Richard Powers – The Echo Maker
I love fiction that engages both parts of my brain – the part that expects nothing more than the words on the page to create distinctive if not beautiful prose and the part that wants to be challenged, that wants to have to re-think something I thought I understood or at least had some idea of. I think that fiction, if it works, should accomplish these two tasks. In that sense, I want more than just well-written entertaining distraction. I want the questions. Along with the messy and improbable answers. I want flawed individuals and eccentric personalities, historical perspective and modern recklessness. I want understanding and fear, courage and abandon. I want humanity distilled and discovered. I want to find myself in the story and at the same time lose myself completely in something wholly beyond me.
Which is exactly what The Echo Maker does. The underlying story is deceptively simple: a man flips his car on a lonely stretch of highway one night and wakes up several weeks later, both physically and mentally broken. His sister copes with the burden of caring for him. A famous doctor comes to work with both of them. But this simple story hinges on the mentally broken aspect of Mark’s post-accident person. His body is the same, most of his memories intact but his very notion of self has undergone a radical transition.
The question underneath all of this – how do we know who we are – is profoundly difficult to get a grasp on. The very fact that our own self-awareness is superceded by the brain’s need to ensure the cohesiveness of that very awareness makes the awareness itself dubious.
To see the person closest to you in this world, and feel nothing. But that was the astonishment, nothing inside Mark felt changed. Mark still felt familiar; only the world had gone strange. He needed his delusions, in order to close that gap. The self’s whole end was self-continuation.
[…]The job of consciousness is to make sure that all of the distributed modules of the brain seem integrated. That we always seem familiar to ourselves.
The novel’s two other points of view parallel this idea as well: Karin, the sister, fighting against who she wants to be and the person she presents to others and Dr. Weber, a specialist called in to work on Mark’s exceptional case, struggling to determine his professional and human self-worth, his multi-layered appreciation of brain functioning and what it means to his specific truth. Powers uses these three individuals to explore, quite beautifully I might add, this intricate question of self-understanding and constructed reality.
In many ways the story reads like good detective fiction. There are several mysteries to solve regarding the night of the accident and other events in the past of each of the characters. Powers introduces a number of twists and turns to the otherwise straightforward and time-contained plot, twists and turns that eventually lead to a satisfying and surprising end. But where Powers really shines is in the humane dissection and presentation of his characters; these are fragile humans from the get-go who are made more fragile by one fantastic event. In Powers’ hands, they fall apart, lose themselves and lose each other but in that dissolution they somehow stumble upon something essential. Some tiny piece of understanding worth fighting for. And they fix on that breathtaking perception and find a way to hold on.
Finally, I can’t finish this without mentioning the cranes. Powers begins the book and centers much of its story on the spectacle of migrating Sandhill Cranes. Such a perfect image running parallel to his exploration of memory and consciousness – creatures with an inherent map, their lives and self-perpetuation wrapped up in something as simple, as complex as memory.
The nervous birds, tall as children, crowd together wing by wing on this stretch of river, one that they’ve learned to find by memory. They converge on the river at winter’s end as they have for eons, carpeting the wetlands. In this light, something saurian still clings to them: the oldest flying things on earth, one stutter-step away from pterodactyls. As darkness falls for real, it’s a beginner’s world again, the same evening as that day sixty million years ago when this migration began.
[…]As first light breaks, the fossils return to life, testing their legs, tasting the frozen air, leaping free, bills skyward and throats open. And then, as if the night took nothing, forgetting everything but this moment, the dawn sandhills start to dance. Dance as they have since before this river started.