“The country of perpetual surprise. The naked brain. The basic riddle, on the verge of being solved.”
In his ninth novel, “The Echo Maker,” author Richard Powers explores both science and philosophy’s most penetrating attempts to unravel this riddle.
Powers weaves the searches for scientific
truth and knowledge of the self together in a gripping account of a psychotic delusion and the many lives it affects and alters.
On the surface, “The Echo Maker” is a simple mystery with a rather surprising
climax; a deeper reading, however, poses essential questions about the meaning of life and identity in our contemporary,
Mark Schluter is a blue-collar, twenty-something Nebraskan with an affinity for the finer things in life: video games, cars and hair metal.
Surrounded by his vulgar but contemplative
pals from the meat packing facility at which he works, Mark lives somewhat innocuously, neither helping nor hurting anyone very much – including himself.
After his truck careens off a usually deserted stretch of highway, a cryptic note and a rare brain disorder turns Mark’s life into a mystery the likes of which his friends and family can shed no light on.
Mark suffers from Capgras Syndrome, the delusion that the people closest to him have been replaced by imposters.
Frustrated almost to the point of break, Mark’s sister Karin enlists the aid of Dr. Gerald Weber, an Oliver Sacks-esque author of “pop science” neurological studies, and her conservationist ex-boyfriend Daniel Riegel, once Mark’s closest childhood friend.
With the help of a mysterious caregiver with a hidden agenda of her own, the trio attempts to draw Mark slowly out of his delusion.
As his disorder progresses down unforeseen
paths, however, they are all forced to question their own motives and the tenuous
foundations upon which their carefully constructed identities rest.
Set against one of the most impressive
remaining natural spectacles in North America, the annual migration of sandhill and whooping cranes along the Platte River, “The Echo Maker” questions the societal assumptions that separate us from the “lower” animals.
Incorporating the latest in evolutionary theory, Powers waxes poetic: “The whole race suffered from Capgras,” he writes. “Those birds danced like our next of kin, looked like our next of kin, called and willed and parented and taught and navigated all just like our blood relations.
Half their parts were still ours. Yet humans waved them off: imposters.”
The humans in Richard Powers’s “The Echo Maker” see in the cranes something more constant and lasting than their self-constructed identities. Mark, writes the decidedly anti-technology, pro-nature Powers, “stops recognizing his sister because some part of him has stopped recognizing himself.”
Urging us toward introspection – at times poetically, at others didactically – “The Echo Maker” is a powerful plea for us all to reexamine and recognize ourselves in everything that surrounds us, and to draw from that recognition an identity far sturdier than the flimsy houses-of-cards concocted by mankind.
Peter Chomko can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.