A malignant growth in the community

Gain by Richard Powers (Heinemann, £14.99)
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The Independent Culture

Laura Bodey, the heroine of Richard Powers's sixth novel, brokers real estate in Lacewood, Illinois, which was a sleepy midwestern farming town prior to the Clare Soap & Chemical Company establishing its massive plant there. Laura's smart children do the things children do. Her teenage daughter, Ellen, is a high-school cheerleader, grossed out by every aspect of her parents' behaviour, while 12-year-old Timmy has receded into networked video games of planetary domination.

Don Bodey is an ex-husband reminiscent of Garrison Keillor's finer creations - wordy, solicitous, affectionately overbearing but anxious, ultimately, to find his place in the world. And what gives him that place is the cyst on Laura's ovary, casually dropped into the conversation one day.

Powers's novel maps that malignant growth and sensitively explores how Laura's young, typical family is stretched and warped into coping with her health.

However, Gain is also the exhilarating history of the transnational company that has come to dominate Lacewood, growing from its humble origins with the stowaway Jephthah Clare, who brought his family from Liverpool to Boston on a crate of Wedgwood Egyptian stoneware. Clare & Sons turned from trading to manufacture, starting an inexorable rise from chandlers and soap-makers to the chemical giant that is increasingly implicated in Lacewood's cluster of cancers.

What is profit? Uncertainty multiplied by distance, according to the Clare family adage. Douglas Clare, the head of the company in the 1870s, preferred Ambrose Bierce's sly definition in his Devil's Dictionary: "Corporation: an ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility". Public and private responsibility offers an intriguing moral context for Gain, but, in his meticulous chronicling of the successful Clare ventures, Powers somehow manages to avoid exploring it in any depth.

No one could accuse Richard Powers of being light on his historical research, but there is a sense that he ruminates more on technical details than on grander themes.

Saponification procedures and fractional distillations, common-stock issues and levered buy-outs, gradually begin to smelt into an unguent of generic business practice - dissipating, in the process, that vital whiff of scandal, gossip and iconoclasm that makes family sagas exciting. The Clare saga begins with feisty Dickensian detail but then incrementally mires itself in the dry jargon of commercial history.

The small lives of the Bodeys never fully mesh with the culpable destiny of the Clare Corporation (unless, of course, the entire novel is taken as a paradigm of big business smothering the individual). The anticipated courtroom denouement passes in a paragraph and the family's touching, beautifully imagined closure brings no real catharsis, with only the faintest inference of redress. The tender, aching tale of Laura Bodey is a superbly fragile achievement, but the author has almost crushed its charm beneath a stockpile of unwanted facts.