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Sep192009

2006

The Echo Maker

By Richard Powers

 

Original Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Current Publisher
: Picador (Macmillan)

Harold Augenbraum writes:

After a night of drinking, a man rolls his pick-up truck into a field where thousands of sandhill cranes have stopped in Nebraska on their migration. Cranes are fascinating creatures, Powers tells us. They populate mythologies; they become mnemonic. From this gathering of cranes emerges the altered pick-up driver. He is no longer who he was. He has severe brain injuries, and when he wakes up in the hospital, first he shows evidence of echolalia (a sort of doppelzunger), and later he thinks everyone close to him has been replaced by an identical imposter, including his sister and his dog (a measure of doppelgängers): He has Capgras syndrome.

He has what? Capgras syndrome, identified by Joseph Capgras in 1923. And this precipitates not only one but two family dramas, and a questioning of not only of how the mind works but what effect do changes in any natural environment have on the individual and that individual’s place in the human ecology. The book’s readers believe Karin is his sister, but the protagonist Mark does not. He thinks that for some reason “an actress” has been brought in to play his sister. And even a dog that resembles his own has been found to visit him at the rehab facility. And we as readers believe he is Mark’s dog even though Mark does not. They bring in the neuroscientist Weber, who resembles Oliver Sacks—at least to me, but that would make him a sort of imposter (or he may be related in some way to Ernst Weber, the psychophysicist). As much as he tries to help Mark, he ends up damaging his own marriage. He tries to decipher the case and ends up recognizing (and I use that word advisedly) his own alienation from his wife back east. I mean, this is a man who, when he writes case studies, in order to protect the patient’s identity, makes up names for them. So they become imposters in their own cases. And then he develops a fascination for Mark’s rehab aide, so he becomes an imposter in his previous life. And then you remember that none of these people are real, so they are all imposters, puppets, with Richard Powers the grand puppenmeister convincing you of their reality.

Add to all of this that in interviews Richard Powers has said that he wrote the book using a voice-recognition program because he believes that the computer keyboard distances the writer from the words themselves. How far from the computer microphone did he stand? Fascinating.

Harold Augenbraum is Executive Director of the National Book Foundation, an editor and translator.

Rebecca Keith writes:

The flat land of the Great Plains, flat land of a blank mind, hills of a mind replaced with an altered mind, each face meaning something different than it once did. Guilt of not caring, not knowing how to care for someone who once knew the map of your face before sketching an entirely new landscape on it, devoid of blood, flesh, shared DNA. This is where Richard Powers takes us in The Echo Maker, swooping down crane wing and dust bowl, bowl of skull crushed in a motor vehicle accident.

Twenty-seven year old Mark Schulter barely survives his truck flipping on an icy Nebraska highway. When his sister, Karin, returns home to care for him, he wakes from his coma and at first mimics sounds shared with him: echolalia. He doubles, creates words without meaning, words that are only sound. At last notions climb out of his throat. Belching, birthing words. Baby wolf spiders, scattering off the back of their mother sound. Every curved line in the world is saying. Branches tapping the glass. Tracks in the snow.” Soon, able to form sentences again, to question how he wound up in the hospital, to question at all, he subtracts the one thing that is certain— the strongest link to his past— his sister. Mark insists she is an imposternot Karin, but an actress playing Karin. This is Capgras syndrome, and it is this lack, this great mistake of the brain, that drives the whole book, set against the backdrop of the sandhill cranes’ migration pattern.

Each year the cranes return to Nebraska to breed on the banks of the Platte River, knowing where they are from. Powers writes, “This year’s flight has always been. Something in the birds retraces a route laid down centuries before their parents showed it to them.” Mark does everything, involuntarily, to erase the route between he and his sister, even as the two of them return to the scene of his accident time and again, looking at the tire tracks left by his truck, or maybe another set, the directions of speed on asphalt unclear, black against black. What do we remember? What makes a memory and what do we make up, smoothing out the craters we’d prefer not to stumble into? How do we know who to trust, how to trust, when we don’t even know who wrote the words on a page, a note left on Mark’s hospital nightstand?

Mark’s body returns to him piecemeal— “His parts come back to him, so slowly he can’t know. He lies in the shrinking bed, taking stock… Makes a list of himself, like old rebuilt machines.” But his mind is an imposter of itself. He can’t read the people who care for him— Karin, the nurse’s aide, Barbara Gillespie, or Dr. Weber, a neurologist to whom Karin writes at the suggestion of her lover, Daniel. After tearing through Weber’s books, Karin is “in Daniel’s debt again. On top of everything else, he had given her this thread of possibility. And she, once again, had given him nothing. But Daniel, as ever, seemed to need nothing but the chance to give. Of all the alien, damaged brain states this writing doctor described, none was as strange as care.” Mark is reluctant to accept care from anyone besides the angelic Barbara Gillespie, a seemingly selfless public servant. Powers explores many motivations for care through his characters. Mark, clouded as his brain is by Capgras, is right to be suspicious. Karin is propelled by blood, guilt, obligation, and habit, albeit a genuine love beneath her resentment of her brother’s recklessness. Dr. Weber is driven to succeed, excel in his field through research with Mark. He tells Barbara, “I didn’t come out here to help the man. Not originally. Simple narcissism, to think I could help him in the first place.”

When Weber returns home from Nebraska, he confesses a near-infidelity to his wife, Sylvie. She asks him how serious it is, and he thinks, “How serious could it be? Three days versus thirty years. A total cipher versus a woman he knew like breathing.” He says, “I don’t want it to mean anything at all,” like Mark’s indecipherable post-coma chatter, something to erase with a new season and not return to, a problem he will leave to its mysteries without further research. He tells Sylvie that the woman he was drawn to is “a totally unreadable story” but that she, his wife, has all his history. He thinks of Sylvie as “still heartbreakingly herself,” while he begins to act like a double in the mirror who she can pass but can’t touch. Powers writes, “All that unbearable care would crush him.” Mark eventually begins to care from himself as best he can, digs at the tracks he left on the highway, digs through the history he shares with the people caring for him, and that which he doesn’t know he shares. Powers does a beautiful job with these characters, as we see each of them navigate through their self-preoccupations, their histories (shared and not) and where their own needs intersect with others.

Rebecca Keith is Program Manager at the National Book Foundation. Her poetry is forthcoming in the 2009 edition of Best New Poets, edited by Kim Addonizio, a 2001 National Book Award Finalist in Poetry.

 

ISBN: 9780312426439

Fiction Finalists that Year:

  • Mark Z. Danielewski for Only Revolutions
  • Ken Kalfus for A Disorder Peculiar to the Country
  • Dana Spiotta for Eat the Document
  • Jess Walter for The Zero

Fiction Judges that Year:

Bharati Mukherjee, Jonathan Lethem, Craig Nova, David Plante, Marianne Wiggins

The Year in Literature:

  • March by Geraldine Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
  • Orhan Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

More Information:

  • After earning his MA in literature from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Richard Powers took a job in Boston as a computer programmer. But an encounter with the 1914 photograph “Young Farmers” by August Sander at the Museum of Fine Arts inspired him to quit his job and spend the next two years writing his first novel, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance (1985).
  • The Echo Maker was Powers’ ninth novel, and in addition to winning the National Book Award in 2006, it was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2007.

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