(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The one hundred seventy year history of the fictional Clare Soap and Chemical Company is an American success story that author Richard Powers elaborates in remarkably accurate detail in his continued quest to understand the origins of post-modern American society. With the careful detail he used to explore the mass production of automobiles in THREE FARMERS ON THEIR WAY TO A DANCE (1985), medical developments in PRISONER’S DILEMMA (1988) and OPERATION WANDERING SOUL (1993), and the computer revolution in GALATEA 2.2 (1995), Powers traces the growth of a family-operated company through its expansion and eventual incorporation to the point that its wastes poison the environs surrounding its plants.

The subplot of this multiplot novel concerns Laura Bodey, a single mother, a fortyish real estate agent, who develops ovarian cancer traceable to Clare Company pollutants that seep into the streams and soil of Lacewood, Illinois, her home. The Clares, who founded the company, are not villains, nor are the subsequent corporate executives who transformed Clare into a thriving multiproduct enterprise. Yet as the company grows, sinister health implications of its growth escape those whose chief concern is with expansion.

Laura Bodey’s story alternates with the intricate history of the Clare Soap and Chemical Company, with its growth from a small New England factory to an industrial behemoth. The ultimate irony is that Clare, a company that revels in good works and in community responsibility, unwittingly poisons the areas whose economies it has created and supports.

Sources for Further Study

Business Week. July 27, 1998, p. 12.

Library Journal. CXXIII, May 1, 1998, p. 140.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. June 21, 1998, p. 2.

The Nation. CCLXVII, July 27, 1998, p. 33.

The New Leader. LXXIV, June 29, 1998, p. 26.

The New York Review of Books. XLV, December 17, 1998, p. 38.

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, June 21, 1998, p. 11.

The New Yorker. LXXIV, July 27, 1998, p. 76.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, April 13, 1998, p. 50.

The Wall Street Journal. July 1, 1998, p. A16.


(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Richard Powers’s multiplot novel Gain is another volume in which the author seeks to understand and trace some major currents that have shaped postmodern American society. In his five previous novels, Powers has focused on the automobile industry, the brokerage business, the computer revolution, immigration problems, genetics, medicine, and a host of crosscurrents that have formed the character of contemporary America. In each of these novels—Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance (1985), Prisoner’s Dilemma (1989), The Gold Bug Variations (1992), Operation Wandering Soul (1994), and Galatea 2.2 (1996)—Powers has posed searching questions about the modern world, always focusing upon one or more salient aspects of modernism, interspersing the chapters that deal with the roots of postmodernism with other chapters or sections that present individualized portraits of characters involved in creating revolutionary technologies or upon whom such technologies have significant effects.

Powers uses a similar format in Gain. A major story line presents, in considerable detail, the development of the Clare Soap and Chemical Company from a small soap and candle manufacturing operation begun in 1831 to a huge industrial conglomerate that, by 1900, has spread from its original site in Massachusetts to Ohio and subsequently as far west as central Illinois, in which much of the novel is set. The family-run business is eventually incorporated and then goes public, expanding its base and product line meteorically as it becomes transnational.

The generations of the Clare family, depicted in a genealogical chart, are matched by the expansive growth of the Clare Soap and Chemical Company, whose organizational chart resembles a branching genealogical tree. Each member of the Clare family, three generations of which have been intimately involved in the company, contributes to new blocks on the corporation’s organizational tree.

Running parallel to the story of Clare’s development and expansion is the more personal story of Laura Bodey, a middle-aged real estate broker in Lacewood, Illinois. The town was rescued from its agricultural prairie existence when Clare, ardently pursued by visionaries in Lacewood who realized that the town needed an industry in order to prosper, said “yes” to Lacewood’s proposal that the company establish a large industrial and manufacturing complex there. For decades the marriage between the town and the company was propitious for both parties. Clare brought employment and prosperity to a region that much needed the economic base Clare provided. Clare was a model of civic responsibility, treating its employees decently, helping to support the cultural life of the community, sponsoring the annual corn boil, contributing to the local college, and generally observing the protocols of good citizenship.

Clare was founded by the family of Jephthah and Sarah Clare, ethical New Englanders to whom success came accidentally. Robert Emmet Ennis, an Irish immigrant who had recently lost his wife, came to the door of the Clare’s fledgling import business peddling tallow candles he had made. Samuel Clare bought a few candles from him and thought little more of the transaction until he began to burn the candles and found that they were of such high quality that they burned longer and offered more illumination than any candles the family had previously used.

The Clares now needed to find Ennis with the hope of getting him to make candles for their company. Their search seemed futile until the day when Resolve Clare saw the chandler near the Boston fish market. Resolve employed him to work in the small import business and soap factory that the family had recently launched. It was efficient to make soap and candles in the same factory using by- products from one to manufacture the other.

Soon the Clares had hired a fifty-year-old self-styled engineer, Anthony Hewitt, on the brink of retiring, to develop the equipment they needed to mass-produce soap and candles with the utmost frugality, wasting none of the runoff from one product if it could be reprocessed for use in making another. Hewitt’s equipment also permitted heightened production through the economy of scale that such an increase permitted. Clare lowered the price of its products and made them competitive with those imported from England. Before long, Clare was not only selling its soap to a ready market in the United States but was also exporting fine soap to England...

(The entire section is 1865 words.)