Richard Powers
Richard Powers; drawing by David Levine

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.

“The issue,” as Powers puts it in typically epigrammatic fashion, “was fitting the itch to the scratch.” Or:

…The greatest merchandising prize to come from the Market Research Department was the idea of market research itself. By the time Sputnik left the earth, the industry of needs creation had learned to see the blind taste test as its own product. The men who gave us the bomb and cured polio were more than a match for the problems of daily existence. Science had to sell science, scientifically. And the resulting combination serviced huge sectors of the psychic economy.

And later, after napalm and phosphates lead much of the public to suspect that “Material Solutions” are part of the problem, Clare sees a new marketing opportunity:

…Even the filled-in, exhausted American continent still had new frontiers. The trick was to continue delivering that next new lifestyle still struggling to be born. Once upon a time, good chemistry sufficed for good business…. For a long time good business meant peddling a progressive sociology. At the end of the day, the business to beat became ecology.

Clare went green, inside and out.

It is around this time that Laura Bodey discovers the tumor in her ovary.

One half of Gain is a saga of soap manufacturing, thick with detail about glycerin extraction, oleins and alkalis, and the recuperation of waste products into new raw materials; the other half is a soap opera. Readers of Powers’s previous novels will recognize this dualism as a staple of his method. He is at once the most cerebral and the most sentimental of novelists—well, not exactly at once, but in turn. Like Gain, each of his five previous books has been organized around a kind of narrative mind-body split: one strand subordinates its storytelling to the working out of a set of intellectual problems, while the other concentrates on more familiar human complications.

Over the years, Powers has probably forgotten more than most writers will ever know about subjects as various and recondite as game theory (Prisoner’s Dilemma), genetic recombination (The Gold Bug Variations), and artificial intelligence (Galatea 2.2). Nor has his knowledge been limited to science: he has mastered the histories of Flanders and photography (Three Farmers on their Way to a Dance), European folklore (Operation Wandering Soul), and the Walt Disney Company (Prisoner’s Dilemma). Gain—a compressed textbook of industrial chemistry and management strategy, with digressions on tropical botany, nineteenth-century American millenarian movements, and oncology—may be his most densely packed work yet. Throughout his books carefully researched information and often neglected subjects are mixed into apparently conventional stories of lost love, family dysfunction, and terminal illness.

Reading Powers is a bit like flip-ping back and forth between a made-for-TV movie of the week and an episode of Nova. If you allow your attention to wander, you may start to wonder what one thing has to do with another. Reading Prisoner’s Dilemma, you may ask why Powers disrupts the story of four children suffering through the mental and physical decline of their brilliant, obsessive father with a convoluted subplot involving Alan Turing, the 1939 World’s Fair, and the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. And you may grope for connections, in the recent, widely praised Galatea 2.2, between the brooding recollections of the main character (a novelist named Richard Powers) and his attempts to design a computer application capable of passing an oral exam in English literature. Gain may be the most starkly bifurcated of Powers’s novels so far: you might ask why the affecting story of a woman’s struggle with illness needs to be intercut with long passages of corporate history; or, conversely, you may wish that the breakneck chronicle of Clare’s ascendance did not have to pause for rounds of chemotherapy.

Powers, just into his forties, is most often described by critics as an epigone of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo—the brightest kid in a class that includes the likes of David Foster Wallace, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Jonathan Franzen. And Powers does share with these writers a taste for narrative experimentation and an almost disturbing braininess. But unlike these writers, Powers is, at heart, a realist. The dizzying narrative permutations of Wallace or Pynchon are spun from the inner logic of storytelling; their novels are like self-enclosed perpetual motion machines. And one feels, encountering them, a rather chilled admiration: they move, all right, but they don’t move you. Powers, in contrast, for all the cold precision of his intelligence, is a disarmingly emotional writer, and not afraid of moral passion. I’m told that Operation Wandering Soul, his unsparing novel about a doctor who works with terminally ill children, is taught in medical ethics courses. It’s hard to imagine Infinite Jest or The Crying of Lot 49 being put to similar use.

The novel that most clearly invites comparison with Gain is DeLillo’s White Noise, which also deals with the effects of industrial contamination on a typical Midwestern town, and which is similarly crowded with computer games, junk food, and the other detritus of consumerism. But DeLillo’s “airborne toxic event” is freighted with symbolism: it’s a projection of the ambient dread that pervades the so-cial and emotional lives of his characters, and its source as a physical occurrence is thus irrelevant to the novel’s purposes. DeLillo is inter-ested in unknowability—in narrative threads that lead nowhere, in investigations that multiply mysteries rather than solve them. Powers, for his part, is obsessed with knowledge, and troubled by the fact that his compulsive researches yield inconclusive results. And White Noise is ultimately more comforting than terrifying, as allegories tend to be, because it depends on a sense of symmetry between the affectless inner lives of its inhabitants and the incomprehensible conditions in which they live. But Powers’s people possess the full register of human emotion, and would find DeLillo’s blithe pessimism cold comfort. Laura’s cancer is no symbol.

The attentive reader discovers in Powers’s self-divided fictions an unusual kind of suspense, and a vision that is oddly hopeful and humane. For the details of ordinary life as he presents them stand out against the backdrop of abstruse thought like mysteries begging to be solved. If we could understand the nodes and strands of machine consciousness, Galatea 2.2 seems to promise, we might learn to illuminate the dark tangles of our own. The famous conundrum of game theory that gives Prisoner’s Dilemma its title and its theme holds out a similar, and similarly vain, hope: the relentless propensity of people to destroy themselves and each other (in this case within the closed system of the family, but in larger contexts as well) might be resolved by the elegant application of logic. And The Gold Bug Variations—Powers’s longest, most difficult, and most brilliantly realized novel so far—plays with the tantalizing dream that if we could only crack our own internal code, the protean protein tetragrammaton inscribed in every cell of our bodies, we might untangle our genetic predisposition to heartbreak, frustration, and loss.

A similar promise animates Gain: if the laws of chemical bonding and the laws of supply and demand could be brought into the right alignment, we might discover, if not the cure for cancer (though this is a utopian implication left dangling on the novel’s last page), then at least its cause. The story might then have a clear moral: capitalism causes cancer. And one could imagine a courtroom climax out of John Grisham, in which the engineers, executives, and PR flacks of Clare are compelled to admit that they have, in the service of their own greed, poisoned the air and the ground, and misled an innocent public.

But that would be, in a novel at least, business as usual. Gain concludes with an out-of-court settlement and some corporate damage control, and then life, with one exception, goes on. “What is the cause?” Laura asks her doctor when she first receives the diagnosis. “Is it genetic?” But the doctor can only equivocate. “Sometimes…. Nobody really knows for certain.” Later, at Lacewood’s Harvest Fair, Laura and her children are confronted with what seems to be a parade of fellow cancer sufferers.

…Why did she never see these people before?

They’re all over the Harvest Fair. A boy two years younger than Tim rests against a stack of pumpkins, his skin an eerie green. The bared, patchy head of a woman hoisting a papoose and swigging apple cider, clear as a brand. Laura watches as a college-age kid with a backwards ball cap and iodined arms entertains his girlfriend, mocking the townie rituals while waiting their turn to bob for apples.

She starts to recognize them on no evidence whatsoever. Something about the old guy selling the squash-mounted candles. He’s nursing something in his gut the size of his fist. No proof. Laura just knows.

She has come late to this affliction. Yet they recognize her, too, despite the careful makeup that took her an hour to apply. They give her that silent salute, eyes held a fraction too long in regrettable kinship. A secret-society handshake, less anger in it than Laura would have thought. It’s a best-foot-forward, this questioning gaze, this You too?…

“You think it’s like this in Champaign or Decatur?” Laura wonders.

Ellen shoots her a startled grimace. “No, Mother dearest.” She drops into the camp flash of Judy Garland. “We have the very best Harvest Fair in the world, right here in our own backyard!”

Illness has shown Laura at least one thing: she will lose her girl forever if she goes on taking her for a girl. Cancer has opened her daughter to her, clear as a spied-upon diary. Ellen, well over in the red zone, deep into all the illicit experiments whose outcomes could still go either way.

A year from now, Ellen will either be going to college or nodding spiked out on somebody’s toilet. She’ll base her choice on the available evidence, and so far, mainstream existence has made an overwhelming case for all-annihilating stupidity.

“Not the fair,” Laura tsks. She whisks at Ellen, using the playful push as an excuse to grab and hold her daughter’s upper arm. “I mean, look. Is it just me? Everybody’s sick. It’s like some kind of plague.”

Ellen’s already convinced. She doesn’t even need to look around. “I told you, Mom.” Adolescent delivery, a point too piercing for adulthood. “You wouldn’t believe me.”

“You think it’s just here, just near…?”

“I don’t know, Mom. You think they have any fat, filthy, money-grubbing capitalists in Decatur?”

Laura stops. She stares at the flesh of her flesh, this chameleon. Ellen? Who planted that tirade in her? It must be the time of life. At seventeen, cheerleaders can turn Trotskyite somewhere between fourth and fifth period.

Here Laura glimpses a future she will not live to see. But she also grasps the frail, contingent lease on immortality she may, despite her early death, be granted. Later, on her deathbed, she will experience an impulse to “start to convert flesh back into air and vapor,” but she has already converted flesh into other flesh. The cheerleader-turned-Trotskyite will return to Lacewood (after Clare has at last abandoned it) a nurse and a wife but not, for medical reasons, a mother. Her brother the antisocial Web warrior will enter the field of biotechnology. The corporation is not the only life form that lives to perpetuate itself.

Of course, the adolescent sarcasm masks an equally adolescent naiveté, a wish to divide the world into good and evil, effect and cause. But in the world as Powers understands it there are not causes, only correlations. And the worst consequences result from the best intentions:

Yes, the corporation’s goal is to raise the expectations of all humankind, to raise them to shameless, unmeetable levels. And then it must meet those expectations. Whatever we may yet achieve as individuals, the corporation will underwrite that achievement…

These worlds belong to Franklin Kennibar, Sr., CEO of Clare at the time of Laura Bodey’s illness (and the first head of the company from outside the Clare family). He hardly fits Ellen’s description: in his own eyes, he is merely “the passive agent of collective bidding.”

Near the end of Gain, Kennibar is contemplating yet another corporate transformation, this one involving hostile takeovers, downsizing, and the severing of some corporate limbs. Waiting to be interviewed for a television documentary, he jots down his answers to the question: “What is the purpose of business?” He could be rewriting the novel in abstract:

To make a profit. To make a consistent profit. To make a profit in the long run. To make a living. To make things. To make things in the most economical way. To make the greatest number of things. To make the greatest things…. To make the things that people desire. To make people desire things…. To give people something to do. To do something. To provide the greatest good for the greatest number. To promote the general welfare. To provide for the common defense. To increase the value of the common stock…. To rationalize nature. To improve the landscape…. To amass the capital required to do anything we may want to do. To discover what we want to do. To vacate the premises before the sun dies out. To make life a little easier. To make people a little wealthier. To make people a little happier. To build a bet-ter tomorrow…. To preserve the corporation. To do business. To stay in business. To figure out the purpose of business.

He nearly adds “To cheat death.” He might have said, “To make a killing.”

What is most remarkable about this novel—and, indeed, about the body of Powers’s work so far—is how much life is in it, and how much intelligence. It is easy enough to condemn the malignant power of corporations, or to celebrate the dynamism of the free market. But it is harder to recognize that the destructiveness and the dynamism are inseparable, and hardest of all to represent this fact in concrete, human terms. It was one of the ambitions of the great realist writers of the nineteenth century—an ambition in its way as Promethean as Clare’s—to comprehend on a single canvas the fates of individuals and the large, impersonal forces that determine those fates. In the series of haunting, elaborate diptychs he has so far produced, Richard Powers does not always fulfill this ambition. But in reviving it he makes a strong case—I can think of no American novelist of his generation who makes a stronger one—that the writing of novels is a heroic enterprise, and perhaps even a matter of life and death.

This Issue

December 17, 1998