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A Price Worth Paying

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By Richard Powers
Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 356 pages; $25 cloth

Richard Powers' 'Gain' charts the power of business in all corners of life and death

By Eric Johnson

IT WAS ALREADY a done deal, long before any of us were born--business had already displaced nature. All human endeavors, all of our lives, now take place in the world of business, governed by its harsh laws, as though there were no other; it doesn't matter if we're members of the Duma living in Tokyo or steelworkers living in Bethlehem, Pa.

Business fills up the background of life so completely we don't even notice it. In his new novel, Gain, Richard Powers takes us into the world of business and shows us what it has meant to America and the world by telling the stories of two families.

The Clare family's story begins in 1802, in a fledgling soap factory near the docks of Roxbury, Mass., and ends in the lofty realms of contemporary global capitalism. The Bodey family's story begins and ends in Lacewood, a Midwestern company town quietly dominated by Clare International, and spans only one year--all the time it takes for a woman to die.

Gain is the story of a corporation and the story of a woman with cancer. It explores two of the strongest forces driving human history--business and disease--through these two intersecting tales. It succeeds both as a roller-coaster inquiry into our national identity and as a profound emotional exploration of the most basic human values--life and death.

Gain's two plotlines hardly fit together. One's a heroic epic and the other's a prosaic tragedy; one narrative moves upward and outward as the Clare family's fortunes swell and explode, and the other gently falls off as it follows Lara Bodey's failing battle to live. The story of Clare Soap is set to a bombastic score that builds relentlessly through a series of crescendos; Laura Bodey's is a folky dirge sung in a faltering voice, equally relentless.

But these stories are ultimately bound together: by geography, by cause and effect and, most importantly, by the voice of Powers.

Powers takes on an enormous task here, meaning to demonstrate the effects of political economics on American history--and finally its effects on the life of one woman. He does this without ever engaging in abstract analysis or indulging in jargon. Powers' most powerful tool is the deep respect he brings to his subjects--even the villains. Ultimately, Gain exposes with deadly accuracy the pain that business can wreak on humanity.

But Powers refuses to demonize corporate capitalism; instead he shows the genuine heart within the faceless corporation. It is no accident that his carcinogenic chemical conglomerate begins its life as a soap company--Powers is intent on showing the banality of this particular evil, and he presents an utterly convincing view.

Powers also refuses to take the easy road and glorify Laura Bodey's victimhood. Her personal tragedy is made to seem common, which of course it is. That's why this tragedy is, historically, so immense, and why Gain does such a tremendous job of exposing its immensity.

THIS CLEARHEADED, generous-spirited study yields something like a national grand narrative--the fictionalized account of how we, as a nation, arrived in the transnational world. It also presents a heartbreakingly accurate picture of the price that journey has cost us.

Powers has worked this trick before, welding together two narratives to simultaneously investigate two themes, always to powerful effect. His last book, Galatea 2.2, a quasi-sci-fi novel about artificial intelligence, and also a tour of Western literature, dissects fundamental ideas about art and meaning. Similarly, Operation Wandering Soul is a blistering critique of history's mistreatment of children and also a psychological investigation into an individual's relationship with the child he once was.

In these books, Powers does important philosophical work through sheer straightforward storytelling. Even as his language does backflips through flaming hoops, and even as his ideas approach rare intellectual heights, Powers simply brings characters to life and lets us follow them through the pages. Here again in Gain, he animates a story that tells the simple truth of our times.

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From the December 3-9, 1998 issue of Metro.

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