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Company Man

Richard Powers Gives Business the Business


Author:Richard Powers
Publisher:Farrar, Straus & Giroux

By Sandy Asirvatham | Posted 9/2/1998

Yes, he's a very smart guy, but that's hardly the whole story. In person, novelist Richard Powers exudes the bright, easy charm of someone who is quite unconcerned about being charming. With his beanpole frame and a face defined by strong jawbones, round glasses, and thick brown bangs that seem to originate somewhere back near the top of his skull, Powers comes off like a talented but guileless teenager who has decided to ignore all of the adults trying to hype him.

One June afternoon in Washington, toward the end of his most recent book tour, Powers greeted me at his hotel with so much amiability that it was hard to believe he'd been to nine cities in two weeks and had just flown in sleepless on the red-eye from San Francisco. During our two-hour conversation, as we discussed topics ranging from the evils of late-stage capitalism to the exigencies of the writing life, he asked for my opinion almost as often as he talked about his own. The 41-year-old author of Gain, Galatea 2.2, and four other novels is exceedingly knowledgeable and articulate, but his sweet and good-hearted nature comes across just as strongly as his erudition.

The same goes for his books, which are thoroughly brainy yet thoroughly humane. In several of his novels, Powers has aimed to build a soaring verbal cathedral from the elements of an intellectual discipline--DNA laboratory research in The Gold Bug Variations, artificial intelligence in Galatea 2.2, the history of modern manufacturing and capitalism in Gain--but at the heart of the edifice, a stark passion-play is always in progress.

Thus, in the historical novel Gain, the "macronarrative" is the story of J. Clare's Sons, a company founded in the early 19th century as a small, family-owned maker of soap and candles, which becomes by the late 20th century one of the world's largest manufacturers of chemical products. Meanwhile the micronarrative follows the demise of one Laura Bodey, middle-aged resident of the Midwestern town where Clare's headquarters are located, as she struggles with ovarian cancer--a disease probably caused by the Clare products she's been using in her garden.

Alternating between the two story lines--a terse but affecting account of one person's mortality and a lively, complicated roller-coaster ride through the history of a protean and apparently immortal corporation--Powers sets up a counterpoint that allows readers to see just how deeply our lives are constructed and ruled by this thing we've created: American commerce.

In a culture that tends to disdain, or at least marginalize, the so-called novel of ideas, Gain's dual structure is risky. A book with such an obvious intellectual superstructure--"a broader architectonics of theme," as Powers puts it--tends to make readers wonder whether the characters have fictional "autonomy" (i.e., whether they behave in a believable, human manner) or are simply puppets dancing to the author's predetermined tune. This is true "no matter how much character revelation" the store includes, Powers says.

What saves Gain from seeming too mechanical or artificial--or just too intellectual--is Powers' language, which is precise, accessible, vivid, and full of forward motion.

Business ran in the Clares' blood long before the first one of them made a single thing. That family flocked to commerce like finches to morning. They clung to the watery edge of existence: ports, always ports. They thrived in tidal pools, half salt, half sweet. Brackish, littoral. They lived less in cities than on the sea routes between them. Clare was, from the first, transnational.

The history of Clare serves as a synechdoche for the history of America. The era of westward expansion, the Great Depression, the labor movement, the ascendancy of Wall Street, and the turbo-powered economic engine created by wars--all these play a part in the shaping of the company, and the book narrates these various events and forces succinctly, without losing momentum.

Perhaps the most surprising piece of history in Gain is that the very notion of incorporation was met with great ambivalence in the 19th century, even by the business community. Many people agreed with writer Ambrose Bierce's assessment that the corporation was "an ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility."

Powers says that when he came across this information during his research, it transformed the project. "I think [at the beginning] I was guilty of black-boxing the most essential invention" by focusing on the process of manufacturing, rather than the process by which the corporation became hegemonic, he says.

"You've got this weird consonance of the 1819 Supreme Court decision [which deemed a corporation to be a 'person' with all of the same rights as human beings] and the 14th Amendment [which guarantees due process to all persons], and suddenly corporations are not just individuals but individuals with due process. At the end of the day you end up with the Ambrose Bierce definition, which sounds horrible, but is quite accurate."

Throughout the book, the basic Marxist paradox reveals itself again and again: The thing that grows contains the seed of its own destruction. Animal fat is rendered into Clare Soap, a substance that dissolves animal fat. Gardens thrive under the use of poisons. Significantly, Laura Bodey's cancer strikes first in her reproductive organs. Chemotherapy--a process described by Powers in all of its hopeless and horrifying detail--essentially cures the cancer by killing the patient.

But Powers wasn't interested in producing a 19th-century-style screed against the corporate Leviathan. "To the extent that fiction has treated business, it's often been tempted to externalize business as a force, in the same way that business externalizes its own costs," he says. Rather than establish a victim/villain scenario, Powers says, he wanted to show "the complexities of motive and ambivalence of execution" that have gone into the creation of big business.

"Business is us, and to the extent that we are evil, our evil gets manifested in business. To the extent that we're religious and spiritual, those desires look for their outlet in the kind of transcendentalism that business promises," Powers says. Business is a reflection of "our basic anxiety here on Earth, which is to escape the conditions of matter and time that are given to us, and to instead dictate those terms."

But in trying to achieve mastery, we give ourselves over to another kind of slavery. One of the book's most touching and memorable scenes comes when Laura, who knows she soon will die, decides to rid her house of all Clare products:

She vows a consumer boycott, a full spring cleaning. But the house is full of them. It's as if the floor she walks on suddenly liquifies into a sheet of termites. They paper her cabinets. They perch on her microwave, camp out in her stove, hang from her shower head. Clare hiding under the sink, swarming her medicine chest, lining the shelves in the basement. . . . [T]oo many to purge them all. Every hour of her life depends on more corporations than she can count.

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