Thursday, January 04, 2007

Echo Maker

Save for an aborted single attempt, I've read nothing of Richard Powers' previous novels, so I knew little of him before cracking open his award-winning book, The Echo Maker.

He's revered in some quarters as a scientifically inclined novelist that aims high and is spoken of in the same hushed tones as Thomas Pynchon.

The novel opens in early 2002 on a Nebraska highway where 20ish Mark Schluter has flipped his truck and is rescued mysteriously. After coming out of a coma, he is diagnosed with Capgras syndrome, a rare neurological disorder in which as a result of trauma, the victim retains his memory, self and functions normally, but believes those closest to him are imposters.

Marks sister Karin rushes to his side only to be regarded as a sort of government issue provocation, at best. She is the only living relative.

"Where were you? Had to meet your handlers or something. My sister is very loyal. You should have learned that when you trained to replace her.

Mark's bewilderment causes his cruelty toward his "sister" and exacerbates Karin's fragility.

The rare diagnosis gets the ear of Gerald Weber, an Oliver Sacks-like neuroscientist and author.

Gerald's attempt to treat this medical mystery, the Schluters fundamentalist family background, a cryptic note left at the crash site, and America's post 9/11 anxieties (Afghanistan is on, Iraq on the way) would be plenty for most novels to sort out, but Powers does something wonderful as well.

The only witness to Marks wreck that night were a half million cranes outside Kearney, Nebraska on the Platte River, site of a centuries-old nesting place that becomes a pitched battle between developers and conservationists.

The strength of the novel lies in Powers ability to marry Weber's neuroscience with the fragile emotional makeup of the characters and the country, conflicting motives (Weber's in particular) and desires all over the place, and move a plot along all while grafting and then stitching the cranes into the book.

I found Gerald Weber the star of the book. His good heart and relative comfort clash with feelings of inadequacy and self recrimination around the Schluter's pain and what it does (initially) to his profile. Perhaps because he's the neurological mouthpiece, Powers gets the most out of Weber's character.

The Echo Maker is a high wire act that Powers by and large, pulls off very well, a couple of technical glitches aside.

There are a pair of characters that perhaps aren't given enough attention, love interests out of Karin's past and Gerald's present, his wife Sylvie pales in a book full of strong secondary characters.

For the first third of the book I felt that the Echo Maker was a book I'd respect, rather than love. I was more than content to go along with Weber's case histories and Karin's character, but the last half of the Echo Maker worked so well that the books big brain found its heart.

The book came out in mid-October, so I'm a bit late, but nonetheless, the Echo Maker is a hell of a kickoff for 2007.

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