Gain: A Novel of the American Century

Richard Powers, Author
Richard Powers, Author Farrar Straus Giroux $25 (356p) ISBN 978-0-374-15996-2
Reviewed on: 06/01/1998
Release date: 06/01/1998
Paperback - 368 pages - 978-0-312-20409-9
Paperback - 416 pages - 978-0-312-42909-6
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A novelist who has always taken inspiration from scientific and historical research, most recently in the AI-centered Galatea 2.2, Powers now follows the lead of environmentally concerned writers Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Jonathan Franzen and Rick Moody by returning to the great (newly literalized) myth behind Hawthorne's House of the Seven Gables: that the tainted American soil will take revenge on us for the sins of our exploitative fathers. In Powers's ambitious but mechanical novel, the victim is Laura Bodey, a real estate agent and single mother whose Midwestern town of Lacewood is polluted with mysterious carcinogens produced by its biggest employer, the Clare Soap and Chemical corporation. Laura's battle with ovarian cancer takes up half the book, but the novel really belongs to Clare itself. Interspersing Laura's story with the company's history from 1820s Boston to the present, Powers touches lightly on myriad aspects of American life over the last 170 years: the millennialist religious revival of William Miller, the Civil War, the changing fashions of advertising (perhaps the novel's most entertaining subplot), the history of labor and management. Although they never mesh with Laura's present-day misadventures (""tragedy"" is much too strong for such an academic book), the Clare chronicles play to Powers's strengths (literary pastiche, historical and scientific summary, witty description, a knack for idyll) and cover his weaknesses (clunky dialogue, flat characters, portentous commonplaces). The result is impressive and imaginative, albeit a little puzzling. Powers has given us the historical novel as survey course--a curiosity that we never knew we needed but that we can't keep from admiring. (June)
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