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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?

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.”

  1. *

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

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