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.
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,...
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