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A Matter of Life and Death


by Richard Powers
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 355 pp., $25.00

If, as Calvin Coolidge famously said, “the chief business of the American people is business,” the response of most American novelists has been that it’s none of theirs. While the tumultuous rise and global spread of American capitalism is surely a subject epic in scope and dramatic in detail, it is one that has inspired surprisingly few of our best writers. There has always been interest in the behavior of people who have money, but less interest in how money is made. Henry James, in The American, sketched a new type of character—the American entrepreneur—but found the merest mention of the commodity at the heart of his enterprise impossibly vulgar. The travails of workers have also received intermittent attention, but even the Proletarian writers of the 1930s had little to say about the production and distribution of the goods themselves. And while the manners and morals of businessmen figure in the work of writers from Sinclair Lewis to John Cheever, the business itself typically takes place offstage or in the background.

The thickest cluster of American novels whose chief business is business dates from the heroic age of American realism, which was, not coincidentally, the heroic age of American industrial expansion as well: William Dean Howells’s The Rise of Silas Lapham, Frank Norris’s The Octopus, and Theodore Dreiser’s twin character studies The Titan and The Financier are perhaps the best-known examples. The same period saw the publication in France of Emile Zola’s sprawling and synoptic Rougon-Macquart series and in Germany of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks. In the century or so since, as realism and naturalism have given way to modernism and postmodernism, this country has produced a scattering of interesting anomalies like John Dos Passos’s The Big Money and William Gaddis’s JR, in which one of Dreiser’s mighty moguls is reimagined as an eleven-year-old boy.

But American literature and American enterprise—each in their way characterized by world-conquering ambition—have mostly run on parallel tracks. From time to time a conservative commentator will decry the indifference of novelists to the business world as evidence of ideological hostility. And while there may be some truth to this accusation—though it seems to me more often the case that the resistance is, as with James, a matter of aesthetic temperament rather than political conviction—the real difficulty may be a technical one. Novelists require human subjects, and while commerce is undeniably a human activity, it rarely has a human face. That is, since around the time of Howells, the activity of making, distributing, and advertising products has increasingly been the work of corporations, whose tendency is to disperse power from individual persons into bureaucratic structures and specialized functions. And while the late nineteenth century was the age of John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and other larger-than-life capitalists, they appear in novels like Dreiser’s in nearly allegorical form—as sublime embodiments of the titanic power and insatiable appetite of capitalism itself. “Individualism is gone,” declared Rockefeller, “never to return.” But individualism is for most novelists an indispensable formal necessity. Whereas for Dreiser the forces of economic transformation could be personified (in part through the medium of his own relentless ego), for Howells and Norris they were impersonal: the heroes of their books—Norris’s California wheat farmers, Howells’s Vermont paint maker—are the victims of these forces, not their masters.

Norris imagined the railroad trusts as a many-limbed monster. This image resembles the charts that show the different branches and divisions of a diversified corporation. One of these charts makes an appearance in Gain, Richard Powers’s ambitious attempt to render the economic history of the United States fit for readerly consumption. It depicts the organization of Clare, Inc. in 1909—at the midpoint of its growth from a local, family-owned soap business into a multinational consumer- and industrial-products giant. Clare’s branches extend from research to marketing, its products from “tonics and salves” to “lard and foodstuffs” to “agricultural chemicals.” Its tentacles penetrate into virtually every corner of daily life.

Gain, with the help of a scattering of charts, advertising samples, and scientific diagrams, tracks the company’s progress from the Tariff of Abominations to the age of the maquiladora, and through all the revolutions of the business cycle and the technological changes in between. Along the way it has a great deal to say about the chemistry of cleanliness and the alchemy of publicity, about research-and-development and mergers-and-acquisitions, about labor relations and corporate restructuring. But Gain is more than a novelist’s spin on one of those official histories that companies occasionally sponsor for their stockholders and employees (though Powers does at times mimic the language of corporate self-promotion). Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose words on the subject of enterprise Powers quotes from time to time, once declared that there was properly no history, only biography, and Powers’s chronicle of Clare, Inc. obeys this wisdom: it’s less the company’s history than its life story.

A few pages before the 1909 chart, Powers quotes an aphorism from John Jay Chapman, a grim anticipation in 1898 of Coolidge’s boosterish slogan of the Roaring Twenties: “Business has destroyed the very knowledge in us of all other natural forces except business.” All other natural forces: if business is a force of nature, then a single company can be likened to a living organism. On the next page Powers writes that “revamping simultaneously strengthened [Clare’s] core nervous system and increased the number of limbs.” The organic metaphor (Norris’s octopus again) does not occur arbitrarily in the minds of novelists: the word “corporation,” after all, derives from the Latin word corpus, which means body. At the end of his life, at the onset of the Gilded Age, Samuel Clare—one of the three brothers who have parlayed their father’s shipping fortune into an empire of cleanliness—realizes that

he had lived long enough to see the constitutional amendment preventing any law that would abridge the privileges and immunities of Clare, Incorporated, that legally created person. Such a law guaranteed the immortality dreamed of by the poets and prophets.

As a matter of American law, that is, a corporation is not just any body: it is a person—immortal, collective, and self-perpetuating, but nonetheless entitled to the same rights and considerations as any other. Samuel’s sister-in-law Julia, a crusader for abolition and westward expansion as well as a kind of management consultant avant la lettre, never remarries after the death of her husband, Resolve: “She needed no warm body other than the corporate one.”

The other kind of person—singular, biological, and mortal—also figures in Gain. The book traces the twin biographies—entwined and linked, but never quite intersecting, like twin strands of DNA—of Clare, Inc. and Laura Bodey, a divorced real estate agent and mother of two living in Lacewood, Illinois, Clare’s company town. Laura’s last name suggests that this is the story of two bodies, and her part of the story is about what can happen when a corporate body and a human one converge: one of them dies. The growth of Clare—one is tempted to call it metastasis—is presented in counterpoint with Laura’s wasting away from ovarian cancer that may have been produced by the toxic industrial environment of Lacewood.

To say that Laura lives in the shadow of Clare would be an understatement: the company is more like the daylight in which she moves and breathes, or indeed the very physical world (its corporate slogan is “Material Solutions”) she inhabits:

The ballet school sponsors. The ones who pay for the TV that nobody ever watches. The annual scholarships for the erector-set kids at the high school. The trade-practice lawsuits she hasn’t the patience to follow, and the public service announcements she never entirely understands. The drop-dead-cute actress who has the affair with the guy next door in that series of funny commercials that everyone at the office knows by heart. The old company head who served in the cabinet during World War II. She hums the corporate theme song to herself sometimes, without realizing.

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 but invisible.

Later, as she lies in the hospital, too weak to listen to her ex-husband plead with her to join a class-action lawsuit against Clare, Laura’s sense of the company’s power becomes nearly metaphysical:

It makes no difference whether this business gave her cancer. They have given her everything else. Taken her life and molded it in every way imaginable, plus six degrees beyond imagining. Changed her life so greatly that not even cancer can change it more than halfway back.

Her life is entirely, pointedly ordinary. Lacewood has a studiously nondescript typicality, and Laura’s family could be, if not yours, then everybody else’s—the noisy, fractious embodiment of a statistical norm. Her son Tim lives in the glow of his computer screen, addicted to on-line war games and junk food; his sister Ellen is a picture of fifteen-year-old sullen self-righteousness. And Don, their father, mixes practicality and childishness, compassion and passive-aggressiveness, in the proportions that apparently define the middle-class, middle-aged, middle-American white male at the end of the century. Don and Laura are the kind of people who work hard at jobs they don’t love but don’t mind; they drive to the supermarket and occasionally to church, and worry about home repairs and paying for college. They could almost have been imagined by a political media consultant—or, more aptly, by the market research division of a large consumer-products firm.

But this may be just what Laura means: the corporation does not just make things people use; it makes the people and the uses as well. The Clare company after all began in a nation of farmers, for whom soap-making was an efficient recovery of the waste products of animal slaughter. In the 1820s the Boston candle makers Samuel and Resolve Clare, seeking to recuperate their own by-products (and perhaps intuiting the obsolescence of their current enterprise), team up with an Irish immigrant named Robert Emmet Ennis and begin making soap. The commodity is doubly attractive: “Soap appealed to Samuel because it put the purchaser next to godliness. Resolve liked it because the purchaser used it up.” But the brothers realize that “their own customers will be their chief competition,” and so they must “teach thrifty New England how smelly, difficult, and undependable home soapmaking had always been.”

Industrialization, the growth of the railroads, and the spread of the telegraph conspire to bring the lesson home: the nation of farmers becomes a nation of workers, for whom cleanliness is a necessary aspect of discipline, and finally a nation of consumers, who yearn for the naturalness and simplicity of an earlier time and find it conveniently packaged on their supermarket shelves. At each stage of its development, as it grows from a family enterprise into a vast conglomerate, Clare does not so much gratify desires as manufacture them.

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