Richard Powers - The Echo Maker
It is generally accepted that the person you were as a child or teenager is not the person you are as an adult. Setting aside the physical differences, fundamental aspects of self shift over the passing of time. Morals and beliefs are modified, perceptions alter, and positions that seemed untenable or false a decade ago become amenable as priorities change. What is not often questioned – and this is because a person perceives their self as a continuous unbroken line from start to finish, no matter the evidence to the contrary – is what occurs when the way in which a person interacts with the world becomes demonstrably false, undeniably wrong, and potentially dangerous. The Echo Maker, Richard Powers's ninth novel and winner of the 2006 National Book Award for Fiction, as much as it is a novel, and a very fine one at that, is also an exploration of just how tenuous the hold we have over our current conception of self really is.
Late one night on a lonely stretch of highway in Nebraska a truck overturns, trapping local resident Mark Schluter within the cab, fighting for his life. His sister, Karin, is notified of the accident and rushes to the hospital where he lies in a coma. Upon awakening it becomes clear he has been inflicted with a rare disease known as Capgras syndrome, which has the patient believing that a close relative is an impostor, some sort of fake sent to mess with their mind. Karin, Mark's only remaining family member, is suddenly a stranger to him. More confusing yet is the note left for him while he was in a coma –
I am No One
But Tonight on North Line Road
GOD led me to you
so You could Live
and bring back someone else.
The writing is 'spidery, ethereal: immigrant scrawl from a century ago', and nobody in the hospital knows how it got into his room. This note, along with Mark's increasingly bizarre disassociation from reality – he believes that first his sister, then his dog, his house, and finally the entire town, are false, copies inserted to control his life – provide narrative thrust, a commodity that has at times been lacking in Powers's earlier works. Not quite a whoddunit, The Echo Maker nonetheless embraces its detective-story influences as characters hunt and pursue clues to find out just what happened on that wintery night.
After reasoning fails to convince her brother that she is really his sister, Karin contacts the Oliver Sacks-ish New York doctor Gerald Weber, a cognitive neurologist who has spent the last decade writing popular novels that serve up anecdotal stories of the many diseases that can afflict the brain. His expert opinion boils down to an appropriation of Mark's affliction for a chapter in his next book; once the story has been received he is off, home again in time to read the growing number of reviews savaging his recently published third book. As his career crumbles Weber's thoughts return again to Mark, in whom he begins to see a chance for personal redemption. And then there is Barbara, the too helpful and too talented nurse, and let's not forget Mark's friends Duane and Rupp, who perhaps know more than they let on...
But the plot of the Echo Maker is merely its surface. Underneath this provocative skin lies a heady mixture of environmentalism, neurology, the problem of selfhood and the shattering dislocation of emotion that occurred throughout America following the September 11 attacks of 2001. The Echo Maker is a novel of ideas, pushing past the rigid boundaries of a medical mystery to enter territory that is as strange as it is fascinating.
Karin and Dr Weber form the novel's emotional and intellectual cores, respectively. Karin is one of those well-meaning people who allow everyone else to define them, which puts her in a difficult position when the most important person in her life suddenly refuses to recognise her. Karen simultaneously lashes out at those who would help her while clinging to them with suffocating strength as she finds herself increasingly out to sea, her own identity crashing into as many pieces as Mark's.
Weber is the helpful encyclopedia of strange but true facts, an intelligent, cultured, grandfatherly type who is always ready with an anecdote to rattle the public's belief that everything is how it seems. Such stories – later in the novel, Weber begins to think of himself as some sort of peddler of freaks and sideshow exhibits, a charge that stings more because it possesses a large portion of truth – are undeniably appealing, both because they tell us something about who we are, and reassure us about what we are not. Scenes exist as recollections of prior patients, from the woman who sees everything in stop motion to a man who is unable to develop any short term memories at all.
Powers is at his weakest when he attempts to create positive emotional relationships, and his strongest when observing small town Americana, or going on extended riffs about the mind, identity and creativity. Dr Weber's mid-life crisis, while important to the narrative, is weakly told, and Karin more often than not is a distasteful person to spend 600 pages with. Mark Schluter, for all that he is caught up in the paranoia and confusion of Capgras, is an astonishing character, simultaneously believable and extraordinary as he attempts to unravel the tangled knot of his life. The Echo Maker demands much from the reader while managing to deliver on almost every one of its many promises.
Other works by Richard Powers under review:
---The Gold Bug Variations
---The Time of Our Singing
List of American authors under review
Wikipedia - Author
Wikipedia - Novel
New York Times - Review (May require login)
The Boston Globe - Review
Wall Street Journal - Review
The New York Review of Books - Review