At first glance, Jonathan Coe may seem to have little in common with that poet laureate of real and invented technojargon, Richard Powers. But in fact, Coe's The Winshaw Legacy (1996) bears a more-than-surface resemblance to Powers' later novel, Gain (1998). Coe's virulent satire reimagines the history of post-WWII England through the cracked prism of the horrific Winshaws, a family of amoral (not to mention immoral) capitalists and pundits that has its filthy fingers in every economic pie. Powers' novel, a far more sobersided outing, reimagines the history of American expansion through the somewhat more complicated "life" of Clare Soap & Chemical, a business that morphs from a family affair to a multiconglomerate. Both novels use business dealings as metaphors for larger cultural changes; feature a woman's brush with cancer as part of the plot (a much larger part in Gain); and reflect on the fate of individuals within increasingly indifferent social systems. But Coe and Powers part ways, however, when it comes to both their attitudes to the future and, more formally, their manipulations of genre.
Half of Gain reads like a company history, and it's to Powers' credit that what sounds forbiddingly dull turns out, in practice, to be enthralling. The other half details the sufferings of Laura Bodey, who spends the novel fighting off an encroaching and increasingly malignant cancer. It's easy--perhaps far too easy--to draw parallels between Laura's cancer and Clare Soap & Chemical's own mutation as it permeates the American domestic landscape; such a comparison transforms the moral shadings of Powers' narrative into something purely predictable. Instead, Powers uses the corporation to imagine an American dream, one of open-ended growth, national optimism, and moral purity--all grounded in the market. It's no accident that Powers chooses a soap factory, for the novel returns obsessively to words like "clean" and "pure." While the company sells cleanliness, it also sells both itself and the nation a fantasy of life in which all waste can be converted to productivity:
For a while after incorporation, business remained business. And for some time, despite its newly granted privileges, Clare remained just a company. The American vat as yet lacked one essential precursor, one secret additive that would corner the market for incorporation. Time and Clare required one more catalyst to render life's waste fat and solidify it, stainless and inexorable. (158)
Clare's expansion is bound up in its utopian fantasy of converting its own waste to profitable use value; each technological advance, designed to reclaim the increasingly carcinogenic leavings from the last, simply generates yet more dangerous waste to purify and transform. This tension drives the entire narrative, and finds its echo in the horrific effects of the drugs intended to heal Laura Bodey. Bound up in this simultaneously comic (in the generic, not humorous, sense) and tragic act of self-perpetuation is the corporation's status as a "legally created person," one that achieves "the immortality dreamed of by the poets and prophets" (180). The gentle irony here--apparently, the government can do what neither literature nor religion can--points, however, to the more serious question of corporate moral responsibility. While Powers doesn't overtly reference Frankenstein (at least, not to my recollection), most of the novel's characters want to blame somebody in the corporation for Laura's cancer--and it's hard to avoid the suggestion that, in inventing the corporation as a kind of super-person, the government has indulged in Victor Frankenstein's act of hubris. Nevertheless, the novel refuses to simply point accusing fingers: Clare's conduct mirrors the "American dream," and the company's transformations similarly mirror the changing nature of individual and communal identities in the United States. Moreover, the narrative--projected well into the future--concludes not by displacing the corporation, but invoking it; the very last word, as it happens, is "incorporate." The cycle of productive good and dangerous waste, Powers suggests, will continue.
Unlike Powers, Coe has a sense of humor,* albeit an especially nasty one; and unlike Powers, Coe offers little in the way of moral optimism. While Powers revels in the high seriousness (and apparent stodginess) of the history of business, Coe dwells in the world of pop culture: we have the Gothic, we have the detective novel, we have the romance (none too successful, I hasten to add), we have the spy thriller, and so on. The novel actually consists of multiple "texts," including Michael Owen's enraged and "factional" history of the Winshaws, Michael's own narrative, and the third-person limited account of the mass murders that mark the novel's climax. Above all these things, though, we have the cinema. Coe sets The Winshaw Legacy in something approximating a post-literary world. Both our narrator, Michael Owen, and one of the odious Winshaws find themselves obsessed with the "screen," to the extent that neither can function with other human beings; Michael, too obsessed with the slightly gory comedy he saw part of as a child, can barely register the presence of his eventual love interest, while Thomas Winshaw prefers sexual voyeurism to the real thing. When Michael finally finds himself "inside" his film, the outcome proves as fleeting as the cinematic image. Moreover, the novel represents the publishing world as essentially corrupt, with ghostwritten texts going to the highest bidder, and finds Machiavellian politics squelching any attempt to make a popular medium like TV into something more intellectually challenging. While we are meant to sympathize with Michael's collapse as a novelist, which has led him to take the job of writing up the Winshaws for a vanity publisher, he himself is part of the problem: he sees book reviewing as a chance to score personal points and happily manipulates a former editor with the rhetoric of high art.
Indeed, this is a novel singularly lacking in sympathetic characters--although a suspiciously Holmesian detective, an oversexed gay nonagenerian named Findlay Onyx (!), is rather charming. The Winshaws are a thoroughly repulsive bunch, only too happy to betray personal and national allegiances--whether collaborating with the Germans in WWII or dealing arms with Iraq in the 80s--for the sake of making a few pounds sterling. (After one Winshaw's wife dies in an automobile accident, we're told that "Mark was devastated by the loss. The car was a 1962 Morgan Plus 8 Drop Head Coupe in midnight blue, one of about three or four left in the world, and it would be impossible to replace" ). The few "good" characters who pop up here and there are all steam-rollered by either the Winshaws in person or simply the inhuman world that they represent. In Coe's post-Thatcherite world, those who want to do good find themselves stymied by mismanaged bureaucracy. When Michael's girlfriend Fiona finally dies, for example, the primary blame goes not to the desperately overworked physicians but to the labyrinthine structure of the NHS itself. What's missing from Coe's vision of England, then, is a sense of futurity; in this world of amoral capitalism run amok, "society" vanishes--Mrs. Thatcher haunts this novel--to be replaced by a kind of warped, frustrated individualism. The Winshaw's "legacy," in other words, is one of ongoing moral and psychological impoverishment. Where Gain posits that Clare Soap & Chemical represents an ongoing historical dynamic in American culture, The Winshaw Legacy ends in a savagely ironic apocalypse lifted, with exquisite bathos, from Agatha Christie. The only hope for England lies in eradicating the Winshaws, but it's not clear what, exactly, might come after them.
*--Yes, yes, Powers may have a terrific sense of humor in his personal life, but his novels don't exactly provoke roars of laughter.