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Richard Powers: The Echo Maker

Mark Schluter is driving along a safe road in Nebraska, where there is normally very little traffic. He is a very good driver, not drunk and the road is not icy. Yet he somehow manages to overturn his truck and is almost killed. Some unknown person, who does not identify himself, phones the emergency services from a nearby petrol station. Mark is rushed to Kearney hospital where, despite the severity of the accident, his injuries appear to be serious but probably not life-threatening. However his head has suffered a nasty injury. His sister, Karin, hurries from her home at the other end of the state, to look after him. The injury turns out to be quite serious but he does regain consciousness and slowly but surely most, if not all, of his cognitive powers recover. To look after him and be with him, Karin has had to give up her job and her life, reluctantly returning, not for the first time, to her home town. However, as Mark gets better, he appears to have developed Capgras Syndrome. He thinks Karin is not his real sister but, rather, a fake, perhaps someone sent to spy on him.

Mark does recognise Karin and sees her as, more or less, the same as his sister but spots differences, both physical (e.g. her weight – she admits to having lost a few pounds) and in her behaviour (he maintains that his ‘real’ sister is an expert on car mechanics, which she is not). The parents of Mark and Karin are both dead, their mother having died the previous year. Both parents were somewhat strange. Their father was obsessed with conspiracy theories, maintaining that the moon landing was filmed in Hollywood and that the nine-figure zip code was a way for the federal government to spy on people. Their mother had found religion and regularly had the house exorcised to get rid of the evil spirits in it. While both Mark and Karin had had relationships, they had never managed long-term stable ones nor had they ever really held great jobs, though recently Mark seemed to have settled down doing engineering maintenance at the local slaughterhouse, while Karin was working as a customer service representative. However, after the accident, Karin starts up a relationship with Daniel, an old friend of Mark, who works at the local wildlife refuge, while Mark’s old girlfriend comes and helps him rehabilitate.

But Powers is particularly interested in the functioning of the brain and he gives us a lot of information on problems that can occur, particularly as a result of trauma. Much of this is done through Gerald Weber. Weber is a cognitive neurologist, possibly based on Gerald Edelman but perhaps also with a touch of Oliver Sacks. Karin writes to him when there seems to be no improvement in Mark’s Capgras Syndrome and he comes and speaks to Mark and examines him. Mark likes him though is somewhat sceptical of him but Karin is disappointed that he cannot effect a miracle cure. However, he will remain a presence throughout the novel, as we follow his own not always straightforward life as well as his interactions with Karin and Mark. There is also a plot, namely how did Mark’s accident occur? As well as the mysterious phone call, someone managed to get into the intensive care unit, when he was admitted, something the hospital staff claims is not possible, and leave a cryptic note, indicating that that person had not only witnessed the accident but helped save Mark.

There is also a key background to the novel and one which Powers has touched on before, namely environmental issues. The location of the novel is the the key migrating area for sandhill cranes. Daniel and, later, Karin work for the Refuge and they are very much concerned with development of the area and, in particular, overexploitation of the water in the river, which will have a devastating effect on the cranes. Powers even shows that many birds are not, in fact, as one of the characters puts it, bird-brains but often more intelligent than we imagine. However, the whole issue of water exploitation, a key issue in the West of the United States, is raised by Powers.

This is Powers back to top form It is a superb novel about the complexities of the brain and how we do not (and possibly cannot) understand what is going on in our brains but how our brains try, not always successfully, to compensate for our failure to understand our own cognitive processes and the very strange world we face every day. Margaret Atwood famously compared this novel to The Wizard Oz and her theory is a certainly a valid and interesting one but there is no doubt that the book stands very much in its own right, whatever it may be based on, and helps confirm that Richard Powers is one of the foremost novelists writing in the United States today.

Publishing history

First published 2006 by Farrar Straus & Giroux