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Book Review - The Echo Maker by Richard Powers

Self Determination

The Echo Maker
by
Richard Powers

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review by W. R. Greer


The echo makers of this novel's title are the thousands upon thousands of cranes that migrate through central Nebraska every year. While the number of cranes that stop by the fields that surround the Platte River appear to grow in number every February and March, attracting throngs of tourists, the truth is that there are really fewer cranes. They're just concentrated into a smaller area due to loss of habitat. The other "echo maker" is the accident suffered by 27-year-old Mark Schluter, who flipped his truck while at traveling at high speed on a straight road in February, 2002. The accident reverberated through the lives of Mark and those closest to him, eventually affecting other lives as well.

Mark's sister, Karin, races to his side at the hospital. Mark is comatose for a while with a brain injury, while Karin struggles with the reality of the situation. As his only surviving kin, she has to approve all medical procedures, fill all out the paperwork, keep Mark's employers at the slaughterhouse informed and get him on disability, and worry obsessively about her own life. Karin has tried to reinvent herself several times, trying to build a life outside of the small city of Kearney, Nebraska, but events keep undoing her life and drawing her back to the home she'd rather not remember. Mark's accident forces her to give up a job she enjoyed in South Dakota to take care of him, but she feels as if she has no other choice.

While Mark lays comatose and Karin is out of his room, someone slips into the room unnoticed and leaves a note by Mark's bedside:

I am No One
but Tonight on North Line Road
GOD led me to you
so You could Live
and bring back someone else

Karin's unhappy situation is compounded when Mark emerges from his coma and doesn't recognize her as his sister. He admits she looks like his sister, but he insists she must be an actress or some sort of body double. Mark is suffering from Capgras syndrome, a neurological disorder that causes people to be unable to make the emotional recognition of those closest to them. Although he's sure Karin is not his real sister, he can't imagine why someone would make the switch and why his real sister hasn't called or appeared. Mark's best buddies, Rupp and Cain (they call themselves the Three Muskrateers), visit him from time to time. Karin dislikes them and suspects they have some role in Mark's accident, but Mark comes to life when they're around. The police are also interested, since there are multiple tire tracks where Mark's truck left the road, but nobody knows or saw anything.

Mark is eventually transferred to an assisted living facility. Mark is tended there by a nurse's aide named Barbara. Mark trusts her implicitly and Karin wants to emulate her, deciding the mature and self-confident Barbara is the type of woman Karin keeps trying to become. Frustrated at Mark's inability to recognize her, Karin sends an e-mail to famed neurologist Gerald Weber. Weber, an Oliver Sacks substitute, has made his fame and fortune writing books about people suffering from odd neurological problems. He's intrigued when he receives Karin's e-mail, because Capgras syndrome usually strikes those suffering from psychological problems. A victim of accident-induced Capgras is rare, and Weber decides he must fly to Nebraska to learn what he can about Mark. His visit to Nebraska unnerves him, partly because of the attraction he feels toward Barbara, a woman who looks and feels familiar and who is well-read and educated for a nurse's aide.

The Echo Maker works on two different levels, both as a mystery as to what really happened to Mark and as the unraveling and redefining of the self. While Mark is the catalyst who suffers the largest loss of is identity, the other characters struggle with the same problem to different degrees. Karin not only finds her life undone one more time, but she doesn't know what to do with her life. The closest relationship in her life, being Mark's big sister, is denied by her brother. She falls back in with two old boyfriends, one a staunch environmentalist and the other a real estate developer, afraid to choose a path and direction for her life. Gerald Weber should be at the pinnacle of his life, successful, famous, happily married, and with his third book just being published. Stinging criticism of his new book hits him personally, causing him to question all that he does and even who he really is.

The change in the characters' lives is contrasted against the lives of the cranes, which has stayed mostly the same for eons. The cranes precede man and will probably exist once humans are gone. They just react to their environment while the humans must adapt to constant changes that their actions cause. Not only is Mark's truck accident figuring profoundly in the characters' lives, but also the repercussions of the 9/11 attacks, the looming war in Iraq, and the protection or development of the Platte River watershed. Change is constant for the humans, including the memories they keep. While Mark has lost the emotional connections to his memories, Gerald Weber comes to the realization that even recalling a memory can change that remembrance.

Every burst of light, every sound, every coincidence, every random path through space changed the brain, altering synapses, even adding them, while others weakened or fell away from lack of activity. The brain was a set of changes for mirroring change. Use or lose. Use and lose. You chose, and the choice unmade you.
Mark lived a fairly simple life before the accident. He loved working on his truck, hanging out with his buddies, and living in his cheap, modular home with his beloved dog. The accident changed all that, and Mark is driven to retrieve some semblance of it. He believes that finding who left the mysterious note is the key. He suspects that a massive conspiracy is underfoot that concerns him, hence the sister replacement and other clues, but he can't fathom what he knows, or doesn't remember anymore, that they want from him. As the clues to what happened that tragic night slowly unfold, the apparent answers only hold more confusion for him.

Richard Powers has, no pun intended, written a powerful book, although it's not an easy book to read at times. It's full of personal pain, confusion, longing, and uncertainty, which is probably a good metaphor for the human condition. His characters ring painfully true, trying to grasp that sense of self-identity where love and happiness reside, yet often choosing the path that leads away from these goals. The cranes migrate each year following the same landmarks, yet the landmarks that define the path of a human life are constantly changing.

The Echo Maker never loses its emotional power. As Richard Powers navigates the landmarks of his characters' lives, his artful prose keeps the novel moving forward in the year that follows Mark's accident, a year that will redefine all of their lives. It's a moving tribute to the human condition, that search for the emotional truths of our lives and how that defines our sense of self.

Copyright © 2007 reviewsofbooks.com

The Echo Maker is the winner of the 2006 National Book Award for fiction

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