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Richard Powers: Gain

If you want a good novel on the corrupting influence of capitalist enterprises, it is to the US novel that you will have to turn. Other countries have, of course, produced novels about commerce and its not necessarily benign influence. Dickens, Wells, Balzac, Thackeray, Trollope and Gissing are just a few. However, it is to the US novel – to Frank Norris, William Dean Howells, Dreiser, William Gaddis‘s brilliant J R and T C Boyle‘s The Road to Wellville – that we must turn to see the nastier side of capitalism. I could of course add many films to the list but I will stick to the novel. Powers’ novel can be added to the list. as it also deals with ruthless capitalist exploitation.

This is one of those novels where there are two seemingly unrelated stories going on but you know full well that they will converge and it soon becomes apparent how they will do so. The story starts with the rise of the Clare Soap firm. Initially, they had been mercantile traders, shipping goods around the world, often to avoid tax. Eventually, they had settled down, when mercantile shipping was proving less profitable, in order to go into manufacture. Ennis had apprenticed for seven years as a chandler back home in Ireland. Once he had finished his apprenticeship, he and his wife set out for the United States. Sadly, his wife died the day of their arrival in New York. Ennis had used his savings to buy equipment to make soap and candles, which he had tried to sell door to door. By chance, he came to the Clare residence where, more out of charity than need, they had purchased some of his wares. Only later, did they realise that this was what they were looking for. He had gone but they eventually found him and, with their resources and capitalist know-how, they set up a soap- and candle-making business which became very successful. Powers gives us the full details of their rise, both as regards the technological developments as well as the rough-and-tumble of capitalist enterprise in the USA in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They face economic downturns, competition, problems with supplies, how to take advantage of by-products and economies of scale, labour problems (they ruthlessly exploit their workers) and new technologies such as gaslight, which compete with their business. He seems to cover all aspects of capitalist development, from the freewheeling early nineteenth century to the high-tech chemistry and pseudo-green salesmanship of the late twentieth century.

As an account of the rise of an international capitalist conglomerate, from its early days to its late twentieth century manifestation, it is certainly fascinating. While Powers clearly has no great sympathy for such an operation and sees it as exploiting workers, the markets and the environment, he is not vicious and is clearly also fascinated by how it came about. The two odd family members – Ben, one of the original brothers, and his nephew Peter – show that there was a strong element of creativity and imagination in the company (and not just financial juggling) and Powers clearly admires this. Ben, for example, went on a US government sponsored round the world mission, which visited Antarctica and various Pacific islands, collecting specimens, including a (fictitious) plant called Utilis clarea, which he recognises has a special scent, if properly processed and which eventually becomes a key component of Clare soap. The other story is a about a divorced estate agent called Laura who gets ovarian cancer which, we realise before she does, is almost certainly caused by emissions from the nearby Clare factory. We follow her story which is also very detailed, as regards the medicine and treatment of her cancer but obviously the point of her story is that there are all too often unwilling and unwitting victims of irresponsible capitalism. It certainly is an interesting book, as Powers’ books always are, and there is no doubt that, as a damnation of irresponsible capitalism, it is an interesting read but, as a novel, it did not quite pull it off for me.

Publishing history

First published 1998 by Farrar Straus & Giroux