Reflections: The Echo Maker

Richard Powers brings his audience another idea novel in The Echo Maker (2006). This "neuro-novel" plumbs the depths of a small handful of characters, seemingly to prove the point that all sense of self derives from the human brain's tendency to create a continuous and logical narrative about who we are and what we are doing in the world. In other words, Powers frets, biochemical impulses are all that give us what we prize most: our sense of unique identity.

Mark Schluter suffers a serious head trauma in a late night accident on a country road. The result is, among other things, Capgras syndrome: a neurological disorder that causes the sufferer to believe that a beloved person or object has been replaced by an identical double. In this case, Mark thinks that his sister and his dog have been replaced by doubles. Once he believes this to be so (due to a simple misfiring in the brain's recognition processes), his mind must construct a narrative to explain why this would be so; clearly he has become part of a government conspiracy that has made it needful for him to be removed from his normal surroundings.

Karin, devastated by being unrecognized and unthanked for her relentless care of Mark as he recovers, sets out to find an expert who can cure him. Enter Gerald Weber, a crypto-Oliver Sacks. Mark's recovery comes for Weber a kind of rehabilitation; he realizes at the sunset of his career that he has been taking advantage of the patients whose stories he has been using to build his recognition as a famous neuro-psychologist. Seeking redemption, he does something he seems not to have done in the past: he finds a solution.

Mark, Karin, and their hometown compatriots present a not inaccurate portrait of rural America, from the  knee-jerk patriotism to the close connection to the land to the charming and odd autodidacticism particular to the culture. Had Powers stuck with this cast he would have presented a richer representation of his sotry. Gerald Weber's psychic breakdown and its predictable attachment to sex with a younger woman banalizes the common but shocking experience that everyone feels when recognizing that our sense of identity is nothing but a story we tell ourselves to put one foot in front of the other from day to day. Despite its interesting topic and an artfully drawn community, The Echo Maker is too ambitious for its own good and comes off as pretentious rather than powerful.

Reflections: Gentlemen of the Road

Michael Chabon knows narrative. He knows male/male friendship bonds. He knows modern American Jewish culture. In Gentlemen of the Road he brings them all together...again. As in The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Chabon has mixed together his essential ingredients to come up with a new and exciting recipe for the reader's delectation.

Gentlemen keeps its eyes upon two highwaymen of the Sherwood Forest type. Zelikman and Amram wander the roads of medieval Asia, doing what it takes to make ends meet. Like other mythical highwaymen (and comic book characters) these two are ennobled by conscience. Furthermore, they are pleasantly infallible with the use of blades and axes, horses and hats. Along the road, performing their usual con routine, they stumble into the possession/company of a royal and fiery youth, in exile due to a coup d'etat that has left the teen friendless and hunted, but not without inner resources. Their sense of justice leads them, on something other than the straight and narrow path, to champion the royal cause.


Reflections: White Noise

Don Delillo's White Noise (1985) is, for all of its post-modern pretensions, a domestic novel. It begins with a father, satisfied in his career, watching benignly as other families--more kempt and wealthy than his own, yet familiar and appealing to him--descend onto his territory, the campus on the Hill. The story, such as it is, expresses the turmoils of its adult main characters, Jack and Babette, through their attachment to their peculiar and yet shockingly real children. Even when the end takes a turn for the violent, and Jack finds himself standing in front of a man he has just shot, the overall genre doesn't change. Jack's humanity neutralizes his jealousy, and turns the moment from hard boiled to Hallmark. Then, Jack's stubborn and dangerous plan is replicated in miniature when his youngest child sets out, stubbornly, on a dangerous mission of his own. The child, like Jack, escapes relatively unharmed, and is in fine form for their next joint trip to the purveyor of American domestic life: the supermarket. Its reorganization induces more trauma than Jack's brief stint as a would-be murderer. From start to finish, White Noise celebrates the modern nuclear family unit, in all of its messiness.

 Amidst the hubbub of family, White Noise satirizes the American schizophrenia towards chemicals: in a hanging cloud, they are the cause of death. In small white, well-engineered pills, they are the solution to, if not death, at least man's fear of it. None of the characters except Jack's colleague, Murray, can really grasp that death is a natural phenomenon, as is man's fear of it. Unfortunately, the satire exists more in tone than content, thus putting Delillo at risk of the same criticisms as Jack, who invented Hitler Studies by, it seems, gaining weight and wearing sunglasses. Delillo's insights seem as Jack's: questionable in authority as he doesn't really speak the language.

While an interesting and entertaining read, rendered almost necessary by the long-standing cultural importance of Don Delillo, the novel wears on one. Simply put: it tries too hard. Like its characters, it mistakes surface for substance.


Reflections: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Dai Sijie's novella Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress holds out the promise latent in all acclaimed and slender works of fiction. There is an excitement specific to contemporary medium length fiction, which causes hopes of spare, elegant, and often experimental prose to dance in one's head. Form aside, here is a romantic story of love and friendship in the midst of an important historical moment.

Luo and his peer Ma, our narrator, bear the perceived sins of their professional parents and so are sent to a rural town to participate in communal labor and be "reeducated" in the agrarian ideal so dear to Mao's heart. They suffer the physical dangers and annoyances of the primitive society in which they sojourn, forced to carry human and animal waste on their backs to fertilize the fields, to work naked in locally run coal mines, and to brave the risks of malarial air. They are saved from complete depression by the tokens of urban culture they are able to retain: Ma's violin, an alarm clock, and a hunger for a good story. Then, they meet the little seamstress, and, with the help of a stock of banned books, become the purveyors of their own reeducation program, focusing their youthful energy on changing a beautiful mountain girl into their educated female ideal.

Although built around the interesting question of what happens when fully indoctrinated children of the Cultural Revolution first ingest western ideas devoid of their social context, Balzac fails to involve the reader in the sudden self-realization of the three young protagonists. The problem seems to lie in a wavering of purpose: is the goal to detail the experiences of the generation of Chinese coming of age in Mao's rural re-education program, or to define the effect that foreign literature can have on fecund minds regardless of material and historical context? Is this a love story or a story about trench friendships arising in difficult circumstances? It is in some respect all of these, but in the most important respect, none.


Reflections: Come Together, Fall Apart

Cristina Henriquez has been hailed as a writer to watch. Her 2006 collection of short fiction Come Together, Fall Apart brings to life both the Panama that existed on the eve of Noriega's capture and that which exists today.

What follows refers only to the novella "Come Together, Fall Apart" within the collection of the same name.

The reader of  "Come Together, Fall Apart" experiences the months leading up to the US invasion of Panama through the journal of young Ramon. This adolescent falls in love for the first time while his family and country disintegrate around him. Appropriate to the age of the narrator, the emphasis on, and importance of, political and personal events seems out of balance; Ramon's uncertain steps into the arena of romance and petty theft naturally weigh more heavily on his mind than the change of home forced on his family or than the casualties taking place on the streets around him as car bombs detonate and random acts of violence occur.

For all of "Come Together, Fall Apart"'s inherent interest as a record of a historical moment, its real power lies in the description of a singular nuclear family and its misapprehension by those who see it, however intimately, from the outside. Ramon's mother and father are each originals in the best sense of the word, and they are held together by a bond that remains understated but unmistakable. The father exudes a gentleness and moral character that shape Ramon into the simultaneously tentative and commanding voice of the narrative. The mother's superstitious--almost mystical-- relationship to the world haunts the reader as she shies from the stresses of daily life under pressure of the invasion, but then finds the strength to make a quick, irrevocable and wrenching decision when demanded of her.

This fiction exudes none of the artful concision and focus that one expects from short fiction. It draws out unnecessary detail and imposes no order upon its tale. And yet, it is a story both creative and poignant.


Reflections: Death Comes for the Archbishop

Few novels manage to maintain the meditative rhythm throughout that Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop does. Bishop Jean Latour and his longtime companion and spiritual helpmeet Father Joseph Vaillant traverse the New Mexican territory in the wake of the Mexican war (1848) and, eventually, the Gadsden Purchase (1853). Latour and  Vaillant commit their lives to serving a long neglected Catholic flock, dispersed as it is across hundreds of miles of desert.

Although we know from the beginning that death will come for the archbishop, this knowledge only provokes us to see more clearly how the potentially mortal harshness of the conditions that the inhabitants of the desert face give rise to a specific kind of life force. Each section of the book focuses on a different brand of spiritual purity, and each lingers over the amazing natural beauty in which it thrives. We see: the loyalty of an Indian guide who will put at risk a tribal secret to save the life of Latour in the midst of a snow storm; the devotion of an old slave who takes advantage of being ousted from a warm house in the clear night of a bitter cold snap to worship at the altar of Mary; the struggle the holy man daily faces between his religious duties and his personal affections made easy under the cleansing solitude produced by desert sand storms; and the power that the light of a sunset cast on the stone of a cathedral can have to revive the spirits of a dying man.

Underneath the reflections on purity, fervor, commitment, and man's place in nature hums a slender but satisfying tale of the sustaining friendship between two men who have left behind their families and country in order to fulfill a mission in which they believe.


Reflections: The Grandissimes

In the years 1803 and 1804, Louisiana confronted a crisis of identity when its western portion, including New Orleans, became part of the United States through the Louisiana Purchase. In the months and years following the purchase, the region's citizens and slaves confronted a challenge to their social arrangements, rights, beliefs and traditions. A single question was on everyone's mind: could an act of political exchange between nations change their loyalties and make them into Americans? This is the moment which George Washington Cable describes in his romantic, well-paced novel, The Grandissimes (1880).

This novel focuses on New Orleans largely through the perspective of an outsider in a place that abhors the alien. Frowenfeld, a bookish German-American, emigrates with his family to Louisiana. Almost immediately, they are all struck down by the fever, and he must make his way alone. While for most the fact that he isn't local make him a symbol of the encroaching Yankee, others recognize him as a source for insight into a social system in crisis. He becomes a kind of translator among the powerful people in each strata of the city's world. As he takes his first steps in establishing himself in this new land, he befriends the powerful Honore de Grandissime, the scion of the oldest and wealthiest local family who bears on his shoulders the responsibility for protecting and managing a hoard of stubborn but helpless relatives. For Honore and others, Frowenfeld acts as a conscience, questioning and undermining the assumption that tradition trumps morality with regards to money and racial equality. Over time, Frowenfeld's advice will lead Honore into partnership with his older quadroon half-brother, also named Honore de Grandissime. This partnership severs the younger Honore from parts of his family, and yet at the same time, it weakens the beliefs upholding the region's racialized oppression.

It may seem questionable to attribute a lightness of touch to a novel that dares to use the literary device of having two men with the same name. And yet, the fact that Cable does just this and turns it from a cheap gimmick to a simple matter of fact in his represented world speaks to what makes him an important figure in American literature: he has a literary instinct more refined than his nineteenth-century counterparts. His art touches each step of plotting and description, allowing him to describe a world riddled with moral complexities and regional oddities without privileging his message over his story. It is perhaps for this reason that although The Grandissimes gives significantly more attention to the history and experiences of plantation slaves, it is the later work of Twain that has become the classic text for analyzing the race relations in antebellum America.