The Echo Maker

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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.

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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 entire section contains 1769 words.)

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