Book Review

"The Echo Maker" by Richard Powers

Mindy L. Withrow
Richard Powers
Wednesday, May 2nd 2007
May/Jun 2007

For six weeks every spring, masses of Grus canadensis, Sandhill Cranes-known to Native Americans as "echo makers" because their calls carry for miles-migrate to the Platte River in Nebraska. Calling to their mates, they soar in on six-foot wingspans and settle like an endless carpet over the marsh. Against this ecological backdrop plays the drama of Richard Powers' ninth novel, The Echo Maker, winner of the 2006 National Book Award for fiction.

Five months after 9/11, Karin Schluter returns to her hometown to care for her brother who has suffered brain injury after flipping his truck on a dark, endless stretch of road near the crane-covered flats. Mark doesn't remember the accident or the witness who leaves a mysterious note in his hospital room. He does remember his sister-but he insists that the woman who claims to be Karin is an imposter. She looks like Karin, talks like Karin, has Karin's memories, but she just doesn't seem like Karin to him. The doctors diagnose Mark with Capgrass, a rare misidentification syndrome in which a patient doubles those closest to him. Desperate for any therapy that will give her back her brother, Karin calls in Dr. Weber, an international expert in cognitive neurology.

As the cranes find their way back to the Platte every spring following "a crane map inside a crane's head," so Mark searches for the electrical landmarks in his brain to lead the way back to present reality. Karin, too, seeks a truer version of herself in light of her brother's devastation. Confused and angry, disoriented by her return from self-imposed exile to her roots, she takes up with not one but two former lovers, starts smoking again, and changes careers. And the famous Dr. Weber confronts a crisis of his own as he studies the rare Nebraska case. After twelve years of fame granted by his bestselling patient case studies, his work becomes the target of younger scholars and journalists. Under their scrutiny, he begins to see himself as they label him, a sensationalist exploiting for profit the most unusual forms of human suffering.

Among other criteria, it is probably fair to say that the National Book Foundation selected this novel for both literary innovation and engagement with controversial issues such as the emerging field of neurotheology.

Powers' literary technique is certainly distinctive. The sense of place is powerful; the Nebraska plains and the Platte River are essential personalities in the telling of this story. He employs meticulous research-about both cranes and brains-and the neurological jargon is thick but mostly accessible. He deserves praise for his artful capturing of Mark's cognitive re-development, from the intense flashes of image and sensation immediately after the accident to his incomplete verbal and emotional recovery. Like the startling reverberations of a crane honking in flight, Powers' verbalization is striking: sometimes for its beauty ("the morning was glorious, one of those crystalline, dry, blue, fall days when the temperature hovers right at anticipation" [291]) and sometimes for its bizarreness ("in profile, his face framed by shoulder-length sandy hair, he looked even more like an elfin archer escaped from a marathon dice-dungeon crawl" [89]).

Powers doesn't skip a nitty-gritty of characterization, be it the profanity-spouting meatpacker pimping out his Dodge Ram or the graying, muesli-eating yuppie who refuses to use caller ID but compulsively checks his Amazon sales statistics. It is an arduous 450 pages, especially heading into the intersection of these complex characters. But as the story gains momentum, the immersion pays off as we come to understand that the whole lives of these characters-their childhoods, towns, belief structures, relationships-are imposters, echoes of what they should be. They have lost their way; and this is where the existential themes enter the novel.

Karin becomes involved with a group of conservationists fighting to protect the wetlands from developers. As the shallow river is slowly drained away, the half million cranes that return every year are forced into a smaller and smaller stretch of water-making it a more fantastic spectacle for the "crane peepers" who fly into Nebraska with their field glasses, but also creating overcrowding conditions that result in a decreasing crane population. Paralleling the severe changes in the crane habitat are the changes to the human habitat in the days after 9/11. The devastation at Ground Zero, anthrax in the mailbox, National Guard recruiters at the diner: America bracing for the war on terror. In the Midwestern rehab facility, Mark's and Karin's personal landscapes have changed just as suddenly and irreversibly.

The center of the novel is the conservation of dying species-cranes and humans, two streams of the same evolutionary tributary. Cranes are "souls that once were human and might be again," according to the various mythologies Powers invokes. In his wild groping for explanations, Mark even wonders if the surgeons replaced part of his brain with that of a crane. It's a fair question for Dr. Weber, whose life work is the exploration of that vast correlation between brain and mind, what he describes as "unsponsored, impossible, near-omnipotent, and infinitely fragile" (364). Who knows what existential knowledge lies tucked away in the as-yet inaccessible reaches of the mind? We might as well ask the crane to explain our shared origins and purpose.

"What would the race do, with full knowledge?" asks one of the characters. The implied answer is that they would stop killing themselves, killing each other, killing their mammalian and reptilian siblings. Powers vividly isolates the echo, but misidentifies the origin. The ruined race of humanity does seek the primeval reason for being. Deep in the recesses of their souls sounds the ancient echo of their maker, the vestige of their first parents' brief, intimate fellowship with the one who formed them from the elements of their habitat.

But the predominant worldview of the book is the irrelevance-if-existence of that being Dr. Weber refers to as "Tour Director." In fact, our notion of God is just one more neurological element yet to be isolated: "a God part of the brain," "religious visions from some kind of epilepsy storm," a "God module…selected for its survival value" (417-18). Once medicine learns how to turn off the God gene, we will be closer to attaining true self-realization. We just have to survive ourselves long enough to get there.

Humans make frail deities. So why do they persist in such delusions? Powers asserts that misidentification occurs in brain injury patients because "a single, solid fiction always beats the truth of our scattering" (164). A patient struggling to reassemble the disparate compartments of his damaged memory might find it easier to conclude that his sister is an imposter rather than override his feelings and accept the DNA. A species struggling to reassemble the disparate compartments of an existence damaged by the fall might find it easier to conclude that they are the center of the universe rather than accept the divine revelation that they were created for a far more glorious purpose.

The Echo Maker is skillfully constructed but emotionally unsatisfying. It is solid fiction that recognizes the truth of our scattering but dismisses the only therapy that can heal the human condition: intimacy with the Creator.

Wednesday, May 2nd 2007

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