Lovers and Strangers
THE ECHO MAKER
By Richard Powers
Farrar Straus Giroux. 451 pp. $25
Richard Powers's new novel -- a kind of neuro-cosmological adventure -- is an exhilarating narrative feat. The ease with which the author controls his frequently complex material is sometimes as thrilling to watch as the unfolding of the story itself. Yet it opens quietly enough, on the banks of the Platte River in Nebraska, where the cranes are preparing for their annual migration. Powers clearly has symbolic duties in mind for these birds (the "echo makers" of the title), evolutionary oddities from the center of America; and much of the first part of the book suggests we are in for a traditional novel of theme and character, complete with natural symbolism.
The central character, a 27-year-old meatpacker named Mark Schluter, is in a coma following a mysterious automobile accident. An amiable underachiever, he is devoted to his truck, and it seems inexplicable that he could have flipped it on a straight road when sober. While he is unconscious, an unseen visitor leaves a note by his bed. The note's contents suggest that whoever wrote it was at the scene of the accident -- presumably the person responsible for calling the emergency services and saving Mark's life.
Mark slowly recovers. All his faculties return to him, save one: He does not recognize his elder sister, Karin, who has always been devoted to him. It appears that Mark is the victim of Capgras Syndrome (a real complaint), in which patients refuse to believe that those closest to them are who they claim to be. Mark concedes that the woman who tends to him and takes him home is very like the real Karin and has done her homework on their family history, but he never believes she is really his sister.
Capgras is typically found only in psychiatric patients -- often schizophrenics -- so its development from a head injury raises unusual medical and philosophical questions. In her despair, Karin writes to a famous East Coast neurologist named Gerald Weber, and with his entrance the novel becomes richer. Weber, a sort of Oliver Sacks figure, has made a name by publishing essays about his patients. His curiosity is not unreasonably aroused by this case in a million: "Capgras from an accident," he muses, "a phenomenon that could crown or crash any theory of consciousness." Or, as he puts it to his wife, Sylvie: "It's the kind of neither-both case that could help arbitrate between two very different paradigms of mind."
As the narrative switches temporarily to Weber's point of view, we see Mark in a different light, but it's still a character-driven novel with the puzzle of human consciousness as its meaty theme. That would be enough for most readers, I imagine, but Powers has other ideas. At about the halfway stage, these themes become secondary to the story. What really happened to Mark that night? Who wrote that note? Will he ever recognize Karin again?
Around these three questions, Powers draws in a larger cast: Karin's nature-conservationist lover and her property-developer ex; Mark's two old buddies from the meatpacking plant and, most importantly, his care assistant, Barbara, who seems over-sophisticated for her job and appears disconcertingly familiar to more than one other character. This complicated story is masterfully controlled; the pace never slackens; the writing remains direct and clear.
While Mark attempts to reintegrate himself, Weber slides unwillingly the other way. An adverse critical and public reaction to his new book, coupled with a sense of failure in Mark's case, precipitates a frightening disintegration. He questions his life's work and, especially, its motivation; he even fails (in a neat parallel to Mark) to recognize the virtues of those closest to him. Weber's breakdown, apparently psychological in cause and effect, is nevertheless analyzed by him in neurological terms, and in a book of bravura switches of viewpoint, this is Powers's greatest coup.
By the end of the novel, the narrative stakes have been raised very high, yet on the three main questions, Powers delivers handsomely: Mysteries are resolved, answers satisfactorily given. For this concentration on plot, however, there remains a price to be paid in thematic richness. It is futile to complain that the riddle of human consciousness is not fully explained; Powers illuminates it as far as current science permits and dramatizes his findings with a novelist's concern for character. Yet the resolution of the Capgras issue, realistic though it is, does not pull its weight emotionally, and the end of the mystery-note story does not reverberate as much as it might.This certainly should not dim one's admiration for Powers's boldness. He is a formidable talent, and this is a lucid, fiercely entertaining novel -- which, incidentally, with the inevitable loss of intellectual richness, would make a terrific movie. ·
Sebastian Faulks's new novel is "Human Traces."