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Capgras syndrome: a neurological disorder that causes the sufferer to believe that a beloved person or object has been replaced by an identical double. In this case, Mark thinks that his sister and his dog have been replaced by doubles.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.


Polsby Iggleworth said...

Interesting take. I liked this novel more than you did. Take a look at William Deresiewicz's review at the nation. He shares your skepticism:

Mille Feuille said...

I sympathize with Deresiewicz's underlying position, but I do wonder what motivates him to be so sweeping and sharp in his criticisms. I don't think that it is Powers himself, but some larger ax. It is true, I think, that Powers's ambitions exceed his performance, and that his ideas get in the way of his stories. That said, he engages with some very human concerns...maybe just not exactly in the way one might prefer.