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…
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