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Richard Powers offers a fictional treatment of a classic American rise-and-fall story. He centers this exposition on the Clare Soap and Chemical Company, following it for 170 years, from its optimistically-inspired foundation through its unraveling as a pernicious poisoner of the landscape and, metaphorically, of the souls of its owners....

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Richard Powers offers a fictional treatment of a classic American rise-and-fall story. He centers this exposition on the Clare Soap and Chemical Company, following it for 170 years, from its optimistically-inspired foundation through its unraveling as a pernicious poisoner of the landscape and, metaphorically, of the souls of its owners. The family members who establish and nurture a small New England company are presented within the American dream context; the varied experiences of their heirs and successors provide most of the characters and stories. As the ironically-named Clare Company expands, gaining influence as well as achieving economic success, the negative effects of its reach also develop. Those effects include environmental pollution near its plants and surrounding areas.

As a counterpoint that reveals the human cost of irresponsible corporate activity, Powers offers the character of Laura Bodey and her fight with ovarian cancer. As wastes from Clare’s Illinois plants pollute the water, a cancer cluster develops nearby. While detailing Laura’s plight, Powers also shows the legacy of irresponsible decision-making on subsequent generations of the Clare family. While they have benefited through wealth and privilege and their negligence may have exacerbated the problems, most members of the contemporary generation did not make the decisions that specifically caused the problems.

Powers’s critique of unchecked corporate expansion structures his general presentation both of the Clare heirs’s and Laura’s stories. He offers roughly parallel tales, as Laura aims to make a living as a single mother, not anticipating that her housing situation will generate serious health problems. While her ignorance is genuine, the Clare family members seem to operate with blinders on, preferring not to consider the harm their company is doing until forced to by legal measures and negative publicity. Extending themselves into nearby community projects and broader philanthropy, they anticipate praise for the beneficial effects of sharing their fortune.

Gain

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 308

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.

Gain

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1865

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 rather than importing British soap to the United States for the American market. Yankee ingenuity, ironically based on the efforts of immigrants, enabled Clare to grow exponentially.

The company’s most enduring and profitable product, Native Balm, came about accidentally. Benjamin Clare, the youngest of Jephthah’s sons, also became the only son to be a college graduate. Upon his graduation from Harvard, Ben spurned the business and set out on a research expedition to Antarctica and the South Seas, during which he purchased a native herbal substance from which he eventually created Native Balm. Floating soap also came about accidentally when too much air was put into a Clare kettle in which soap was being made. (The pragmatic Harvard philosopher C. S. Peirce espoused a philosophy called “tychism,” which posits that much of what happens in life is the result of chance. The Clare Company, as Powers presents it, illustrates quite fully the likelihood that such a philosophy has validity.)

Clare Soap and Chemical survives because it grows and changes: “The days of people working for other people were over. The company was no longer a band joined together for a common purpose. The company was a structure whose purpose was to make more of the same.” Those who directed the company, including Douglas, a third-generation Clare, realized this as early as 1900 and shaped the company accordingly.

Interspersed with the story of the Clare Soap and Chemical Company is the personal story of Laura Bodey. Powers first introduces her at the funeral of one of her daughter Ellen’s teenage friends, who has succumbed to a mysterious wasting disease. Before long, Laura is found to have an ovarian cyst that, upon removal, is revealed to be malignant. The rest of the Laura story relates her unsuccessful struggle against ovarian cancer, but it also depicts many of the struggles that women must face to survive in the workplace, particularly when they must balance work against family responsibilities. In Laura’s case, the situation is intensified because she has divorced her husband, Don Bodey. Powers’s understanding of the dynamics of Laura’s relationship with her ex-husband, especially in light of her health problems, is penetrating and sensitive.

Don, a decent man, is still devoted to Laura and their children. Realizing that the source of Laura’s hopeless illness may well be contaminants from Clare Soap and Chemicals, he presses Laura, who is in no way litigious, to join in a class-action suit against the company to protect the futures of their two children. Before she dies, she receives an out-of-court settlement, which helps to assure the children’s futures. Ellen, however, will not touch her windfall. Tim, Laura’s son, touches little of his until it has compounded into a huge sum. Then he uses it, ironically, to launch a business that one day may grow into a transnational corporate enterprise not unlike Clare.

Powers demonstrates a prodigious grasp of history in relating his story and in associating it with the various social and political currents of the 170 years during which it takes place. He also has a remarkably good grasp of both the philosophy and psychology of modern merchandizing and of corporate management. He understands, in detail, the complex history of the labor movement in the United States, which he uses effectively as a backdrop to Clare’s corporate development. The details of manufacturing processes presented in the novel are also extensive and accurate. Equally accurate are Powers’s references to the business side of Clare Soap and Chemical. The power struggle that leads to the replacement of Douglas Clare with Hiram Nagel as head of the enterprise is presented convincingly, as is the change in business philosophy that overtakes a corporation as it grows. With expansion, corporations build and fill more executive suites. As companies expand, their main goal often veers away from improving existing products and developing new ones toward spawning more corporate bureaucracies.

Powers’s descriptive abilities are remarkable. Observing a garden in springtime, for example, he writes, “Tight, hard globes of Christmas ornament relax into peonies. Daisies already droop their tutus like sad, also-ran, Degas dancers. Bleeding hearts hang in group contrition.” The similes and metaphors he uses here are uniquely visual and highly successful. Powers also revels in writing about fairs and expositions, as he did in Prisoner’s Dilemma, in which detailed references to the New York World’s Fair of the late 1930’s are a central part of the novel. In Gain, he writes kaleidoscopically of the Chicago Exposition of 1893, using Whitmanesque catalogues to capture the sense of what the exposition was about:

A model of St. Peter’s, a monster peristyle, an “Electric Scenic Theater,” an ice railway, the halls of Electricity, Machinery, Agriculture, and Transportation, paint shops and log cabins, stables for private motor vehicles, a loggers’ camp, grain silos, sawmills, windmills, stills, mines, Izaak Walton’s house, the transplanted ruins of Yucatán—all came together in an ordered and stately frenzy, celebrating every ability known to collective man and predicting those countless skills yet to be learned.

If such a catalogue suggests Walt Whitman, readers will find suggestions of other authors sequestered arcanely in many of Gain’s sentences—a shadow of Robert Emmet Sherwood, a hint of W. H. Auden, a slant suggestion of Emily Dickinson. Although Gain contains fewer of the puns for which Powers is well known, they are replaced by sly references to various literary luminaries.

Gain achieves much of its substantial impact by appearing, at times, to be a novel that suggests Nietzschean recurrence. When Laura dies, Don sells his house and returns with the children to Laura’s house, with all its memories and Laura’s legacy of adhesive notes to help the family perform its mundane household chores of cooking and doing laundry. Tim ultimately uses his part of Clare’s settlement with his mother to create a fledgling enterprise that may conceivably grow into another Clare Soap and Chemical Company, although its chief product will probably be computerized information about folding proteins and other molecules rather than soap and candles. Ellen leaves home to study nursing but returns to Lacewood, where she presumably will live out her days with Sporty Tom, her doting husband. Clare, meanwhile, closes and eventually sells off its parts, including the Lacewood plant, returning Lacewood to the slow agricultural community it once was. Perhaps Powers is saying, “You can go home—or at least back—again.” He may even be suggesting that one has no choice.

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.

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