By Richard Powers
Farrar, Straus, Giroux
353 pages, $25
I'm not sure about Richard Powers' title, "Gain." Once you've read this ambitious, brilliant novel and come back to the title, you see how packed it is with Swiftean irony and grand old 18th century cynical wit. See the title among the cornucopias at Borders or Barnes & Noble, and you might think the book was about economics or anorexia. This novel isn't going to jump into your hands.
Which is why there are book reviewers.
Powers is positively Melvillean on soap, its metaphysics, chemistry and poetry. Here's the genius Irish chandler, Ennis, making the first bars of soap for Samuel and Resolve Clare, New England merchants, in 1830: "The resulting slabs were a mystery to behold. Here was a substance, grease's second cousin. Yet something had turned waste inside out. Dirt's duckling transformed to salve's swan, its rancid nosegay re-arranged into aromatic garland. This waxy mass, arising from putrescence, became its hated parent's most potent anodyne."
The Clares are fictional versions of the Colgates, the Levers, the Procters and Gambles. Powers writes the triumphant history of Clare Soap and Chemical as a company and corporation from its improvising Jacksonian days through its robber baron phase in the post-Civil War period to its current global enterprise out of Lacewood, Ill., population 92,400. Lacewood is the setting for Powers' other narrative, the ordeal of Laura Bodey, decent, intelligent, hard-working single mother of two bright, eccentric kids, Ellen and Tim. She's a successful real estate agent happily exploiting the prosperity Clare International brings to Lacewood. Here she is early in the novel, in the checkout line at the supermarket. The question comes up. It is one we all face every day in our stupid, ordinary lives.
"Paper or plastic?" the 55-year-old bagger asks her. What is she supposed to say? Liberty or death? Right or wrong? Good or evil? Paper or plastic? The one kills trees but is 100 percent natural and recyclable. The other releases insidious fumes when it is burned but requires less energy to make, can be turned into picnic tables and vinyl siding, has handles, and won't disintegrate when frozen yogurt melts.
As she stands pondering the question, she has no idea that she has ovarian cancer, and only late, late in her excruciating treatment will she discover that its cause is environmental and that there are many ordinary citizens of Lacewood dead and dying of similar cancers. The two narratives are concurrent, juxtaposed, in Powers' novel. One chapter has you deep in the corporate merger manias of the 1980s. In the next you're in Mercy Hospital, wincing your way through Laura's first round of chemotherapy. If you argue these ironies are brutal in their simplicity, well, they are.
Company ads and promotional literature from the 19th century to the present are interspersed throughout the text. Some have that wonderful Jacksonian prolixity: "Nature Balm with secret extract of Healing Root will cure several cutaneous and dermal disorders, including but not limited to pimples, Salt Rheum, freckling and discoloration, etc. It will remove Tetter, heal ruptures and boils, firm the muscle, and prevent many further diseases of the skin as well as graver bodily illnesses."
Buffalonians, Love Canalers, Rochesterians, beneficiaries of Bethlehem Steel, Dow Chemical and Eastman Kodak are not going to find Powers' "Gain" a pleasant read. Conceptually, thematically, there are no surprises. Still there is a poetry in this novel, a moral seriousness that commands attention and keeps you turning the page. Near the end of her life, alone in the bathroom, Laura unwraps a bar of Lux, the soap her Dad used. It is a "Naked Lunch" moment, closely seeing what is on the end of your fork.
She pulls open the old-fashioned paper wrapper and slides out the white casket. She takes it up close to her face. It seems scraped all over, gouged by some glacier, some cranky whittler. The perfect cake is not perfect at all. If a machine cut this, the machine was drunk. The bevel drifts down one edge like a sand castle's seeping parapet. The soap's skin is everywhere dimpled, scratched all over by the factory's fingernails. A tiny piece of one corner has come unchunked, flaked off like shale, leaving a rough, clayey pocket against the polished white.
You can get sick reading this novel, thinking about Gain, its omnipresence, its driving force; thinking about what it takes to produce this imperfect bar of Lux. Before Columbus, Powers reminds us, Native America got along very well without soap.
Soap, even at its purest, he also tells us, isn't actually good for your skin.