The Salon Interview - Richard Powers

The author of "Gain" on cancer, corporations, the blankness of the Midwest and the elusive art of seducing readers.

Published July 23, 1998 9:17AM (EDT)

How much would you sacrifice for a substantially reduced risk of cancer?
Makeup, clean clothes, cheap bug-free food, antiperspirants, automatic
dishwashers, mosquito repellent, medicine, indoor toilets, electricity?
Richard Powers' new novel, "Gain," braids together the fates of two entities:
Laura Bodey, a divorced, 42-year-old mother of two who's dying of ovarian
cancer, and the Clare Soap and Chemical Company, a 170-year-old
multinational corporation that owns Lacewood, Ill., the town where Laura
lives and was, perhaps, poisoned. One story is about relentless decline,
the other about relentless ascent, but they're both about gain, the
awe-inspiring, inhuman capacity for growth shared by both capitalism and
cancer. "Gain" needles us with a persistent question: Is it possible to
separate the two?

Powers has earned an as-yet-modest, but devoted readership (David Foster
Wallace has called him one of the greatest novelists working today) writing
brainy, intricate novels drunk on the delights of thought itself. "Galatea
2.2" follows its narrator's recovery from a failed marriage as he
participates in the construction of an artificial intelligence capable of
passing a graduate exam in English. The characters in "The Goldbug
Variations" burrow into the complexities of genetics, cryptology and the
sublime architecture of Bach. These are novels of emotion as well as ideas,
but they're primarily for people who care passionately about ideas
themselves. Readers with a serious Richard Powers jones love that his books
leave them both dazzled by his hushed, pristine prose and richer in
understanding about the roots and frontiers of human knowledge. With
"Gain," Powers turns his attention to a subject both ominous and pervasive,
but one seldom dealt with by contemporary fiction.

What inspired "Gain"?

It grew out of two sources. The personal story arose out of the deaths of
five people very close to me, within the last eight years, by cancer, and
this very local sense that we're living in the middle of an epidemic of our
own devising. The second is a bit more abstract. I'd like, each time out
as a writer, to reinvent who I am and what I'm doing. That's one of the
great pleasures and rewards of the occupation. Looking at my old books, I
see a restlessness of theme -- photography, genetics, music, pediatrics,
artificial intelligence -- but there was a kind of lurking presence behind
these topics that I wasn't addressing, or acknowledging in any overt way.
It's the rhinoceros at the table that no one was talking about -- and
that's business, that's markets, that's incorporation.

The more I've thought about that, the less satisfying the literary approach
to commerce and manufacture has been. There have been wonderful books on
those themes, but it's considered a kind of subclassification of
literature, when in fact, it's really the center of our existence here as
social man. That indicates that there's a bit of evasion going on. It
seemed worth trying to join those two sources into a book that really asks,
"Where are we and why are we and how did we get here?" without resorting to
finger pointing, vilification and externalizing the costs. That's how I
came up with the idea of writing what's basically a dialogue between two
people: a 42-year-old woman with cancer and a multinational corporation,
who under the laws of the United States is considered an individual, with
due process and all the rest.

Business may not be thought of as a major topic for contemporary
literature, but some people say that the story of the novel is in many ways
the story of capitalism. Did you find it difficult making that overt rather
than implicit?

Well, sure. Because you think initially that it's not inherently a dramatic
subject. Yet, the more that I read the history of particular companies --
Proctor & Gamble, Colgate, Lever, all the rest of them -- the more I
thought, my God, this is Shakespearean. I often felt in researching the
particulars of these corporate histories, no, you can't do that in fiction;
that's too good, it's too rich, it's too ironic.

But I know what you mean about the novel always being implicitly about
these subjects anyway. In fact, one reader said that if you removed the
corporate-history half of "Gain," you end up with a domestic story that's
very much like a certain kind of late '80s, if not minimalist, at least
very domestic fiction. Except for the fact that Laura Bodey's life then has
to go to the source and find out why it looks the way it does. I think
that's the key difference. Yes, novels are what they are both as the result
of the privilege of increasing wealth and increasing ability to manipulate
matter, but they're also recoiling, in a sense, from acknowledging
their sponsor, or identifying it in any way.

Did you pick a particular corporation to sort of use as your model for
Clare? It's a kind of creature with a mind of its own.

It is a creature, the kind of aggregate life that arises out of accident,
accretion, law, peculiarities of circumstance. It grows from three Boston
merchants who exploit an Irish immigrant to get the secret of soap-making
until it's this huge aggregate where no one's pulling the strings anymore,
and the CEO is following the inertial lead of this mass. I think that's
very much the history of America. We have created this life that once did
our bidding and now is calling the shots. As far as researching, I went to
several consumer-product companies, not all agricultural chemistry
companies or soap manufacturers. The company that I created is itself a
kind of aggregate of corporate histories. Hoping I don't get sued. Or
hoping I do, I don't know.

This company just builds itself and takes any setbacks and devours them
and digests them and turns them into advantages. Which makes it a weirdly
gripping story, kind of like those Victorian novels where the character
slowly makes his fortune through different travels or adventures. Laura's
story was the end result of the whole Clare story.

She is the arrival. She harvests the rewards and the punishments.

At one point she looks at the stuff in her house and realizes that Clare
is implicated in every single thing she owns.

Like termites.

So she can't say, "You get out of my life, because you've given me
cancer," because --

You are my life, you've made my life. I'm afraid of taking that position in
some ways. The centrist is going to catch hell from both ends of the
spectrum. To say that markets, that commerce gives with one hand and takes
away with the other is to not satisfy anyone, or to potentially alienate
everybody. But it seems to me true, finally. I don't think that's defeatist
and, in fact, in some ways it's a necessary first step toward intelligent
activism. Externalization, vilification, saying, "We're decent human beings
and this CEO of Dow Chemicals is out to get us," isn't really historically
informed. It's not really coming to terms with the size and scale and scope
of the problem. And in some ways -- not to get too subtle or theoretical --
it's that attitude that channels alienation and makes people continue to
lead the lives that they've been leading.

How so?

Well, it makes it seem as if everything would be fine if the guy at the top
wasn't being greedy or trying to poison us. We don't consider the roles
that we're taking in making the world the way it is. These things are the
realizations of our desire to conquer matter and time and to live on our
own terms, and it behooves us to look at the degree to which we can't have
life on our own terms and the attempt to do so is deeply poisoning and
alienating. I'm not saying that Laura is the cause. I'm not trying to blame
the victim. I'm trying to say we're all in this together.

She certainly resists blaming anyone throughout most of the book. You
said that you've known five people who have died of cancer in the last
eight years. Do you see links between their illnesses and environment

I guess that question can't be answered with scientific definitiveness.

Were their situations as clear-cut as living in a town with a big
chemical company and a higher-than-normal rate of cancer?

Well, I happen to think that that is the case in Champagne County
[Illinois, where Powers lives]. But the story demonstrates how
complicated that question is as well. I wanted to historicize the
trajectory of Clare so far back to show that the disease is older than the
release of carcinogens recognized by the EPA into the air and water. This
transformation, the commodification of life, is a much longer process. The
point is not to reduce the hazards of industrialization to one particular
industrial disease, but to say that all the consequences of our lives have
somehow been ransomed to this process.

The story of Clare does cast a certain spell, though. It has the
excitement of something coming into existence.

I wanted to create a company that would be the outgrowth not just of the
profit motive or greed. See, this is where I think there's a kind of
flattening in the way that we ordinarily look at the consequences of
capitalism. Those motives are certainly there, but I see the works of
collective humanity in commerce as reflecting the real diversity and
conflict and ambivalence that underwrites a much broader spectrum of human
emotion. You have simple ingenuity as a motivation, a sort of religious
zeal, a kind of nationalistic fervor. You have all of this contributing to
"Hey, let's make this thing work and let's give the people what they need."

A bit like, "Let's put on a show!"

Very much so. Let's make something that's bigger than us. And that's why
it's dishonest of us to say that we want to live the way we live, and yet
we want to identify all the problems as a result of some particular
person's greed. In fact, while we may have created industrial diseases,
soap eradicated more extensive and horrendous health hazards than we can
even remember.

A parallel to Laura's ovarian cancer is the fact that when doctors
started washing their hands before they delivered babies, that alone saved
so many lives.

That's right. It makes the calculation of local decisions incredibly
complicated. Which may not be a welcome message.

You write a distinctive kind of fiction that shows fascination with
systems. I'm wondering where that comes from.

I would say the flip side to my fascination with systems is a fascination
with components. So many of my books are dialogues between little and big.
There's this desire to see how the parts of the whole can see the whole,
come to know it, suffer the consequences of it. Fiction may do that --
implicitly, anyway. There's always a way of reading a book -- however
minimal, however well behaved, however domestic -- as a consequence of
systems that lie just offstage in the lives of the people whose tragedies
you're being caught up in. What may make my books my own is this desire to
bring those offstage elements on, and make them characters. There are
books by my contemporaries in which the protagonist is a mathematician or a
physicist and may do things that are supposed to be vaguely mathematical or
physical, but these are just used to invoke a theme. Look, the world isn't
simply taking place at eye-level view, there's lots going on above us and
below us. And why not make those levels part of the dramatic structure or
the narrative structure?

Some readers resist that.

I don't know if it can always succeed. We learn how to read by what we've
read and by what exists, and I suspect that most people probably find that
desire to bring in levels above or below an individual character difficult
to engage emotionally. We have this sense that structure is inimical to
emotion or that systems are inimical to individuals, you know, that a book
can either be a heart book or a head book. And my desire, of course, is to
write something that's like us, namely an all-in-one.

Has how you do that changed for you?

You follow a journey that grows organically from what you've been able to
do and realize. After "The Goldbug Variations," I thought, well, I could
now write a 1,200-page book about cosmology ... or not. Maybe there's another
way to go. Maybe having learned how to write a book where molecular
genetics is the hero, I could learn how to write a book where a
42-year-old divorced mother of two could be the hero. I don't know if I've
learned how to do that yet. You grow outward into places where you aren't
yet and the cerebral is an invitation to explore those things it can't
understand yet. That has to involve a kind of denunciation, leaving behind things that are dear to you.

It's funny that you use that regretful language because in "Galatea" and
"Goldbug," the characters, while likable, are so bereft and mopey. They
think of themselves as old, when they're actually quite young, and they
behave as if they've used up their last chance in life. Laura Bodey is very
different, even though she's the one with Big Trouble. She doesn't seem to
feel that she's walking around with a big hole in the middle of her.

Yeah, that's right. I liked this woman. Within the limits of her
circumstances, she does a great deal -- in some way because her drama is
more real, more pressing, more banal, more mundane. It will be interesting
to see how she's read. You always take a little bit of a chance when you do
the cross-gender thing. And in some ways, my desire to make a real,
palpable, American woman of this moment was thematically driven, because I
think of the company as a man. And, I somehow wanted this showdown to be a
couple. I would also like to think that she is who she is as a consequence
of my being fairly patient and listening to see which way she wanted to go.

There's this sense of wanting to get the big picture. Wanting to really
see, get the aerial view. And see the implication and the grandeur and the
movements. The huge arcs that we don't see in our own lives. That's a
monumental thing that fiction can do and that's the kind of fiction that I
often seek out. But I think what we really want to do is link our own lives
to those emotions and see how they intersect and see how they conflict and
negate each other. We want the sense of our own story -- the beginning,
middle and end -- to somehow make sense inside this bigger story.

I'm going to change our tack a little bit because in addition to
thinking of you as an intellectual novelist, and a novelist interested in
science, to me you're also a Midwestern novelist. And I'm wondering how
that has shaped your work?

I was born in Chicago, moved away to Bangkok at the age of 11, came back to
the United States at 16, finished high school in a rural Illinois town, went
to college in a rural Illinois town, moved to Boston, moved back to a rural
Illinois town, moved to the Netherlands, lived for many years there, moved
back to a rural Illinois town. The Midwest is such a tabula rasa. Turning
the prairie into agribiz is the apotheosis of this drive for control and
mastery and efficiency that describes what we are. My books are not
Midwestern in the sense that they plumb the Midwestern psyche in the way
that Southern writers get to a real precise regional sense of their
culture. Or New Yorkers do for their culture. Or the western does for
another whole American narrative. I don't know what the Midwestern
narrative is really. It's definitely diffident, it's definitely
deferential, it's definitely Protestant, it's definitely a great believer
in progress, it's maybe the last bastion of enlightenment, misguided
enlightenment thought. I don't know. But it's also -- I know it feels exotic
to you, it just feels like a baseline to me.

I'm curious about what it means to be a Midwestern novelist and to write
the kinds of books that you do. I guess the clichéd image that people have
of the Midwest is that it's not a place intellectuals are necessarily
drawn to.

Go ahead, say it!

What do I know? I've been in Chicago only, and just for a few days.

Which both is the capital and, as all capital cities, does not belong to
the country. The Midwest is useful to me for a lot of reasons. One is that
it does seem the apotheosis of normative bourgeoisie behavior to me. And
that's very useful. Make yourself invisible, don't break the rules and all
will be well. And of course, that's subverted and played off against in a
couple of my books. It's useful to me as a kind of Everyman setting. There
is that sense of omnipotential, unwritten, blank page to it.

How do you think your work fits into the larger scale of fiction today?

I think it's an amazing time to be alive for many reasons. One is the utter
technological transformation that we're working in a matter of years. And
nobody can know what that is. And we'll speculate endlessly about it until
it stops, which is probably never. But the other is the incredible turmoil
that these technological revolutions are working on us. The turmoil is
creating a kind of artistic renaissance too. That is testified to by the
strength of our bad-mouthing it. I mean, we're always saying, "Ah, literary
fiction hasn't succeeded since 1900." Well, in fact it is, I mean
it's succeeding all over the map. American fiction is unprecedented in its
breadth and its eclecticism, its inventiveness. It's much more common for
me to feel overwhelmed than to feel disappointed. What I want to use my
contemporaries for is to remind me of how much there is to know and do and
how little of the map I've explored so far. I sometimes despair when I read
somebody who's really good, who does something that I'm completely
incapable of doing, and I say, Oh, I'll never get there.

Who was the last person who made you feel that?

I get that a lot from people from very different corners. Toni Morrison
makes me feel like that. Pynchon makes me feel like that. But also writers
of great simplicity and delicacy. I always feel so ham-handed in comparison
with people who can just tell a story and get on the way. That's the great
thing about that kind of despair, it's always disguised pleasure. You're
always saying, yeah, it hurts to grow. It hurts to take a look at something
from another perspective. It hurts good.

One thing your readers seem to really like is how much they learn from
your books. Do you start out thinking that you want people to walk away
from your work knowing all about, say, genetics?

It's instruct and delight, right? You gotta give them both.

Often there isn't that much of a difference between those two things.

Not for the right readers. But a lot of people want to split those into
inalienable categories. "I can't get delight if I'm getting instruct, and I
feel instruct so bye-bye." But you know the reverse can happen too, and I'm
thinking about what I might do to learn how to become a writer who can
really seduce a reader without them knowing they're being seduced. To get
all those good implications and connections in there with the cod-liver oil
slipped in somehow.

This is the first time you'll be doing a book tour. Is that just for
logistical reasons, because I know you were living out of the country?

I suppose that protected me from some of the more difficult aspects of
publishing. I do feel a lot of loyalty toward the publisher, who's taken
very good care of me, and is publishing serious books in a tough time. I
suppose there's also the irony: After all, how can you write a book about
business and not be expected to promote it somewhat? Maybe part of it's
personal, too. I've written five novels and almost entirely avoided that
whole process. Maybe I can learn something from it. I'll perhaps get a
sense of who likes books, and for what reason. I think by nature I would
like to be completely independent of those concerns. Maybe for some writers
that's the payoff.

I think it is.

I'm trying to avoid any didactic categories that I might have made for
myself or that might have been imposed on me from the outside. There seems
some virtue in doing things that don't appeal to you automatically, some
virtue in changing your perspective and remaining flexible. It's all an
experiment, right? I mean, the minute you know what you're after, the
temptation to do what you've already done sets in, to rewrite the book that
you've already written. And whether it's an actual novel or your own life.
Obviously, if it's a nightmare, I'll know that for book No. 7.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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