Richard Powers


"The Echo Maker"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark FEB 9, 2007)

“A wave moved through her, a thought on a scale she’d never felt. No one had a clue what our brains were after, or how they meant to get it. If we could detach for a moment, break free of all doubling, look upon water itself and not brain-made mirror… For an instant, as the hearing turned into instinctive ritual, it hit her; the whole race suffered from Capgras. Those birds danced like our next of kin, looked like our next of kin, called and willed and parented and taught and navigated all just like our blood relations. Half their parts were still ours. Yet, humans waved them off: impostors.”

Six weeks every year beginning in March, half a million sandhill cranes (four-fifths of those on the earth) stop to feed and mate on the Platte River which meanders through Nebraska, as part of the migration route to Alaska.

It is during the “crane peeper” season that Mark Schluter accidentally flips his pickup over the shoulder on North Line Road and ends up pinned in his cab, almost frozen by the time the paramedics free him, finding him only after an anonymous tip is called in.  His older sister, Karin, is alerted that her brother is in the hospital; she makes the late night drive from Sioux, Iowa to get to her troubled brother’s side, worried about what he has got himself into this time. “He’d long ago taken every wrong turn you could take in life, and from the wrong lane. Telephone calls coming in at awful hours, as far back as she could remember. But never one like this."

When she arrives, he is still conscious enough to recognize her. The doctor describes him as having “moderate severity, stable, and lucky.” But sometime later, his brain spikes and the trauma doctor stops describing him in terms of luck, instead using the words “cerebral edema.”  He requires surgery. She stays at the hospital, though they won’t let her back in to see him. The trauma doctor encourages her to go home and get some sleep. She agrees on one condition, that they let her visit Mark one more time briefly. When she does, he’s basically in a coma, nothing coming out of him. She finds a note in spidery writing on the bed stand that says:

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

She takes it with her. She looks forward to sharing it with Mark when he is awake again.  She is positive he will want to know that he has a guardian. While waiting for Mark to recover, the note is kind of a magic charm for her. Later for Mark, finding the guardian becomes an obsession. The novel's structure is defined by this note; each line is a chapter heading.

Karin is the only family that Mark has left. “Cappy,” their father died many years earlier; their mother died more recently. Karin is four years older than Mark and has practically raised him herself. Their parents were too self-involved in either failed money-making schemes (father) or earning goodwill with God (mother), each an embarrassment to Karin. She feels that “she taught him to walk and talk once, she can do it again.” Despite her dedication and attempts to engage her brother, he gushes out a series of phonemes when his two best buddies (total derelicts, really) come in to see him.  Karin is both jealous and relieved when they elicit a response from him. Weeks later, when he can finally compose sentences, he shocks and hurts Karin when he rejects her as his “real” sister. “My sister? You think you’re my sister?” His eyes drilled her. “If you think you’re my sister, there’s something wrong with your head.”

Mark, we learn, is suffering from Capgras delusion:  A rare brain disease that causes the person to experience the delusion that a close family member, usually a spouse, has been replaced by an imposter. It’s one of many rare misidentification symptoms, usually found in patients diagnosed with schizophrenia or brain injury. In this case, Mark believes that although this woman looks like his sister, and knows a lot about him and their family, she is not his sister. He can point to small details that “prove” that she isn’t. He’s in fact sincerely worried about what has happened to the real Karin since she’d normally be there for him. After a bit, he starts to see a wider conspiracy between the missing sister, the accident, the cranes and even his sister’s boyfriend, nature boy Daniel.

At first this is a kick in the face to "Karin Two" / "Karin-like" / "Pseudo-sib" / "Karbon Karin" --all creative names Mark uses to reference her.   But as time goes on, she begins to like her brother’s version of the real Karin since it puts her in a far better light than what he normally thinks of her. In fact, much later when there is a possible cure, she is even hesitant to let him try it. She almost likes their new relationship better.  The only problem is that the delusion is not restricted to just her. He’s positive that “they” have replaced his home, his neighborhood, his town, and even his beloved dog, Blackie. Anything that Mark loves seems to have a double. Mark relates information about his world without any doubt as to its logic.  “The self presents itself as a whole, willful, embodied, continuous, and aware,” Dr Weber says during one of his student lectures, but these prerequisites can fail. Indeed they have failed for Mark.

Karin resigns herself to stay in Kearny for as long as it takes her brother to recover.  Out of loneliness, she gets back in touch with nature boy Daniel – Mark’s youthful best friend and her former boyfriend, whom she’s hurt before. Daniel is “birdman” an odd-ball of sorts because he cares more about nature than humans. He works for the sanctuary that is trying to save the river for the cranes. He is such a good and trusting man that he fully welcomes Karin back into his life.  

The viewpoints and experiences of Karin, Mark and Dr. Weber carry the bulk of the narrative. Each is going through a major transition. Karin is backsliding, stuck in her home town, repeating the initial offenses that drove her away. She does things that are despicable.  She knows deep down that her brother is right, she is a fake Karin. Though, somehow, in the end she finds more meaningful work than she has ever had and through self-destruction, she does seem to break out of her self-destructing life.

Mark is the one to find Dr. Gerald Weber. He gives Karen Dr. Weber's two paperback books. Dr. Weber has become a celebrity of sorts writing popular books about rare brain disorders filled with stories of unofficial case histories. The kind of stories that make up good dinner-party conversation. Karen is convinced that Dr. Weber will know how to help Mark. Betting that Dr. Weber will be interested in Mark’s case, she sends the doctor an e-mail.

Dr. Weber has just published his third book and is promising himself to get back to his lab work before he misses out on all the really important brain work.  Thus, there is no reason for him to visit Mark, except, that he can’t help himself. He is almost giddy with the idea of meeting this accident-induced Capgras case. Still, he leaves it up to his wife to talk him into going to Kearney, Nebraska to meet the sister and brother.

When Dr. Weber takes this trip, he is unaware that his life is about to veer off track. After two bestselling books, his third book is expected to be an easy success.  But it isn’t.  Instead, the media turns on him; he is treated like a pariah feeding on people’s real life problems for his own benefit/pocket. And indeed, the way he behaves when he visits Karin and Mark, one can’t help but think that his critics might be right. But "Famous Gerald" isn’t the only self that is disintegrating. This happily married man finds something about the nurse’s assistant at Mark’s rehab center quite unsettling.  In fact, there does seem to be something other worldly about Barbara.  Despite her low position, she is the best caregiver at Dedham Glen. She seems to understand Mark better than anyone and Mark trusts “Barbie Doll” more than anyone else. Karin idealizes this older woman, wishing she could be more like her, even going so far as fantasizing that they could become friends. Even Daniel, when he finally meets her, feels he knows her voice from somewhere.

Though often irreverent, Mark is the most likeable of the three main characters, although the one that the reader is likely to have the least common with. Mark and his buddies love trucks; "The Three Muskrateers" tear down & rebuild engines like breathing; they work at the meat packing plant, play video games, hang out in bars and race around the roads at night. You can see that not much normally bothers Mark. However, the reader doesn’t know if this is the same old Mark or a new Mark, not even Karin admits that she can't entirely recall the Mark before. She can't say if his mangled word choice is on purpose or if it is related to his brain’s damage. His sweet and sexy girlfriends doesn't offer much clue either. Though one has to assume that she means more to him now than she did before or else he would have "doubled" her like he has his sister and his dog. The one thing that we know is the new Mark is his search for an explanation. "They're after Mark Schluter's ass: this much is obvious. A man would have to be a vegetale to miss that much. Setting him up in some kind of experiment, some of it so hokey that even a child still stuck on Santa would snicker. But some of it so complex he can't even start figuring it."

The Echo Maker is an impressive novel. Set in 2002, a post 9-11 backdrop permeates the novel, but does not overtake it. Though, I can’t help but think that Powers expects us to connect the post 9-11 feeling with that of a Capgras victim in which everything looks familiar but, somehow not. Certainly, that is exactly how I felt during the build-up to Iraq. Nearly everyone ...my neighbors, coworkers, family, even my dying dad ... seemed like strangers to me the more our political beliefs separated us. This is the first novel that really hits on how it felt to live through that dichotomy, without overtly expressing this as an objective.

But that is just one aspect of the novel. The big-themes have to do with our brains, our perceptions of reality, our most base instincts and the really big question of how do we know who we are. We are still learning about the brain, most of it remains a mystery, though it is being mapped bit by bit. Studying the behaviour of brain damaged people furthers our knowledge. Writing fiction about a person with a brain injury open us up to the bigger questions of reality. To demonstrate the tricky nature of the brain, Dr. Weber shares all sorts of fascinating anecdotal case studies. At the same time, this novel is played out against a phenomenal ecological event, the annual migration of the cranes. One more fascinating story in which we know so little. How is it that these birds can know what they know? Through Daniel, and reinforced later by Karin, we are educated about the disappearing water and the effect on the cranes. Powers ties this all together with a big knot, though I'm not sure that my brain is completely capable of grasping the wide picture.  Yet, on a certain level, I get it. I do. It has a lot to do with Karin's eureka moment as quoted in the paragraph at the top of this page. That is, if we see nature as our next of kin, then surely we would take better care of it. (If I go one step further, I think Powers really is calling us all a bunch of bird brains.)

To read and enjoy this novel, the big themes just ride out the background. From page to page, this is a smooth, comfortable read and easy to get involved with the characters; so much so, you might wish you could stop some of the self destructive behavior. The book is propelled forward with small mysteries: What caused the accident? Why the three separate tire tracks at the accident scene? Who was the anonymous caller? Who is Barbara, really? Who is the note's author? Will Mark ever know that Karin is his real sister? Why did Mark and Daniel stop being friends? What is Karsh and his developers really up to? Keep in mind that this novel won the 2006 National Book Award. I take it someone besides myself finds this to be a worthwhile and remarkable read.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 153 reviews


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About the Author:

Richard PowersRichard Powers was born in Evanston, Illinois in 1957 and grew upon the north side of Chicago, in a suburb called Lincolnwood. When he was eleven, his family moved to Bangkok, Thailand. He returned to the United States to finish High School.

He enrolled as a physics major at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign but switched to literature and received his M.A. in 1979. He worked as computer programmer in Boston, Massachusetts after he graduated. A photograph at the Museum of Fine Arts inspired him to quit his job and he spent the next two years wither his first novel which was published in 1985.

He then moved to the Netherlands, where he wrote his next two novels. He started Operation Wandering Soul, his fourth book and a finalist for the National Book Award, while he was the University of Cambridge and finished it when he returned to the University of Illinois in 1992, where he became writer-in-residence.

He was a 1989 MacArthur Fellow and recipient of a 1999 Lannan Literary Award. His novel The Echo Maker won the 2006 National Book Award.

He teaches in the Creative Writing M.F.A. program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Illinois.

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