The Echo Maker

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1708

More deftly than any other notable contemporary author not writing science fiction, Richard Powers has managed to inject erudition from a variety of intellectual disciplines, including molecular genetics, theoretical physics, computer science, and musicology into the texture of his fictions. In his ninth book, The Echo Maker , Powers appropriates...

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More deftly than any other notable contemporary author not writing science fiction, Richard Powers has managed to inject erudition from a variety of intellectual disciplines, including molecular genetics, theoretical physics, computer science, and musicology into the texture of his fictions. In his ninth book, The Echo Maker, Powers appropriates concepts from both ecology and cognitive neuroscience to create an ambitious novel of ideas, one centrally concerned with the very nature of thought and the identity of the thinker.

The story begins late one night on a dark, empty road outside Kearney, Nebraska. The date is February 20, 2002, which rendered numerically as 02/20/02 raises the possibility of some esoteric agency or significance behind the mishap that occurs. A red Dodge Ram truck overturns, pinning its driver and only passenger, Mark Schluter, a twenty-seven-year-old repair technician at a meat-packing plant. After being pulled from the wreckage, Mark remains in a coma for weeks. His sister, Karin, rushes to his side, giving up her job in Sioux City to assist in Mark’s recovery. However, when her brother regains consciousness, he insists that although she looks and talks like Karin, the woman hovering over his hospital bed is not in fact his sister but a charlatan pretending to be Karin.

The effect on Karin, who already is distraught over the drift of her life, is devastating. Growing up with a father who was a ne’er-do-well and a mother who was a religious fanatic, she had in effect served as her younger brother’s guardian, and his failure now to recognize her compounds her identity crisis. In desperation, she sends a letter to Gerald Weber, a cognitive scientist who seems modeled on neurologist cum author Oliver Sacks and whose best-selling books about bizarre cases of personality disorder have made him into an international celebrity. Intrigued by Mark’s symptoms, Weber, a charismatic professor at Stony Brook on Long Island, New York, flies to Nebraska to examine the patient and perhaps add him to the roster of neurological curiosities he has written about in books titled Wider than the Sky and The Three-Pound Infinity. He diagnoses Mark’s conviction that those closest to him are impostors as a manifestation of Capgras’ syndrome. “In Capgras,” Weber explains to his wife, Sylvie, “the person believes their loved ones have been swapped with lifelike robots, doubles, or aliens. They properly identify everyone else. The loved one’s face elicits memory, but no feeling. Lack of emotional ratification overrides the rational assembly of memory.” Indeed, as Mark’s physical health improves enough for him to go home, the Capgras symptoms spread; Mark comes to believe that his beloved dog Blackie, his buddies Tom Rupp and Duane Cain, and even the entire population of the town in which he lives have all been replaced by counterfeits.

The Echo Maker is a mystery novel in which mysteries planted in the plot point to larger enigmas about the frailty and impermanence of personal identity, the factitiousness of memory, the tenuous bonds between mind and body, and the interconnectedness of all living things. Immediately after the near-fatal accident, when Karin visits her comatose brother in the hospital, she finds an unsigned note beside his bed:

I am No Onebut Tonight on North Line RoadGOD led me to youso You could Liveand bring back someone else.

When he regains consciousness and mobility, Mark becomes obsessed with finding out who wrote the note and what exactly it means. He discovers three sets of tire tracks at the desolate scene of his crack-up, and he starts to suspect that someone was trying to kill him the night that his truck swerved off the roador was he trying to kill himself? If for no other reason, the reader will keep turning the pages of Powers’s book in the hope of finding out exactly who or what caused the wreck and why.

An area along the Platte just outside Kearney is the site of an astonishing natural phenomenon that occurs twice a year. For a few weeks, about half a million sand cranes gather there during their annual migration north and south. Each of the five sections of The Echo Maker begins with a description of and a meditation on the spectacle of these extraordinary birds, whose habitat is shrinking. The novel even derives its title from a passage recounting ancient myths about a primal language that enabled all species, including cranes and Homo sapiens, to communicate. “When animals and people all spoke the same language, crane calls said exactly what they meant,” readers are told. “Now we live in unclear echoes.” This is a novel composed of and about unclear echoes. Several of the characters struggle to fathom the eerie cry of the cranes, even as the reader attempts to understand what those magnificent, imperiled birds have to do with Mark Schluter’s misfortunes.

One connecting thread might be Daniel Riegel, a zealous defender of the sand cranes against human encroachments on their natural environment. He fights to preserve the fragile Buffalo County Crane Refuge, which has been harmed by dams built along the Platte and which could even be destroyed by a commercial consortium’s new plan to develop adjacent acreage. Until they had a falling-out fifteen years before, Daniel was Mark’s best friend, and he now shares his house and his bed with Karin. Daniel gets Karin a job working with him to save the crane refuge, even as she secretly renews her relationship with Robert Karsh, a wealthy developer who schemes to endanger it. Torn between the developer and the environmentalist, Karin is ever more uncertain of exactly who she is while the reader is teased by conflicting hypotheses that might make sense of the entire novel. Does the fact that Mark’s truck wreck occurred beside the sand cranes on a plot of land that Karsh intends to build on help resolve the mystery of what happened on a rural Nebraska road on 02/20/02? Does it help explain the note?

The novel’s plot does not so much thicken as dilate through the three trips that Gerald Weber makes from his home on Long Island to the land of the sand cranes. Intent at first with diagnosing not treating the Capgras specimen he finds lying in a hospital bed in Kearney, the famous author begins to doubt both the value and the virtue of what he does. “I’m not an exploiter,” Weber tells his wife, “Not an opportunist.” However, increasingly mortified by the thought that he has built his brilliant career on the odd maladies of people he studies and then abandons, he doth protest too much: He knows he is a parasite, feeding off the afflictions of others.

One factor that keeps drawing Weber back to Nebraska is his recognition that writing about a man’s suffering is not sufficient to fulfill his obligations as a fellow human being: “Responsibility has no limits. The case histories you appropriate are yours.” Moreover, when his latest book, The Country of Surprise, is universally panned, reviewers attack him personally as a scientific humbug who merely panders to prurient popular fascination with human freaks. Interrogated at a scholarly conference and on television, he feels humiliated, as if the entire basis of his being has come undone.

As he takes increasing interest in Barbara Gillespie, the enigmatic nurse’s aide who is extraordinarily attentive toward her patient Mark Schluter, the identity that Weber has painstakingly constructed for himself collapses. He can no longer sustain the illusion of sage scientific luminary. “What did he know about anyone?” he asks himself, convinced that knowledge, especially self-knowledge, is based on self>delusion. Weber, Mark, and Karin, among several of the characters in The Echo Maker, experience a disintegration of personality. A student of cerebral structure and function as well as their disorders, Weber is keenly aware of how tenuous the links are connecting different regions of the brain. He marvels at the intricacies of cognition and the complexity of the coordination necessary to produce the coherent pattern that qualifies as consciousness. A decision about whether drugs or behavioral therapy will best help Mark recover raises vexing questions about the ties between mind and body. The self, Weber realizes, is a fiction, the product of an elaborate act of integration that belies its fragmented neurological basis. He broods on the fact that “We were not one, continuous indivisible whole, but instead, hundreds of separate subsystems, with changes in any one sufficient to disperse the provisional confederation into unrecognizable new countries.” That dispersion into “unrecognizable new countries” is the mechanism behind the case studies in neurological disorder that have established Weber’s reputation. It is also a description of what happens to the star scientist himself.

Moreover, it is also a description of the historical context in which Powers has placed his characters. The terrorist attacks of the year before echo in the background of The Echo Maker, a post-9/11 novel that suggests global fragmentation as an analogue to the splintering of personal identity experienced by its principal characters. Conversations occasionally make reference to the buildup to war in Iraq, and Mark’s old drinking companion, Tom Rupp, shows up on his doorstep in a National Guard uniform, prepared to be shipped out for combat duty in the Middle East.

Novelists, like other artists, aspire to create concordia discors, a unity of disparate, even conflicting, elements. In The Echo Maker, Powers assembles such a wide array of materialsMark Schluter’s quest to understand why he found himself in a hospital bed, Gerald Weber’s struggle to sustain his identity as a world-renowned scientist, Daniel Riegel’s crusade to save the sand cranes, Barbara Gillespie’s enigmatic presence in Nebraskathat the work sometimes seems on the verge of splintering into separate novels. “Consciousness works by telling a story, one that is whole, continuous, and stable,” Weber contends, “When that story breaks, consciousness rewrites it.” With The Echo Maker, Powers is not merely telling the story of a man whose identity is shattered when a physical trauma to the head severs the connection between the amygdala and the inferotemporal cortex; the very form of his novel echoes the processes of consciousness in composing and revising the self and the world.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 61

Artforum 13 (September-November, 2006): 9.

Booklist 102, no. 22 (August 1, 2006): 43.

Entertainment Weekly, no. 900 (October 6, 2006): 77.

Library Journal 131, no. 12 (July 1, 2006): 70-71.

Los Angeles Times, October 1, 2006, p. R12.

The Nation 283, no. 11 (October 9, 2006): 25-28.

The New York Review of Books 53, no. 20 (December 21, 2006): 58-60.

The New York Times Book Review 156 (October 22, 2006): 22-23.

Publishers Weekly 253, no. 27 (July 10, 2006): 48.

The Wall Street Journal 248, no. 83 (October 7, 2006): P13.

The Washington Post Book World, October 8, 2006, p. T06.

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