Saturday, April 07, 2007

The Echo Maker

Richard Powers is one of those novelists whom I'd always stayed away from because I lumped him in with "idea" novelists--guys like Pynchon, Neal Stephenson, or Jonathan Franzen in the worst parts of The Corrections--novelists in whose works the mass of legitimately interesting information in the world tends to obscure or overwhelm character. When I want information, I turn to nonfiction; when I open a novel, I'm looking for people. But when I heard that Powers's newest novel, The Echo Maker (2006), focused on a character with capgras syndrome, I couldn't resist. Capgras, a mental condition which leads a person to believe his loved ones have been replaced by near-perfect simulacra, seems ready-made for a novelist, a springboard for unusual explorations of identity and character. I bought a copy for my friend Luke, both because I figured he'd like it and because he'd be a good guinea pig; I was right, and he lent it to me with his hearty recommendation.

The Echo Maker is about a man who develops capgras syndrome following a terrible auto accident in his native Nebraska. He comes out of a coma with no memory of the accident and convinced that his sister has been replaced by a replicant; an inxeplicable note at his bedside, as well as some evidence at the crash site, suggest that there is some mystery afoot that even the mentally sound can't write off. The brother's confidence in his assessment lends a Philip K. Dick-like aura of paranoia, which Powers layers on top of deeper questions: who, after all, is mentally sound? What do we even mean by that? Who's to say the sister is really herself? Is she the same her as she was as a teenager? What is personality, after all? How much of it do we control actively? How much of it is created by unspoken, shared agreement between people to accept our multiple selves, over the years and in different situations, as a single, comprehensible entity?

Those are all fascinating questions, but on their own, they're not the stuff of fiction. Where Powers succeeds brilliantly is in working such considerations deeply into the lives and minds of his characters--without undermining the characters, he calls into question the very idea of character, both fictional and real. His very prose is alive with buried questions--doubles, trace memories, shared histories--to the point that basic metaphors of self and mind begin to stand out, problematic or even dishonest. Seemingly every aspect of the novel, while part of a realistic and convincing world, adds to a rich pattern of thought--from the migrating cranes who unknowingly replicate millennia-old patterns, calling into question the roots of knowledge and the beginnings of consciousness, to the mix of books that characters are reading, from Aldo Leopold to Willa Cather, with their different approaches to understanding people and their place in the world.

It's a heady, propulsive novel, as hard to put down as it is to distill. Reality, Powers forces us to admit, is inherently slippery, since we have no choice but to define it as we go. Look away and you risk having everything change on you; look too closely and you risk seeing that none of it was what you thought it was in the first place--even your very self.

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