Everybody's Business

FAT INTO SOAP. Soap into ducats. Ducats into more soap. That's the industrial alchemy at the root of Richard Powers's sixth novel, Gain, a tale of industry, its byproducts, and the unseen social costs. Starting with a small New England soap company, Powers manufactures a global chemical concern, and over the course of 150-odd years of American capitalism, he brings a great empathy to his characters and a singular perspicacity to their history.

Powers has previously applied the same methodology of intensive research and bold invention to critically acclaimed studies of photography (Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance) and neural networks (Galatea 2.2), building a loyal readership in the process. Yet only recently has the retiring 41-year-old writer, who lives in New York, elected to meet his audience by giving readings. He's also granted the media a chance to give him the business.

Although Powers is a neophyte at that most insignificant of art forms--the interview--he proves both gracious and keenly articulate. He sits very still in his room at the Whitney Hotel as rain batters the hulking skeletons of Minneapolis's industrial past along the river. There are no bogeymen in Powers's cosmology of capitalism. In fact, his equanimity is uncanny. "Part of what Gain does is try to go back and show that the profit motive is as complicated as the human temperament," he says. "We're electing to pursue some kind of vision of melioration and advancement, and conquest of time and matter, and loss of physical existence. We're pursuing a kind of life that we can't renege upon or deny the moment that the bill comes in. Business is us."

CITY PAGES: While the main character, Laura Bodey, watches her son in an indoor soccer game, you have her thinking, "Every win has somebody's loss pegged to it. Someone has to go down for anyone else to rise." Is that the way you see the economy, too?

RICHARD POWERS: The line is pointed, and it definitely has great application to lots of ways that we live. In fact, the broader truth is that trade isn't a zero-sum gain. And that's kind of astonishing. There are moments in the book that try to revive this sense of awe at the notion that you can take a pound of fat; you can make two pounds of soap out of it. You can take one of the pounds of soap and sell it, and take the other pound of soap and trade it for a pound of fat. So in one sense, in trade, you don't need to have a loser for every winner. But often in the way that we implement it, we're not doing the full calculation.

CP: There seems to be a sense of inevitability about the success that befalls the company. As you write it, the 14th Amendment inadvertently allows for the existence of the corporation and its runaway profit. Yet, at the same time, some characters actively inveigh for the kind of economic world that is going to stamp the company's imprint on more bars of soap. Where does that collision of accident and happenstance and intention meet when you form an economy?

RP: That's a huge question, isn't it? And it's the question of this country: How did we get here? A lot of people have wondered about this almost inexplicable paradox of starting out with this country that's formed more or less by religious extremists, or deeply... puritanical--for want of a better term--and driven, spiritual people, [and] ending up this nation of insane consumerism. How? How? You've unleashed this experiment that completely converts every aspect of the human existence. Well, did it happen to us? Or was there part of us that made love to this?

CP: One of the characters, Ellen, cynically asks, "Do you think they have fat, filthy money-grubbing capitalists in Decatur?" Obviously, you shy away from that party line, but to what extent do you think we've got to indict the people who have the power to make the decisions about the system?

RP: I don't know the answer to that. I could have done tobacco. But what do you reveal when you preach to the converted? You've actually reduced what we might finally come to know about the way the world works. And my sense is that a novel is one of the places where you can actually open things up, and bring them to their full complexity. I don't know, though, finally, how to make people come out of their trance. We are in a trance.

If I were to write a kind of firebrand critique of capitalism, would that have more possibility of awakening people to how every aspect of their lives and deaths are controlled by these institutions that they don't understand, that they've completely assimilated? Or would it diminish that possibility? And which audience would be available to that?

If I were to write some kind of gee-whiz, wide-eyed sense of how, in fact, hygiene has saved countless numbers of lives, and we have achieved a kind of Better Living Through Chemistry, what lies would I be committing to reveal that particular truth? Finally, you have to say, the picture is bigger than that. It's more complicated than that. And however much you want knowledge to be simple, it isn't simple.

CP: There's a sign over a railroad bridge in Jersey that reads, "Trenton makes and the world takes." And that sign has always seemed to expose a sad, shabby optimism about industry. As you wrote the book, did you feel your heart going out to these previous eras of American idealism?

RP: Yeah. And I tried to work that into the language that the company uses to represent itself. But it's not gone. It becomes another kind of shabby optimism. We're in this complete apotheosis of hands off, let the market decide. There's no better, no more efficient way of determining human need. Here we have this culture that's reeling from any willingness to have big government tell it anything. But we'll take any command from big business.

CP: The consent hasn't exactly been unforced. People know they're consenting, and yet they haven't really consented.

RP: This is the question: How much coercion is involved? With the introduction of scientific marketing, and the [apogee] of advertising as our national art form, how much of it is coercion, and how much of it is consensual? And yet, finally, it remains the responsibility of the polity to say what kind of world we want to build. And we can't say, hey, we've been victimized by these manipulators of taste. We're still the ones who are out there buying. And we're buying not just products but philosophies--and buying them wholesale.

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