Aug 31 2007

The Echo Maker

Published by at 10:41 am under Books

by Richard Powers

This is the first novel by Richard Powers that I’ve read in a year and I enjoyed it as I did his earlier books. In many ways it is similar to those other novels ( Galatea 2.2 , Gain, and The Gold Bug Variations). Like those three stories, it is set in the Midwest and encompasses a small group of people involved in a project or activity that is relatively small, local or particular. Many of the characters are intensely or obsessively involved in the central endeavor. One of Powers strengths is in portraying obsessive people pursuing a good, bad, or ambiguous cause.
The story line of Echo Maker is simple: a sister is called back to her small, Nebraska, home town after a very serious accident that nearly kills her only and younger brother. He eventually “recovers” except that his brain is messed up with the main symptom something that is (really) called Capgras Syndrome; basically, he fails to recognize his sister as his “real” sister. He knows she looks right, that she knows his history, etc. but without an emotional affirmation he thinks she’s a fake despite all the evidence of his senses.
The sister eventually involves a psychological researcher turned popularizing author from Long Island who becomes obsessed by the case and its implications on his writing and his life’s work. His interactions with the brother and others in the small town shakes his confidence in what he was doing with his psychology patients and brain research. The small town provides a cast of supporting characters including flocks of sandhill cranes (AKA “echo makers”) that temporarily stop near the town during their annual migration. The unravelling of what happened to cause the accident provides some mystery and helps move the story along.
To a significant extent, this book provides a novelization of the kind of mental oddities that can be caused by accidents or medical experiments which then provides a vehicle for speculation on the manner in which a brain holds a personality together amidst a wide variety of sensory data. An interesting topic and one of the books appeals to me. How does a brain create a person?
The sandhill cranes and economic development that will impinge on their stopping grounds provides an embedded ecological sub-tale as well.
All in all a fairly complex very well crafted story that pulled me along.

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