Richard Powers made his debut in 1985 with Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, a brilliant and almost unbelievably brainy meditation on what he calls our tortured century. Since then he has produced four more novels, showcasing his mastery ofMoreRichard Powers made his debut in 1985 with Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, a brilliant and almost unbelievably brainy meditation on what he calls our tortured century.
Since then he has produced four more novels, showcasing his mastery of genetics, art history, computer science, theology, aesthetics, and a host of other pointy-headed fields. The authors range--and the meticulous music of his prose, which suggests a considerably less zany Thomas Pynchon--is mind-boggling. Yet his subject remains fairly constant: the acceleration, and consequent dehumanization, of contemporary life.
In Gain, Powers puts our modernity through the wringer once again. This time, though, he points the finger at one villain in particular: rampant, American-style capitalism, as exemplified by a conglomerate called Clare International. His novel, it should be said, is no piece of agitprop, but an intricate lamination of two separate stories. On one hand, Powers describes the rise (and fall and rise) of the Clare empire, beginning in its mercantile infancy: 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. The authors Clare-eyed narrative amounts to a pocket history of corporate America, and a marvelously entertaining one. Lest we get too enamored of this success story, though, Powers introduces a second, countervailing tale, in which a 42-year-old resident of Lacewood, Illinois, is stricken with ovarian cancer. Lacewood happens to be the headquarters of Clares North American Agricultural Products Division, and lo and behold, it seems that chemical wastes from the plant may be the source of Laura Bodeys illness.
The analogy between corporate and cancerous proliferation is pointed--too pointed, perhaps. But no other recent novelist has written so knowingly, and with such splendid indignation, about capitalism and its discontents.