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Betsey Van Horn
Echoed in my dreams
This is my fourth Richard Powers book in as many weeks. When the Austin paper reviewed The Echo Maker prior to its release, I was intrigued and drawn to this author with an immediate urgency to read him. First I read the beautiful and opera-like The Time of our Singing and followed with the tender Galatea 2.2, two very different stories that demonstrate Powers' narrative alacrity. Now add to that The Gold Bug Variations, a monumental love story combining genetics and music, and then The Echo Maker.
Read the first few pages of the book. If you are not hooked, then this is not your type of literature. I was so swept up by his magnificently poetic description of the sandhill crane migration on the Platte River in Nebraska that I was compelled to study more about these birds on my own. The cranes are both a reflection of the story's concern of species preservation and are also allegorical, metaphorical. Powers' generous mind and renaissance intelligence weaves the story of the crane migration into issues of neuroscience and neuro-cognition as it soars into the mystery thriller plot of the story.
This is a Pulitzer-worthy novel, perhaps too intelligent for what passes as Pulitzer these days. It is easily one of the best contemporary novels I have ever read, along with his books The Gold Bug Variations, Galatea 2.2, and The Time of our Singing. Add to that Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace; Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy; One Hundred years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia-Marquez; The Counterlife, by Philip Roth; White Teeth, by Zadie Smith; Ada, or Ador, by Vladimir Nabokov; The Severed Head (or anything by this author), by Iris Murdoch; and Harlot's Ghost, by Norman Mailer.
I am so driven to tell others to read this beautiful story that although I cannot give the description it deserves, I must persuade readers to purchase it. It is a combination of naturalist concerns (the preservation of the cranes and the physical descriptions), neuro-science, dysfunctional family (with utter compassion and insight) and suspense thriller. Although there is an ethereal glow that swirls in every page, there is a definite, concrete and suspenseful plot. Powers has been compared to DeLillo; I agree only superficially. Both are linguistically erudite and have dense meaning packed between words and thoughts, but DeLillo is more elliptical and ambiguous, while Powers has concrete fasteners to keep the plot driven. Additionally, he has more heart, the heart of Marcel Proust. It would be difficult to make a film of any of DeLillo's books I've read, but Powers has an immediacy, a muscular story that would transfer well to cinema (where of course they could ruin it if they made it too linear).
The Editorial reviews reveal enough of the outline of the story; my intention is to tell readers just how profound is the experience of reading this novel. I was literally and literarily transported while reading and was engaged deeply by the third sentence. I am an RN that works in a neuro-psychiatric treatment center on an adolescent ward, so I usually avoid the subject matter in novels and look for different experiences; however, this story transcends the subject matter. Powers takes an aerial view of the life of an individual, the loneliness and solitude, while the characters strive to bridge the gap and explore the gap of connectedness. There is not one false note or sliver of self-consciousness in this exquisitely constructed story. Pathos without any treacly sentiment, startling science written poetically, and ancient rhythms humming all over. Powers has an amazing grasp of the utter incomprehensibility of time, and as in his previous novels, time is a major theme. I could read this story for the passages about time(and the cranes and the imagery) alone. However, there is a solid suspense mystery thriller, also, that keeps you on the edge even while you fall in love with the writing itself and go back and read passages just for its beauty.
Mark Schluter suffers a closed-head injury after his truck veers off the road. He is then the first diagnosed case of Capgras syndrome sustained from injury rather than psychiatric etiology. Powers uses Capgras syndrome (the neurological disorder causing inability to recognize those closest to him while perceiving others accurately) to explore philosophical issues of memory, human fragility, and the vague recognition of the human brain. He delves into consciousness, reciprocity, the two-way valve between the head and the heart of the self, and the division between the human and the natural world. Powers' theme is dualism--familiar vs defamiliarization, and how that echoes in our perceptions of self and our relationship with our family and our environment, both personal and ecological.
Mark feels exiled from his sister Karin, whom he no longer recognizes, and Karin in turn feels exiled from her brother, shattered at the way this disease symbolizes her separateness from her own self and the world around her.
Powers' explorations of neurology and ecology render a chilly warmth to the story. His heart pumps clearly throughout the pages, and he bridges the (DeLillo) authorial distance by making accessible the burning concerns of everyman. The coldness of Nebraska and his virtuosity in geological and geographical descriptions is heated by the eerie passion of the story, the tenderness of the characters and the haunting allegorical presence of the cranes.
This book has circulated through my dreams on several occasions; The Echo Maker certainly lives up to its title. Also, the characters are well drawn and sympathetic, and you care deeply about what happens to them. Interestingly, although the author's main protagonist in Galatea 2.2 was named Richard Powers, I felt him undulating enigmatically in this novel even more so than the former.
There is something so powerful and reverberating and epic about The Echo Maker that you want to embrace the author, who you feel breathing and bleeding and searing through the most spiritual parts of your being. It is utterly and unassailably elegant, peerless, sublime, soulful, exalting, eternal, and yet grounded and accessible, palpable and wet.