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In the Heart of the Heartland

The Echo Maker

by Richard Powers
Farrar, Straus and Giroux,451 pp., $25.00

1.

The Echo Maker is Richard Powers’s ninth novel. His first, the acclaimed Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, came out in 1985. In the twenty-one years since then, Powers has been a volcano of activity, producing works as varied as Prisoner’s Dilemma, Galatea 2.2, The Gold Bug Variations, Plowing the Dark, Gain, and The Time of Our Singing. He’s been nominated three times for the National Book Critic’s Circle Award, and has received both of the “Genius” prizes—a MacArthur Fellowship and a Lannan Literary Award. As I am writing this, he has just been nominated for a National Book Award, for the very book I am now reviewing.

That sort of thing puts a critic on notice, and indeed Powers has gathered critical comments that most writers would kill their grannies for. “Powers is a writer of blistering intellect,” said the Los Angeles Times Book Review. “He only has to think of a subject and the paint curls off. He is a novelist of ideas and a novelist of witness, and in that respect he has few American peers.” There’s more in that vein, and more, and more.

So if he’s so good, why isn’t he better known? Let me put it another way—why haven’t his books won more medals? It’s as if juries have recognized the prodigious talent, the impressive achievement, and have put him onto short lists, but then have drawn back, as if they’ve suddenly felt that they might be giving an award to somebody not quite human—to Mr. Spock of Star Trek, for instance. He’s got a Vulcan mind-meld on the critics, all right, but could it be that he’s just not cozy enough at the core—that he’s too challenging, or daunting, or—dread word—too bleak?

On the other hand, there are books you read once and there are other books you read more than once because they are so flavorful, and then there are yet other books that you have to read more than once. Powers is in the third category: the second time through is necessary to pick up all the hidden treasure-hunt clues you might have missed on your first gallop through the plot. You do gallop, because Powers can plot. Of some books you don’t ask How will it all turn out? since that isn’t the point. It’s certainly part of the point with Powers. Only part, however.

If Powers were an American writer of the nineteenth century, which writer would he be? He’d probably be the Herman Melville of Moby-Dick. His picture is that big. Moby-Dick sank like a stone when it first came out: it had to wait almost a century before its true importance was recognized. Given Powers’s previous interest in devices like time capsules, I’d hazard that he has the long view in mind: open him up in a hundred years, and there, laid out before you in novel after novel, will be the preoccupations and obsessions and speech patterns and jokes and gruesome mistakes and eating habits and illusions and stupidities and loves and hates and guilts of his own time. All novels are time capsules, but Powers’s novels are larger and more inclusive time capsules than most.

I doubt that Richard Powers will have to wait a hundred years, however. American literature students will be into him with their picks and shovels before long. He’s the stuff of a thousand Ph.D. theses, or I’ll be the Wizard of Oz.

But more of the Wizard of Oz later.

2.

The Echo Maker is probably the best Powers novel so far. I say “probably,” because it’s not possible for Powers to write an uninteresting book, and after that it’s a matter of taste. Trying to describe it is a bit like four blind men trying to describe an elephant—which end do you start at, with something so large and multi-limbed?

Of his 2000 novel Plowing the Dark, Powers—when asked to sum up its subject—said, “It’s about a disillusioned woman artist conscripted to work on a virtual reality project, an American hostage held in solitary confinement in Lebanon for four years, and the empty white room where they meet. It’s about whether the imagination is powerful enough to save ourselves from its power.”* Disillusion, virtual reality, solitude, imagination, power—all keys to the world of Powers. Also typical is the way Powers jams wildly disparate elements together in a kind of atomic-bomb manner—what he wants is fission, then fusion, and a big bang at the end.

The wildly disparate elements in The Echo Maker are the endangered sandhill cranes—known to American Indians as “the echo makers” because of their sonorous calls—and their migratory stopover on the Platte River in flat, flat, flat Nebraska; and Mark Schluter, a sweet do-nuthin’ young man who’s had a spectacular skid-and-flip accident while driving at night through this same bird-haunted territory, and who’s incurred a brain trauma that’s given him a case of Capgras syndrome. This illness makes the sufferer think that his nearest and dearest have been spirited away and replaced with cunning facsimiles of themselves. Mark thus becomes a sort of echo maker. He thinks, for instance, that his house, “The HomeStar,” and his dog, Blacky, have been taken somewhere else, and that a fake HomeStar and a fake Blacky exist in their places, exact in every detail but fake nonetheless. (It’s hard on the dog.)

Add to this the three sets of tire tracks at the scene of the accident—who else was there, what made Mark brake and crash?—and a note on Mark’s hospital bedside table that no one will admit to having written, and that reads:

I am No One
but Tonight on North Line Road
GOD led me to you
so You could Live
and bring back someone else.

The five lines of this note provide the titles for the five sections of the book.

Everything and everyone else in the novel is tied to this set of factors. Karin Schluter, Mark’s loving sister and his only next-of-kin—their two child-walloping, religious-fanatic parents having died—arrives to take care of him and is promptly denounced by him as an imposter. Dr. Gerald Weber, an Oliver Sacks–like neuroscientist and famous author of popular brain-oddity books, is lured to Mark’s bedside by Karin in the desperate hope that he can work some sort of neuromancy and bring Mark back to her. There he encounters Barbara, a hospital aide who’s been attending to Mark. She is a stranger to the grungy town of Kearney, Nebraska, who appears to be working below her level of competence. She is the one person Mark unequivocally trusts, although he calls her “Barbie Doll,” thus adding her to the growing roster of replicas of other people.

Then there’s Mark’s chirpy girlfriend, Bonnie, whose day job is impersonating a pioneer woman, in pretend costume and all. “Nobody’s quite what they say they are,” Mark muses about Bonnie, “and he’s just supposed to laugh and play along.” Mark’s observation about Bonnie—about the disjunction between the front she presents and the hard-to-grasp reality behind it—is true on some level about everyone else in the novel.

As for the sandhill cranes, they’re the hub of another spiral nebula of plot. Both of Karin’s former boyfriends are connected with them. The ascetic Daniel, a boyhood friend of Mark’s, is a conservation worker dedicated to preserving the cranes’ traditional habitat. Robert Karsh is a sexy developer and con man who wants to exploit them by putting up an expensive facility for crane tourists—in reality, a covert land grab that will lead to the cranes’ destruction.

Karin has hauled her way up and out of Kearney by her fingernails, job by job, and has now been sucked back into its deadening orbit through no fault of her own, only to find that the love with which she hopes to save her brother from Capgras is ineffective. In despair, she teams up again with both men, cheating on the meek, worthy, but wet-blanket Daniel as she has in the past, disporting herself during illicit trysts with the charming but polygamous Richard, whose appeal is—or appears to be—that he offers no illusions. (Daniel has angered her by ogling a waitress, then denying it. “Love was not the antidote to Capgras,” she reflects. “Love was a form of it, making and denying others, at random.”) The reader cannot judge her too harshly for her two-timing, though she beats herself up about it: the poor girl is sorely in need of comfort, and it’s any dork in a storm.

Who left the mysterious note, which Mark views as both a curse and a set of instructions? Why has his life been saved, who is he supposed to “bring back”? Who was driving the other two cars, the ones that left those tire tracks? What white object—bird, ghost, human being—did Mark see that night on the road, causing him to swerve to avoid hitting it and thus total his truck? Will Mark ever get his true self back?

3.

On another level: What do we mean by “his true self?” Dr. Weber can (and does) provide some thinking on that subject—none of it very reassuring, because who wants to be reduced to a set of electrochemical connections in a lump of corrugated gray tissue? In the face of his bombardment of expertise, you do feel a little like Dr. Johnson, who claimed he could refute Berkeley’s arguments about the nonexistence of phenomena by kicking a stone. It doesn’t perk us up to be told, as a gloss on the phantom limb phenomenon, “Even the intact body was itself a phantom, rigged up by neurons as a ready scaffold. The body was the only home we had, and even it was more a postcard than a place.”

Even apart from his discouraging knowledge, Dr. Weber’s not much of a crutch, because he’s having a spot of trouble with his own true self, and especially with his made-up alter ego, “Famous Gerald,” the version of himself who shills his books. His latest opus, The Country of Surprise, is being pasted by reviewers. They’re accusing Weber of shallowness, of coldness toward his subjects, of invasion of privacy, and—worst of all—of outdated methodology; of being, in other words, a fraud. These accusations resonate with his dwindling sense of self-worth, and as a result he’s beginning to experience an identity meltdown, right there in the Kearney MotoRest, where everything seems like an imitation of itself—even the apples on the reception desk, “real or decoration, he couldn’t tell until he sank a fingernail into one.” In this mansion of facsimiles, even the sandhill cranes appear only as pictures on tourist brochures. No wonder he starts yearning for Barbara, the unfathomable health worker, as his rock-of-ages marriage turns to Jell-O in his mind.

What is solid, what is dependable, what is authentic? Is it love that makes things “real,” as in Margery Williams’s The Velveteen Rabbit: Or How Toys Become Real? Possibly, but only for the lover. And then, where does “love” come from? From the unreliable lump of crinkly gray goo inside our skulls? If not from there, where else?

  1. *

    Jeffrey Williams, “The Last Generalist: An Interview with Richard Powers,” available at clogic.eserver.org/2-2/williams.html.

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