 don’t even know what immensities of distance and invention go into the simplest manufactured item. We only see the surfaces, which means we don’t 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 money–Clare has the same goals as everyone. The original family of Clare is part of the history of America–something 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 situation–our situation–and 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. In Gain, Mr. Powers distills it for us, but it loses none of its awful force.