The Echo Maker - Richard Powers

Now residents had a cage still more gilded: cheap broadband. The Internet had hit Nebraska like liquor hitting a Stone Age tribe--the godsend every sandhills homesteader descendant had been waiting for, the only way to survive such vacancy. ... The Net: a last-ditch cure for prairie blindness.

This book is about so many different things that it's hard to know where to begin a review of it. What I knew about it before I started was this: Mark Schluter has a car accident on a winter road in Nebraska and is comatose, then gradually recovers. But when he's finally able to speak, he refuses to believe that his sister Karin is who she claims to be. He suffers from Capgras syndrome: the belief that people around us have been replaced by actors, or robots, or worse. Meanwhile, Karin finds Gerald Weber, an Oliver-Sacks-type neurologist, and convinces him to come see Mark. And, of course, by the end of the book everyone's life will have changed.

Well, it turns out The Echo Maker covers a great deal more than this basic plot outline. The title itself comes from a name given to sandhill cranes, and their annual migration and massive gatherings along the Platte River in Nebraska are the backdrop for the story. More than that; the cranes weave in and out of the story in unexpected ways, and Powers pulls together old legends about the cranes, explanations of their migrations, and the environmental damages that force them into less and less space each year.

Gerald Weber is a science populizer: his best-selling books have told the stories of countless patients in a multitude of mental states; he teaches the understanding that nobody is really crazy, or perhaps we're all a little bit crazy. But his latest book has been harshly criticized; he's accused of exploiting patients, using them to tell stories to sell books without really helping them. Halfway through the book, I wondered if Powers himself was doing the same thing intentionally, grabbing my attention by telling The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat-type tales. The stories, though, are also part of a larger idea about consciousness and what makes us who we are. It's something that all the major characters in the book struggle with at one point or another.

Powers also tantalizes us with the mystery of what really happened the night of Mark's accident. His best friends Tommy and Duane have something to do with it, but you don't know what. There's a mysterious note left in his room when Karin arrives, despite the fact that nobody has been allowed to see him yet. Karin's old flame, Daniel, takes her to see the accident site and notices other tire tracks but doesn't know what to make of them, either.

One of the things that makes this book so rich is the breadth of subject matter that Powers tackles in a single story. Like real life, there isn't some simple, clear-cut "what is this about?" explanation, but it encompasses a lot of different things. He paints a picture of the Midwest that is bleak but very accurate in some respects. Powers has a keen eye for observations on human behavior, from Weber's inability to use a cell phone to Mark playing video games with his friends to the strained conversations Karin has with Daniel. Unfortunately, sometimes I feel that too much is left unsaid, as if we should be just as observant, piecing together the full stories from bits of overheard dialogue.

The things that bothered me about the book, however, were the beginning and the ending. It took me a while to get into the story. I didn't see the point of the cranes, and the book dragged through sections told from Mark's muddled point of view as he struggled to return to consciousness. And then, towards the end, Weber's own crises and weird trains of thought threatened to derail the story. When you actually find out what happened that fateful night, it's almost an afterthought, so anticlimactic you almost miss it.

I'm glad I read it, but if you're planning to give it a try, just remember to be patient through the first act.

Fed to jonathan's brain | December 17, 2007 | Comments (0)


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