Book review: The Echo Maker

I began reading The Echo Maker: A Novel, the latest novel by Richard Powers, with high hopes, but overall it was a disappointment. Powers is an intelligent writer of ambitious novels that link science and the humanities; I enjoyed Galatea 2.2: A Novel, a moving story of artificial intelligence. His Goldbug Variations is probably his best-known work, and although that has been recommended highly by friends I could never get further than a couple of chapters into it.

The subject matter of The Echo Makers is full of relevance for thinking-meat types: it tells the story of a young man who suffers from Capgras syndrome after a brain injury. Capgras sufferers believe that a relative or close friend has been replaced with a physically identical imposter. (It might happen as the result of some kind of disconnect between the amygdala and other brain circuits; the brain recognizes the physical appearance of the person, but the emotional resonance that gives the person his or her identity as a spouse or sibling or child is missing, and so the Capgras patient concludes that he or she must be a stand-in for the real thing.) In the case of the man in the book, Mark Schluter, it is his sister and his dog that he can’t recognize.

To explain his situation to himself, Mark devises a story about how his hometown and the people close to him have been either replaced with doubles or co-opted in the service of some shadowy government plot. Mark and his sister are the children of a dysfunctional pair of parents (both dead) and Karin in particular struggles to escape the past but winds up getting sucked back into old familiar destructive patterns of behavior. Partway through the novel she calls on a neuroscientist, Gerald Weber, who writes popular books (a la Oliver Sacks) to see if he can help her brother. The book is set in Nebraska, and the stories of the humans are intertwined with those of the cranes who visit the area every year as part of their migration.

The theme of identity is well developed throughout the book, in particular the idea that it’s much more fragile than we usually imagine. I think it was in Timothy Ferris’s The Mind’s Sky that I first ran across the idea that our brains process information and come to decisions to some degree outside of conscious awareness, and our sense of who we are is basically a story developed by the conscious mind to explain our perceptions of reality and the results of our subconscious processing of it. Basically the “I” is a figurehead, moved around by powers behind the throne but usually not aware of this fact. Powers plays with this idea and other facets of identity, illustrating through his characters how we integrate our sense of our own identity and that of others over time, how we struggle sometimes to overcome or improve upon our sense of who we are, and how we cobble together our stories of ourselves as best we can. (As I read, I was reminded of a couple of lines from Galatea 2.2: “You make what you think might be a vase for the blooms you are carrying. You tell the stories you need to tell to keep the story tellable.”) Elements of the story also deal with how we incorporate unexpected disclosures about others into our mental image of who they are.

So the book covers themes that I love to explore, and Powers’s style is often beautiful. However, it’s also sometimes maddeningly elliptical, and sometimes ponderous and heavy-handed. He complicates his story with a mystery about what happened on the night of the accident that resulted in Mark’s brain injury, and I found the mystery to be more of an irritant or a distraction than an enhancement. The book seemed to me to drag in the middle, with some of the inner musing of the characters slowing down the story rather than being incorporated into it, and the revelations at the end don’t carry as much of a punch as they could. In fact the whole thing was surprisingly unengaging emotionally, although I can’t quite put my finger on why. Partly it’s that I didn’t like or couldn’t empathize with some of the main characters. It was frustrating to watch Karin sabotage herself despite her good intentions, and Weber’s midlife crisis felt hollow and unreal to me. I think Powers did a decent job of depicting Weber’s marriage, itself a living thing with an identity made up to some degree of memory, habit, and jokes and phrases shared only by him and his wife. The trouble was that I didn’t like either of them all that well. I did feel a great deal of sympathy for Mark Schluter as he tried to make sense of the new world he found himself in after the accident, but other than that I found myself wanting to shake most of the other characters at one time or another.

I guess I’m glad I read the book, out of curiosity if nothing else, but I can’t say I recommend it. If you want a good, lyrically written thinking meat novel, try Galatea 2.2: A Novel instead.