Vol. 3 No. 2, Summer 1998 (#10)

photo by Jerry Bauer

Richard Powers: Industrial Evolution

by Michael Tortorello

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 proved both gracious and keenly articulate. He sat very still in his room at the Whitney Hotel as rain battered 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."

RAIN TAXI: What is it that you think readers enjoy so much about precise technical information, whether that be from Michael Crichton or Richard Powers?

POWERS: Interesting that you mention Crichton, because I recently saw a critical piece--I can't remember where--but it was on Jurassic Park and Gold Bug Variations, and their treatment of scientific, genetic themes. [laughs] It wasn't a juxtaposition that would naturally have occurred to me.

RAIN TAXI: Was the comparison favorable?

POWERS: [laughs] I'm not sure what the final evaluation was. I think what interests me is making content [into] character. My sense is that what becomes fascinating about material qua material is that it's compelling some human being. That inside this content, inside this discipline, inside this detail, is the map of human desire. The desire for explanation, the desire for connection. So it's not molecular genetics for molecular genetics' sake: It's molecular genetics as a way of revealing the molecular geneticist--and the molecular geneticist in all of us. Sometimes fiction has chosen to attach itself to an intimate domestic or personal scale: the interaction between a husband and a wife; the connection between a person and his own inner demons. And it hasn't always been as interested in attaching these individuals to some kind of propulsive fascination with how they got here, what their actual work is.

RAIN TAXI: Does it ever seem that the technical knowledge that you pick up becomes your own 9-to-5 job? When you were writing Operation Wandering Soul, did you ever find yourself pretending that you could walk into the emergency room and grab the defibrillator paddles and get to work?

POWERS: That's the beauty of fiction, and I think it's why I ended up in it. It's still stunning to me: I'll wake up every morning thinking, I can'tpossibly be getting away with it. For me, my great torture growing up- especially at that moment of late adolescence and early adulthood when you start making some decisions--was closing doors. It felt like every day I was dying a small death, because I was deciding I'm not going to be that, and I'm not going to be that. And finally I hit upon this career where I could say, I'll be anything I want. If I want to spend four years pretending I'm a molecular biologist, following the road not taken, living vicariously, I can do it. Never literally, but at least you pick up some of the sensations, some of the sense of what's at issue.

RAIN TAXI: Does the amount of material in circulation in our culture ever prove a distraction, in terms of the amount of information you can get at once? Does it ever tax your ability to sort through it in any meaningful way?

POWERS: It's not clear whether the stockpile is growing faster than the index. There's almost that ironic sense of feeling on Monday/Wednesday/Friday that we've been to the computer just in time to facilitate the management of the amount of data that we're producing; and then on Tuesdays/Thursday/and the weekends thinking it's actually a kind of after-the-fact finger in the dike, too little, too late. I suppose the question is not necessarily whether the index is staying on top of the stockpile, but whether any human being can even keep up with the index. I do talk about that to some degree in Galatea with the little discussion between Richard and Helen. He describes the paradox of the archive, which is, once you have a permanent medium of representation and recording, the notion of individual life gets lost in the notion of a constantly accreting history. And we're now at the point where more books get written in a year than an individual could read in a lifetime. So this whole sense of living in a historic continuity with existing material breaks down under its own weight, collapses from its own magnitude. And Helen says "books will have to die." And Richard says, we've tried that, and they're called magazines. And in a way, there's a real truth to that. Books sort of are becoming magazines. They're marked with that date upon which they're supposed to be removed from the racks. In this sense, a continuing conversation--ongoing, all the way back to the beginning--is hard to sustain.

RAIN TAXI: Did writing several books from overseas help you keep focus on what part of that conversation you want to participate in?

POWERS: I certainly feel that getting away is one way of [gaining] a better sense of what it is that you've assimilated. To generalize that, it may be the whole anxious juggling act of a creator's life, of a writer's life: You're in the world long enough to be overwhelmed by it, and then you've got to remove yourself from it in order to be able to describe it. But that solitary portion of out-of-the-world describing has to be refreshed and regenerated by going back in and priming the pump again. This constant ebb and flow is never completely solved.

RAIN TAXI: How much of that media noise do you think is valuable for you to funnel into the work?

POWERS: To extend that thought a little bit, I think it's not that different from the reader's experience. Our lives are a maelstrom. They're kind of [an] intensified distilled schizophrenia, [with] the amount of material that's thrown at us. We still read, and we read because for X number of minutes a day, we're in the book, we're not in the world. Our minds have withdrawn from this arena of constant stimulus and sensation. Much as the writer removes him- or herself from the world in order to tell a story, the reader removes him- or herself in order to understand and hear a story. As for going out and really trying to hook up with the ephemera of culture, which is the other part of your question, I think it's essential. It's a little bit like playing with fire. [You] feel so overwhelmed or awed or demoralized or confused by the noise of culture, in the interest of understanding it, you can go under. But you need to know. You need to know.

RAIN TAXI: Do you feel that there's an age at which it's no longer going to be feasible to participate in that culture--knowing all the songs on The Box that you can order for $2.99?

POWERS: You mean, do I think that I will get so old that I won't understand the youth culture?

RAIN TAXI: Not only not understand it, but no longer have a desire to consider it in the way you see the world.

POWERS: Well, it's not dismissible. We need to know what kind of society we're putting together. We need to know what motivates it, and what the market realities are. The question is whether that kind of journey represents new phenomena or whether we've kind of reached a point in late capitalism and commodification where the difference between the flavors is less salient than the fact that they're on this constant carousel. I certainly haven't kept up with current pop music, for example, the way that I did 10 years ago. But I do try to keep my ear to the ground as far as what profiles are being sold and what profiles are being bought. And also other sorts of phenomena, like the shortening life-span of a career. It may not be so important to go out and listen to the newest name's 15 cuts--[although] you can learn a lot by dipping into them--but what may be of more interest is the fact that that label has no plan to bring out collection number two, because the buyer has no interest in buying them. We're living in a time when the relationship to a career as a commodity has become very different. And that may be more interesting if I knew exactly what kind of music that person's making.

RAIN TAXI: That provides a good segue to ask questions about Gain and capitalism. While the main character, Laura Bodey, watches her son in an indoor soccer game, you have her thinking the line, "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?

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 and 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.

RAIN TAXI: 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?

POWERS: 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?

RAIN TAXI: 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?

POWERS: 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.

RAIN TAXI: 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?

POWERS: 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 themarket 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.

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

POWERS: 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.

RAIN TAXI: Do you attribute dark powers to the sorcerers who successfully engineer that sale?

POWERS: No. And, as massively indebted as I am, and in awe and gratitude as I am toward Pynchon's work, I think this conspiratorial sense of society, unless you're going to ironize it--which he does, obviously--can only get you a limited insight into why society has the shape that it has. And that's what Gain is about; it's about unpacking this sense that something has happened to us. And to find again, to rediscover the whole historical trajectory. And I hope that that happens to the reader. I hope that throughout this history, you're kind of cheering the company as it makes these new innovations and new ingenuities, and you're kind of marveling at the richness of their ingenuity and the continuity of their invention. And then you pass a threshold, and you say, whoa--where do I want this to land? What's the final victory over these things?

RAIN TAXI: An absence in this book--and throughout most of the other ones--is that politics and politicians don't really walk across the stage.

POWERS: That's what I'm writing now. Not in the sense of elected officials, but in the sense of geopolitics. I guess, in a sense of politics as a governmental institution, you're right, it's never been foregrounded in my book. And even in this new book, it's not something in the foreground. But small "p" politics--the way that people build societies and regulate them and legislate them and adhere to them--is constantly lurking and threading through the undercurrents of this book. I think after five books I looked back and thought: Somebody's paying for this banquet and I haven't acknowledged it, I haven't had a look at it yet. Because the idea that the world comes down to markets and commerce and trade makes me nauseated, and I don't have the stomach to look at it--I better look at it. I think the same can be said of my relationship to politics. Art in an aesthetic sense is constantly fleeing from this [idea] that it has a political and class and material agenda. But whatever it reveals about the truth of human character won't be true unless you acknowledge the underwriters.

RAIN TAXI: Do the books seem to fulfill what you see as an author's responsibility to participate in that process?

POWERS: I do. And I feel the book does provide a forum for the reawakening of conscience. Social conscience and moral conscience. And I think if I felt that it weren't a political forum, that I would be much less interested in writing. I'm not finally a believer that private aesthetic experience has much redemptive value. It's got to go back out.

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Summer 1998 Table of Contents