Powers takes extraordinary, elegiac voyage off the edge of the world

Review Novel

November 12, 2006|By Victoria A. Brownworth | Victoria A. Brownworth,Special to the Sun

The Echo Maker

Richard Powers

Farrar, Straus and Giroux / 451 pages / $25

The vagaries of memory and the complications of the brain's inner workings are at the heart of MacArthur fellow Richard Powers' latest novel, itself a National Book Award finalist.

The Echo Maker traverses typical Powers territory: Science meets reality meets the ethereal, all obvious from the dreamy opening line: "Cranes keep landing as night falls."

This book is yet another marvelous journey into the realm that Powers has made his own - self-revelation, self-awareness, self-exploration - and it's a magical, stylish and compelling trip.

If you drive through Nebraska, particularly at night, it can seem as if the earth is indeed flat and that you might actually drive off the end of the earth if you keep going. There is an otherworldly beauty about this part of the country and its landscape.

It is into this remote and barren wedge of rural America, along the Platte River, that Powers drives his protagonist/antagonist, 27-year-old Mark Schluter. Schluter works in a meat-processing plant, and his life can best be described as dead-end. Schluter drives down that end of the flat-earth roadway one winter night, and his truck flips over. He is nearly killed, put into a coma after a severe head injury.

Schluter's older sister, Karin, who has long ago fled this part of the world and all the inequities and iniquities that come with it, returns home - hardly willingly - to take care of Mark while he recovers.

There is a brain disorder called "face blindness" in which a person can see, but not recognize, the faces of those around him/her. In all other ways the person is "normal," except for this one defect, which is like color blindness - except that it deranges the person's life. Imagine coming home to your spouse and children every night, but not recognizing them. They could be anyone - not your loved ones at all. And imagine what it would be like to go unrecognized by the person you love most.

When Mark comes out of his coma, after having been cared for with diligence and even servitude by his sister, he does not recognize her. Or rather, he disbelieves she is his sister.

It's not as simple as thinking that Karin is someone else. He knows she looks and acts and speaks just like his sister. But he believes her to be someone else - a duplicate, an identical twin to his "real" sister, but an impostor, a fraud, a spy.

As a result of his injury, Mark is suffering from Capgras syndrome, in which the sufferer has "doubling delusions."

Karin consults with a renowned expert in brain dysfunction, a neurologist whose sub-specialty is cognition. Gerald Weber is a sort of Oliver Sacks-style scientist/writer. Much like Sacks, Weber has long been fascinated by the bizarre routes the brain can take to serve itself, a la The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. His interest in Mark's rare disorder suggests a level of prurient voyeurism. And more, because Weber has fallen from grace for his psycho-pop books, which has unsettled his life and his marriage.

On this downward course, Weber questions his own worth, much as Karin has been jettisoned into similar questioning by Mark's refusal to acknowledge her and much as Mark has ended up wondering who he is through his accident and its aftermath. (Mark has only a piece of paper left by his bedside the night of his accident as a clue to who he was and how he could jackknife off a road that was perfectly straight and flat.) It is here in the novel that the most satisfying aspects of Powers' exegesis on self-knowledge come in. The Echo Maker is not just a book about a triangulated trio of people who don't fit where they thought they did, even, as is true of Mark, as "loser."

Powers never presents a story in a vacuum. Nebraska might feel like the end of the earth in the more unnerving scenes in The Echo Maker, but it is the American heartland and this novel takes place in the post-Sept. 11, postwar (Afghanistan)/ pre-war (Iraq) world of the winter of 2002 and spring of 2003: We had lost something, but not yet as much as we have lost since. Powers makes no easy parallels; he's never one to say this is that; rather he delves deeply into the realm of memory - collective and individual - and its mysteries.

(One cannot help but wonder, after reading this extraordinary, elegiac novel on who we are, if Powers had in mind the 60 percent of Iraq war injured who have suffered brain injuries from which they will never fully recover.)

Powers raises questions in The Echo Maker about a myriad of things - knowledge of self is huge (the first section of the book is titled "I Am No One," which was also the mantra chanted backwards by the demon-possessed Regan in The Exorcist; when we are deprived of our essence, soul, we are no one). So, too, is how others see us - Karin and Weber both suffer from this lack of comprehension by others.

The complexities of The Echo Maker are like filaments of stars in the night sky - they sparkle through the dark terrain that Powers presents here. The backdrop of this mysterious tale of memory and identity is the bird migration that occurs each spring, a natural wonder, by the Platte River. Like everything else in this graceful, keening, thoroughly engaging book, those scenes are stunning and evocative of the continuity of spirit, in the earth and in ourselves.

Victoria A. Brownworth is the author and editor of more than 20 books, and her work appears in numerous anthologies. She teaches writing and film at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

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