Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

"Clean Hands": Post-Political Form in Richard Powers's Gain

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

"Clean Hands": Post-Political Form in Richard Powers's Gain

Article excerpt

Richard Powers's 1998 novel Gain is composed of two main narratives: the nearly two-hundred year history of Clare, Inc., a fictional American corporation, and the story of the final few months in the life of Laura Bodey, a Lacewood, Illinois woman stricken with ovarian cancer, probably due to exposure from the local Clare chemical plant. Interspersed between the two narratives are bits of free-floating text depicting Clare packaging, advertisements, brochures, scripts for TV commercials, press releases, and other public relations media. One of the novel's most obvious formal peculiarities is the fact the two main storylines never truly intersect: the executives at Clare are never aware of Laura as an individual, and Laura is never able to confront the executives personally, nor discover the exact cause of her illness. In an interview, Powers comments:

The traditional book implicitly promises that all open frames will come together. The challenge of a book that's created out of two incommensurable frames is to show how they entangle without contriving a dramatic confrontation, say, in the form of a lawsuit. Gain suggests that any lawsuit resolution would be a red herring. A lawsuit is not going to give Laura any redress. No lawsuit is going to change the rules of existence or recast the dialogue between the personal and the corporate. ("Last")

Actually, the novel does feature a "lawsuit"--a class-action suit filed in the name of those sickened by Clare chemicals, including Laura Bodey--but, just as Powers suggests, this lawsuit never culminates in a "dramatic confrontation" between defendants and plaintiffs, in or outside the courtroom. Instead, the corporation settles, suddenly and inexplicably, and Laura can only surmise that "the common stock has fallen to unacceptable levels ... an offer is the more cost-effective solution" (333).

The anti-climatic quality of this resolution underscores what a courtroom confrontation might obscure--that no lawsuit is "going to give Laura any redress. "The lack of any kind of "dramatic confrontation" between Laura and Clare suggests, moreover, that no such confrontation could resolve the novels central conflict. That is, this omission signals that the novel is not ultimately concerned with the conflict between an individual consumer and individual corporation, but with, as Powers puts it, "the rules of existence," the broader "dialogue between the personal and the corporate." Powers's comments suggest, furthermore, that deferring a "dramatic confrontation" serves not only a rhetorical function, directing attention to the larger social processes on display, but also a mimetic one, representing a hard truth about these "rules of existence": in the era of multinational corporations, the relationship between the powerful and the powerless is increasingly mediated and complex, making "confrontation" more and more unlikely.

By counterposing the act of representing complex processes against the "traditional ... contriving [of] dramatic confrontation," Powers evokes long-running debates about the relationship between social totality and aesthetic form. To gain a critical perspective on his aesthetic strategies, it's worth briefly recalling Georg Lukacs's intervention in these debates. While Lukacs acknowledges that the global economy is (already, in 1932) too complex and decentralized to depict in terms of traditional character relationships, he argues that representing this "sum of facts" about the global economy is not the same as representing social "totality" ("Reportage" 74).Totality, in Lukacs's account, is the dialectical unity of social form and content, "the inextricable coalescence of accident and necessity" (58). Capturing it means capturing "the relationship of characters to objects and events, a dynamic interaction in which characters act and suffer" ("Narrate" 112)--the "turbulent, active interaction of men" (126).

In Gain, I argue, this antagonism is missing. …

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