Lethal Riches

John Winthrop's shining city on a hill not only rests upon a graveyard, according to Richard Powers, it creates one. So have all cities done, over all time, and perhaps this opens a pinprick leak in the bladder Powers thwacks at the Calvinist props beneath the American dream.

Powers is a writer of blistering intellect; he has only to think about a subject and the paint curls off. He is a novelist of ideas and a novelist of witness, and in both respects he has few American peers. His weakness is a matter of relative velocities: the ideas that his characters ride go whizzing past, stuck at high throttle, while the characters themselves can be left sprawling in an indistinguishable dust.

In his last novel, "Galatea 2.2," whose narrator falls in love with the supercomputer he has programmed with even-better-than-human qualities, Powers came close to creating the soul of a machine. The concept was developed so imaginatively that even though other parts of the novel clunked, it was a message of sorrow from the far side of the universe.

"Gain," which takes on another large idea, lacks similar resonance. It is a blast at the destruction, ecological and otherwise, wrought by the Bonnie-and-Clyde-like partnership between American technology and American capitalism. As a thesis, it is well and sometimes brilliantly observed, though perhaps less well argued. As a novel, it mobilizes a story and characters less vigorous than the message they carry.

"Gain" consists of two narratives told in alternating short chapters. One is the 170-year story of the Clare industrial empire, from its beginnings early in the 1800s, when Jephthah Clare arrived in Boston from England to sell a load of Wedgewood china, to its present as a multinational manufacturer of cosmetics, fertilizer, liquor and detergents. The other tells of the final months of Laura Bodey, who lives in Lacewood, Ill., site of one of Clare's principal manufacturing branches. In the late 1990s, she is stricken by metastasizing ovarian cancer.

The two stories are at once disconnected and bound in an unsparing reciprocal irony. The Clare sections make up a social, economic and technological history of American growth, from trade and artisanry to industrial innovation and expansion to marketing, promotion and the development of chemical processes increasingly poisonous to the environment.

The accounts of Clare's growth spurts are followed by the painful details of a different growth. What begins as an apparently routine cyst operation in the life of a busy woman progresses down through Dantean circles of medical hell. The link between the two kinds of expansion--apparent to the reader from the start, and that is a defect--is strengthened by evidence of the high incidence of cancer among Clare's workers and others living in Lacewood.

Thus Powers' title and theme. "Gain" is denunciatory but not casual irony. The ease, cheap availability and abundance of things in American lives--the envy of most of the world--is gain, of a sort, for those who consume it as well as for those who manufacture and market it. What it really gains is another question. The theme is set early:

"There must have been a time when Lacewood did not mean Clare, Incorporated. But no one remembered it. . . . The two names always came joined in the same breath. All the grace ever shed on Lacewood flowed through that company's broad conduit. The big black boxes on the edge of town sieved diamonds from out of the mud. And Lacewood became the riches that it made."

Powers sees more than lethal riches in the bargain America has made with industry. There is, as well, a mystique of production, going back to Calvinist forebears and perhaps more insidiously lethal. It is introduced in the very first paragraph:

"Day had a way of shaking Lacewood awake. Slapping it lightly, like a newborn. Rubbing its wrists and reviving it. On warm mornings, you remembered: this is why we do things. Make hay, here, while the sun shines. Work for the night is coming. Work now, for there is no work in the place where you are going."

A quasi-religious ethic is evoked for the early years of Jephthah Clare and his sons. When protective tariffs threaten their trading company, they seek out a product that the tariffs will protect. An immigrant Irish soap- and candle-maker with an especially delicate touch is hired; painfully, the Clare family builds up a nationwide trade in soap, profiting by the Civil War to become purveyors to the Union Army.

Late in the century new activities and sources of financing are brought in. Industrial purpose gives way to a stress on marketing and promotion. In the 20th century the impersonal need to expand profits--by now Clare is a publicly held corporation--dictates further broadening until the company has become an international conglomerate.

Powers has mastered his material, and the Clare sections amount to a cogent abbreviated account of American industrial, financial and labor development. Much of it is interesting, but it reads more like a well-written paper than a novel; the various Clares and their successors have only the most generic of characters, each standing for a different type and generation of businessman. Powers can recount history; he cannot transcend it in the manner of Thomas Pynchon's "Mason & Dixon."

If the historical half of the book seems flat and, eventually, predictable, the story of Laura Bodey shares some of the same generic quality. Laura is there for a reason--to die of cancer--and the affecting and well-observed particulars of her decline don't manage to cushion the author's bony intent.

Certainly there is much to touch us in Laura's struggle. Powers gives a masterful evocation of the ecology of mortal illness: the early denial, the brutal exigencies of chemotherapy, the social subset of those who gather to receive it, the kindness of nurses, the offhand vagueness of doctors.

There is a particularly affecting portrayal of the reaction of Laura's two teenage children: anger, at first, and then a stunned impulse to care for her. Her activist former-husband-turned-caregiver, with his insistence on second opinions and threats of lawsuits, epitomizes the contrast between the patient's--Laura's--need to understand what is happening to her and a mate's need to fight it.

There is sensitive and observant writing in the Laura sections. She is not a remarkable character, though; her illness and approaching death provide a journey and, as happens sometimes, the journey makes her grow. She doesn't grow very far, not far enough to seize in her own right the story that Powers has assigned her or to wrestle the death that the American way of business inflicts upon her.

I expect that the author intends that the mild Laura, more interested in gardening than fighting, shall move us more than a more combative character. But Powers has not seeded her mildness with sufficient human spirit and particularity to marshal more than the first element in the pity and terror duo--or, bringing the classic formula up to date, pity and wonder--as tragic counterpoise to the technological juggernaut that is our equivalent of Sophoclean gods.

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