Pop Culture: The Green Invasion


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BOOKS:
Fictional Environments
HOW RICHARD POWERS’S GAIN CAPTURES THE COMPLEXITIES OF MODERN-DAY ENVIRONMENTALISM

BY STEVE WEINBERG

LACEWOOD, ILLINOIS, is the home of Clare Soap and Chemical, the fictional manufacturer of hundreds of consumer products as farranging as pore cleanser, air freshener, microwave bacon, car tires, and Multi-pli Maxiwipes. Lacewood residents diligently courted Clare’s management a century earlier and convinced the company to relocate its corporate headquarters to the town, bringing along new jobs and national recognition. Few in town gave a thought to potential environmental damage from Clare’s factories; besides, the company promised to act forever as a benign, even beneficent, neighbor.

So when Laura Rowen Bodey, a 42-year old Lacewood real estate agent, notices in her garden one early June day that “some nasty bug has already begun to nibble her summer squash in the bud, [while] another goes after her beans,” she never thinks to connect the blight with a larger ecological problem. Instead she sprays the plants with homemade pest repellents, using “stronger measures when strength is needed.”

Thus author Richard Powers sets the stage for his eco-masterpiece, Gain (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998). The novel develops along two parallel story lines: the progression of Laura’s cancer, which kills her a year after her diagnosis; and the 170-year saga of relentless growth at Clare. Readers with a tendency to think the worst of corporations might be  manufacturing effluent for Laura’s cancer, but Powers is no ham-handed reductionist. He tells both stories with compassion and allows readers to sort out the probabilities.

Gain explores in vivid detail how a business begins as one family’s dream and grows far larger than even its prescient founder could have imagined. The giant corporation that ends up dominating countless lives may be operated to maximize profits 170 years after its founding, but the dream did not encompass greed at its inception. In sections alternating with Laura’s personal story, Powers painstakingly portrays the company’s evolution into a multinational corporate giant, and much of the portrayal is empathetic. Before she learns of her cancer, Laura drives past Clare’s headquarters at least three times a week. She understands that Lacewood “cannot hold a corn boil without its corporate sponsor. The company cuts every other check, writes the headlines, sings the school fight song. It plays the organ at every wedding and packs the rice that rains down on the departing honeymooners. It staffs the hospital and funds the ultrasound sweep of uterine seas where Lacewood’s next of kin lie gray and ghostly, asleep in the deep.”

Powers’s many-layered portrait neither fawns on the corporation nor tips into ecopolemic, and this depth is part of the reason why Gain is such a compelling narrative. Historically, novels focused on environmental issues have had powerful effects on readers, but some of these stories feel one-sided today, in a world where their warnings have been incorporated into the public consciousness. Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle (1905) brought to light the horrific, unsanitary conditions of the meatpacking industry at the time and moved the government to enact stricter controls on beef production. But the novel portrays the relationship between the factory owners and the workers as a simple good-versus-evil dichotomy (as noted in Chris Bachelder’s new novel about Sinclair—see “Beach Reading” at right). Similarly, John Nichols’s novel The Milagro Beanfield War (1974) captures the sense of struggle in the early days of modern environmentalism, using satire and irony to tell the tale of peaceful agrarians who are oppressed by the water and grazing laws enacted by rich city folk. While humorous, the novel is also quite sentimental in its portrayal of the oppressed underdog.

Novels that put forth an overtly green political agenda do have their place, but it is refreshing to discover a writer like Powers who refrains from oversimplifying issues, shows empathy for all of his characters, writes believable dialogue, and paces the unfolding of the story line in an engaging way.

As Powers clearly understands, matters of legal and moral liability for environmental damage are complicated. People who reflexively blame the corporate behemoth next door for every human cell mutation might know what they are talking about—or might not. In Powers’s fictional world, nobody at Clare forced Laura to buy the cleaning agents and hairsprays in her home, just as nobody at reallife Wal-Mart forces shoppers into their supercenters. Despising the Clares and Wal-Marts of the world is easy. But if the despisers never act on their disapproval by supporting homegrown merchants and environmentally sound products, who is really to blame?

Richard Powers’s next book, The Echo Maker (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), deals with the mysteries of human memory and is set against the backdrop of a stunning spring bird migration. It will be released in October 2006.

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Issue 25



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