Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Echo Maker


I think I only picked up Richard Powers'
The Echo Maker because it was a National Book Award winner, sort of like my hero, the two time winner, William Gaddis. If they picked Powers, he couldn't be that bad, could he? Well, it took me a couple months, but I finally finished this work, so let's take a look.

Mark gets into a car accident, suffers severe head trauma, and begins believing that his sister, Karen, has been replaced by a very close, but imperfect duplicate. This belief is known as Capgas syndrome, a real disease. Karen calls in a leading neurologist who's now more famous for his lite-science books, Gerald Weber (sort of based on Oliver Sacks). At the core of this novel is the town in which Mark and Karen live, where every year, hundred of thousands of cranes come to mate, thus creating a tourist attraction, and a conflict between those who would preserve the cranes' mating spot and those who would capitalize on it. Representing those two views are Karen's current lover Daniel and Robert Karsh, her former flame, respectively. While Karen struggles to keep her and Mark's life afloat, a mysterious note left for Mark leads him on a quest to discover the circumstances of his accident.

This novel relies heavily on the themes of identity and doubling and the idea of the self. More than once, people in this novel question their own identity in the face of neurological damage, denial, or outside perspective. Is the self just a sum of other people's views? Is the self something innate, or can it be changed irrevocably thanks to blunt head trauma? It seems Powers' ultimate conclusion is that the self is an amorphous ever-fluid aether, forever shifting. Mark perceives his sister as being an imposter, and he compares the fake sister to the real sister constantly, but those perceptions of the real sister are confused and disjointed, not really reflecting reality. The fake sister is more
real than the real sister. Karen becomes confused and questions her identity: is she who she thinks she is, or who Mark thinks she is?

But at the same time, there's a constant return to the ground, whether or not the self has been changed, at some point, we all go back to instincts. Every year, without fail, the cranes return to mate, return to their habitat, even if that habitat has been changed irrevocably. Karen tries to escape the small town and the ghosts of her religious zealot parents, but returns to the nest. Even Weber, a man with a happy and healthy marriage, turns away from his monogamy for a new mysterious mate.

The characters in this novel tend to make poor decisions, but it becomes null and void in that everything goes back to the ground. Even if Mark questions his sister's identity, he ultimately settles and accepts the new reality, as the human brain is programmed to do. The fake sister becomes a part of reality, whether or not the sister's "self" is the real self.

This is a complicated novel about identity and self and science and faith and human nature. All the grand themes of literature are investigated with Powers' lilting and playful prose. I was thrown by how science-y the novel is, giving unobtrusive lessons on neurology and psychology, in detail, but Powers balances that with his skill as a wordsmith. He's no Nabokov, but he's not Dan Brown either.

The character of Weber was confusing and irritating for the most part. The decisions he makes are idiotic and his motivations are sufficiently explained for me to accept his ultimate destiny. On the other hand, nothing captivated me more than Karen's struggle with her brother and with her sense of self. Her story was easily the most fascinating and relevant to the overall themes.

Powers accomplishes a very subtle slow burn on The Echo Maker. It created for me a slower pace that felt like repetition for two thirds of the novel, but as I reached the end, I understood that Powers was very slowly eroding the characters and their lives - eroding their sense of self, as opposed to the plot eroding their personal lives. While they tried to pick up the pieces and "fix" the problems, their issues and conflicts became deeper and more existential. It was very well done, kind of like Chief's reintegration of self in reverse.

I really liked this novel, but I'm not sure if I loved it. The climax and explanation of the mysterious note left me cold, and the ending to a couple of the characters' stories were simply frustrating. Otherwise, this was a fine novel worthy of standing beside Gaddis, Updike and Cheever. Recommended.

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