Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Review of The Echo Maker, by Richard Powers

[This is cobbled together rather shamelessly from my comments in the Wikifray book club.]

Grade: A-

On a deserted highway in Nebraska, without apparent cause, a young man overturns his truck and nearly ends his life. His very survival is almost miraculous, but he doesn't escape trauma. The centers of his brain that navigate familiarity and facial recognition, and he finds himself under a delusion in which he can not identify his closest relationships. His sister particularly, who gives up the independent life she has worked for, he sees as an imposter. Powers spends the pages of this novel exploring how this condition is symptomatic of all our relationships, the many ways the brain forever creates the illusion of self and of the selves of others.

The text of this novel is presented unreliably through the two siblings, and to help show off all the homework he has done, Powers elevates a cognitive scientist to real character status. Doctor Weber is drawn to help the boy, Mark, and finds his famous life entwined with the handful of unremarkable midwesterners. Weber becomes a valuable tool for presenting background research and (perhaps a little too often) standing in as the author's own voice. Centered around Weber are a lot of self-conscious novelist's quips about presenting science as anecdote, the ethics of creating character, and that sort of thing. Given that Powers is so strongly given to circuitous musings on the mind and the environment, he does a good job of keeping it fresh, and an impressive job of keeping the mysteries of the story alive through the course of the novel. The tension between Mark and his sisister is surprisingly effective at sustainging the drama (I couldn't put the book down), and it helps that the writing is excellent, moving easily between humor (sitcom-like barbs, but smart) and deep existential dread. Powers certainly taps a nerve in asking how we know we're who we think we are.

Adding the knowedgable doctor to the cast is one of several of the author's indulgences, but Weber is a good vehicle to develop most of the books themes. Powers takes a lot of effort to point out that there's a continuum of conditions between psychological and physiological trauma (the character argues about this a lot), and also a continuum of experience between defective and healthy brains. All of the characters occupy some intermdiate position in the mental health universe (the existential universe too), with only the injured Mark obviously so.

Plot-wise, the novel catches itself up in the local water politics of suburban Nebraska. The novel takes place at a point on the Platte river where migrating cranes gather, all the more dramatically for the human encroachment. He establishes a good sense of place, getting deeply into the emptiness of the prairie and the ways it can infect character. I found his effort to establish a sense of historical place more troubled. Dropping 9/11 on anything is unearned pathos, and Powers didn't really do anything with it.

The author plays the migrating birds for all they're worth (Mark and his sister even share physical attributes with them) and finally, towards the end of the book, he pushes teh ecological significance of them together with his ideas on cognition. I found the conclusion of the novel satisfying, but the marriage of environmental and mental themes seemed to be a little forced. In all, I found glitches like these easier to endure than the indulgences, but both were minor prices for admission into a deeply clever and enjoyable read.

[You can also find a discussion of The Echo Maker here.]

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LentenStuffe said...

This review is why I admire and respect you.

Keifus said...

What do I even say? Thanks.

viagra online said...

Wow that's a nice freak story haha
I read once a book about a guy who kill nine people and he had nine personnalities but that was freak, anyway the guy of this accident did he had another kind of desease ?
thanks for sharing.

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