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In the Heart of the Heartland

But The Echo Maker may be read on yet another level: What is wrong with the “self” of America? Has the true America been taken away, has a fake America replaced it? Are the characters—and by extension the reader—situated in a sort of Stepford America? Are we “living in the age of mass hypnotism,” as Weber’s wife says of corporate America and its Enron-like smoke-and-mirrors economic shams? Is “America” now a phantom limb, like the ones discussed by Weber—long gone, but still hurting? What are the essential ingredients that give a place or a country its identity, and that make a person a true version of him- or herself?

4.

Here I would like to speculate about The Wizard of Oz and its possible connection with The Echo Maker.

This speculation does not come out of nowhere. Structuring a novel on the floor plan of another novel (or story, or work of art) is the kind of thing Richard Powers likes to do. (Consider, for instance, Prisoner’s Dilemma, built on a fantasy about Walt Disney, and The Gold Bug Variations—theme first, variations second. Musical structures interest Powers.) There are in fact some clues to Powers’s intentions sprinkled lightly onto the text: at one point, Weber’s wife Sylvie says, “Yo, Man—I’m home!… No place like it!” And five pages later, Weber reflects: “The utter estrangement of it: I’ve a feeling we’re not in New York anymore.” The originals of these snippets are well known: the first recalls Dorothy’s refrain in the land of Oz, the second echoes what she says to her little dog Toto to explain the strangeness of what they are both encountering.

The Wizard of Oz is usually billed as the first real American fairy tale. It’s one of those books that have endured because they say more than they know. It was written in 1900, at a time when the rise of feminism and the advent of Darwinism—hence those power-packed witches and winged monkeys—were troubling the sleep of many.

Dorothy, its little-girl heroine, is an orphan who lives with her gray, unsmiling Auntie Em and Uncle Henry in flat, flat, flat, gray Kansas. She is swept off to the land of Oz by a tornado, and when she gets there she meets three companions: a straw man with no brain, a tin man with no heart, and a lion with no courage. (Political pundits have a saying that a great leader needs three things: brains, heart, and guts, or its modern variant, balls. Churchill, for example, had all three. Now start doing your own sums: FDR surely had all three; Nixon had brains and guts, but not much heart. Reagan had a good facsimile of a heart, but not much of a brain. And so forth.)

The land of Oz, we are told, has a great wizard in it, and also some witches, good and bad. The four friends set off for the Emerald City of Oz to have their wishes fulfilled by the Wizard. The three male companions want their missing parts, and Dorothy wants to go home, because there’s no place like it.

When encountered, Oz the Great and Terrible does a pretty good imitation of God, manifesting himself as a ball of fire, a fierce beast, a lovely lady, and a giant head—all of these have biblical or theological precedents—and finally as a disembodied voice that announces, “I am everywhere.” But then he’s revealed as an imposter—he’s just a ventriloquist and sideshow performer from Omaha, Nebraska, who was blown over the deserts that encircle Oz in an off-course balloon. Even the color of the Emerald City is an illusion, produced by the green glasses everyone in it wears. So the Wizard has no real magic powers; but the witches do, and the Wizard has put on his God show to frighten them off.

Deficient males, powerful females, in a land of imitations, in the heart of the heartland of America. In the 1939 film version, the land of Oz—the land of Awes, surely—is inside Dorothy’s head. She has been knocked unconscious during the tornado, and has been dreaming. Oz, like the “country of surprise” in Dr. Weber’s book, is a land of brain episodes. The Kingdom of Oz—like Christ’s Kingdom of God, like Milton’s inner Paradise, and like Weber’s reality-as-we-experience-it and body-as-place-as-postcard—is within.

If The Wizard of Oz is the underlying sketch for The Echo Maker—if the former is the theme on which the latter builds its variations—then Mark’s sister Karin is an ironic Dorothy figure. She’s not “home” because she wants to be there—on the contrary, she tried very hard to get away from Kearney. Her difficulty is not that “there’s no place like home” in the old sense, but that there’s no place available to her that even remotely resembles the idea of home. “There’s no place like home” has taken on a modern, ominous meaning: there is, literally, no trustworthy home.

Mark would correspond to the scarecrow figure, the brain-deficient one; wispy-bearded, vegetarian Daniel (the non-lion in the lions’ den) is the one lacking in balls; and Robert Karsh, the developer, is the flashy tin man without a heart. (The winged monkeys—destructive or helpful, depending on the situation—may possibly be represented by Mark’s two primitive-minded video-gaming pals, fellow travelers to yet another realm of virtual reality.)

Dr. Weber is of course the wizard as fraud; he too comes and goes through the air, though he uses an airplane, not a balloon. Like the Wizard, he too finds an unsuspected strength hidden beneath his own fakery. Barbara—who seems to have magic powers of some kind—might be a blend of Glinda the Good and the Wicked Witch of the West.

What shared void brings Weber and Barbara together? What are they doing entwined on the ground with all those sandhill cranes around them, in that cold field, in the dead of night? Is Glinda the Good really Glinda the Bad? Why is kindly Barbie Doll so empty and depressed, and how did she get that way? Was it a surfeit of world news, or something more personal? Both, as it turns out, because in Powers’s novels the mini-story always connects with the bigger picture.

We’re not in Kansas anymore. We’re not even in Oz. We’re in Nebraska, the ruined heart of the heartland of America, and things are looking grim. As an answer to the hypothetical question “What has happened to America?,” The Echo Maker does not initially offer much solace. But it does at length offer some. There’s grace of a sort to be had, in the country of surprise. There’s forgiveness to be at least tried out. There are amends to be made.

5.

The amends to be made have, in the end, something to do with the cranes, because Powers has paid attention to Chekhov’s observation that if there’s a pistol on the table in the first act, it has to go off in the third. There are cranes on the first page of the book, and at the beginning of each of the next four sections, so we know that something will therefore—most likely—be made of these cranes at the end of the book. They are dependent on the wide Platte River, but it is shrinking, due to the water-guzzling depredations of men like Robert.

It’s always difficult to meld the world of nature and the human world in novels. Unless you introduce talking bunnies or their equivalent—tame beavers, perhaps—it’s hard to paper over the fact that nature’s wild denizens don’t really care about people very much unless they can eat them, or unless they’re being hunted by them. And people—including readers—care mostly about other people, just as termites care mostly about other termites. Such things as sandhill cranes may inspire awe, and wonder, and joy, and curiosity, and transcendent delight, but they don’t inspire fuzzy huggy feelings. Quite the opposite.

Powers doesn’t paper this part over. Instead he emphasizes it. “The outcome of owls will orchestrate the night,” he says, “millions of years after people work their own end. Nothing will miss us.” But the wild cranes in the heart of the heartland are threatened, because people do not recognize them for the essential spiritual lifeblood that they are. Mankind may do itself in, but it will do in a lot of other creatures first.

The book’s preoccupation with the destruction of Nature may seem very modern—trendy, even—but it is in fact a very old strain in American literature. James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Talesa series that was arguably the first major stab at using the novel as a method of exploring the American reality and psyche—began with the 1823 novel The Pioneers. In it, Natty Bumppo, the forest dweller and companion of Indians, is a ludicrous and victimized elderly man. Cooper took a lot from Walter Scott and the Waverleynovels, and the Pioneers version of Natty is the equivalent of the wild but droll, savage but noble, comic but tragic, dialect-speaking Highlanders in Scott’s novels. In subsequent Leatherstocking books Natty was to grow younger and younger as he receded further and further into the pristine, unspoiled wilderness of an earlier time. He was to accumulate a batch of more heroic-sounding titles—Pathfinder, Deerslayer, Hawkeye—as if Cooper wished he hadn’t initially stuck the poor man with such a boobyish name as “Bumppo.”

It’s in The Pioneers, however, that Natty takes his first, eloquent stand against the greed that is threatening to destroy the abundance of Nature. God made both man and the other creatures, Natty asserts. God allows man to kill and eat his other creatures—just as they kill and eat one another—but such killing and eating should be done only to satisfy hunger and supply immediate needs, and should be treated as a gift. The incoming settlers, however, are indulging in wholesale slaughter—killing not because they must, but because they can. They are grasping gluttons, intent on turning a profit. They have no respect for God’s creation, and the end of their wastefulness will be famine.

Cooper’s Natty was concerned with the obliteration of fish and game. The passenger pigeon had not yet been wiped from the face of the planet, so it did not occur to him that the same forces that were depleting the woods of deer might later deplete the world of entire species. Disgusted by the incursions of the mass killers and money-grubbers, Natty finally fades away into the wilderness, where he feels more at home. Daniel’s contemplation of the vanishing sandhill crane is not far in spirit from Natty Bumppo, and at the novel’s end he takes a similar course of action, moving farther north, farther away from the blight of Kearney and, by extension, of America. “Doesn’t want to be around, when we finally wreck the place,” as Mark puts it.

The cranes are most likely doomed by man; they’re living fossils, but so very possibly are we. Why then should people like Daniel devote their lives to saving them? Perhaps because birds have always represented the human soul, to our imaginations: the epigraph of The Echo Maker is “To find the soul it is necessary to lose it.” This isa book about lost souls, but it is also about souls that are found again. The lines of the creepy anonymous note that has so bedeviled Mark turn out to have a sort of truth to them: in order to find your own lost soul, you have to “bring back someone else.” The solution to Mark’s frightening doubled world may be found in the doctor’s bag of chemical gizmos but it also lies in another realm entirely.

That neuroscience would consider “the soul” to be just some brain-event illusion is beside the point: in its terms, everything is a brain-event illusion, including the body, so if we think we have “souls,” it’s the same as actually having them. The old self-help truism—you can change the world by the way you think about it—may be accurate after all. We must live as if the replica were the original—as if it were worth saving and improving—because there’s no other option available to us. As Mark is finally able to say, “Just as good…. I mean, us. You. Me. Here… Whatever you call all this. Just as good as the real thing.”

The Echo Maker is a grand novel—grand in its reach, grand in its themes, grand in its patterning. That it might sometimes stray over the line into the grandiose is perhaps unavoidable: Powers is not a painter of miniatures. Of the two extremes of American mannerist style, the minimalist or Shaker chair (Dickinson, Hemingway, Carver) and the maximalist or Gilded Age (Whitman, James, Jonathan Safran Foer), Powers inclines toward the latter. He gets his effects by repetition, by a Goldberg Variation–like elaboration of motifs, by cranking up the volume and pulling out all the stops.

It all adds up to one enormous oratorio-like brain episode. You stagger out of Powers’s novel happy to find yourself, like Scrooge the morning after, grasping your own bedpost, saying “There’s no place like home,” and hoping you still have a chance to set things right. As a slice of virtual reality, The Echo Maker is just as good as the real thing—or, as Mark Schluter says, “In some ways, even better.”

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