Gain, Richard Power’s amazing sixth novel (originally published in 1998), takes one of the most difficult issues of our time and humanizes it. The issue is corporate culpability. We all know that “better living through chemistry” has its price and its consequences, but who is to pay?
Not Clare, the transnational corporation whose history is charted across three generations in this saga of a novel. The company makes soap - a cleaning product that offers the homemaker so much to gain. And the company, of course, has gained, prodigiously, over the years: it has profited immensely.
Clare manufacturers its products in Lacewood, Illinois, where Laura Bodey is an estate agent. Laura has ovarian cancer. Her story - of her illness and how, as she disintegrates, her family reunites around her - is intertwined with the story of Clare International.
Long before the novel makes the facts plain, we’ve already drawn connections: our chemistry is killing us. The brilliant Powers draws parallels and cycles in abundance but, to his credit, he never once hits over the head with any moralizing message.
Perennial plants flower and die, and so do people and industries, he implies. It’s the way of the world. We can change things, perhaps and, after reading Gain, we may well join one crusade or another, seeking justice for victims of industries focused on nothing but gain or, contrarily, seeking to eliminate the tort system that is, at this point, the victim’s only source of recompense and punishment for the polluters who make us sick. Either way, or no way, that’ll be what you got out of the novel, not what’s there.
Gain is a history of a cancer, then, but also a history of the American corporation - a frightening parallel, but also apropos. Clare starts out as just a few people but, because they are incorporated, they have all the rights of individuals but none of the responsibilities. In our lust to profit and consume in an environment unfettered by regulation or consequence, we too quickly forget this strange contortion of the Fourteenth Amendment. Written to declare the personhood of those held as slaves and thus set them free, it quickly came to be wielded as a blunt instrument in the creation of corporate personhood.
Corporations attained the rights of individuals (without the responsibilities - that is, they cannot easily and directly be held responsible of their actions) through a reading, an interpretation of the word “person,” in the U.S. constitution. So Powers is riffing on a cycle of healing and sickness: in the hands of a great writer, reading is curative. In the hands of lawyers, though, interpretative powers can be perverted and make us sick.
Gain is, in short, a brilliant, exhilarating novel that, like all Powers’ novels, deserves and rewards our closest reading. Richard Powers is without a doubt one of the two or three best living writers working in the English language. With Gain, he flexed his considerable muscles, letting us see ourselves through both the wide-angle lens of history and the microscope of the cancerous body. Gain is a major achievement, a novel of conscience for a largely unconscious culture. And he didn’t stop with Gain. Soon after came novels about terrorism, the environment, race and, most recently, a return to science in a novel about the creativity of genetic engineering (and the engineering of creative writing).
If you care about ideas and their power in the world, you should be reading Richard Powers.