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GAIN by Richard Powers


by Richard Powers

Pub Date: June 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-374-15996-3
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Never one to tread lightly or think small, Powers (Galatea 2.2, 1995, etc.) here tackles 170 years of US capitalism as embodied by a single corporation, binding it to the struggle of a midwestern mom to a cancer most likely caused by the same company’s malfeasance. The candle-and-soap outfit begun in Boston in the 1830s by the three Clare brothers first built a reputation on its medicinal soap, the secret ingredient of which came from a root given the youngest Clare on a surveying expedition to the South Seas. Prosperity came when the brothers were chosen as a soap supplier to the Army, and diversity followed as the ever-expanding company moved into home, industrial, and agricultural commodities. At the turn of the century, Clare Soap and Chemical chose the sleepy town of Lacewood, Illinois, as the site of its Agricultural Products group. Since then, the fate of the town has been tied tightly to the fate of the multinational corporation. None of this matters to Laura Bodey, a competent, plant-loving single mother of two teenagers whose only links to Clare, Inc., are the homebuyers brought into her realty office as a result of the company’s booming business. After being diagnosed with ovarian cancer, however, she begins to become aware of reports concerning widespread industrial pollution by Lacewood’s corporate benefactor. Surgery and chemotherapy fail to keep the monstrous cancer at bay, but even as she grows weaker Laura resists joining a class-action suit against Clare, refusing to believe that any of the company’s products could have done this to her--until confronted by evidence from her beloved garden. The personal story is wrenching in its detail, and the larger point is amply made, but interest in the corporate history itself, which is not only weighty but a tad dull in the balance, proves harder to sustain. Yet another unconventional work from Powers, a novelist who never does the same thing twice, but not his strongest.