On a winter night on a remote road in Nebraska, twenty-seven-year-old Mark Schluter's truck turns over in a near fatal accident. His older sister, Karin, his only close relative, returns reluctantly to their hometown to nurse Mark back from a traumatic head injury. But when he emerges from a protracted coma, Mark believes that this woman - who looks, acts, and sounds just like his sister - is really an identical impostor. Shattered by her brother's refusal to recognise her, Karin contacts the cognitive neurologist Gerald Weber, famous for his case studies describing the infinitely bizarre worlds of brain disorder. Weber recognises Mark as a very unusual case of Capgras syndrome and is keen to investigate. But what he discovers in Mark begins to undermine even his own sense of self. Meanwhile, Mark, armed only with a note left by an anonymous witness, attempts to learn what happened on the night of his accident. The truth of that evening will change the lives of all three beyond recognition. Set against the spectacular spring migrations of American Sandhill cranes, The Echo Maker is a profound and riveting novel that explores how memory, instinct and relationships make us who we are.
The novel begins with a horrific car accident along the Platte River during the annual crane migration. Mark Schulter survives the crash, but is left with a rare and devastating brain injury called Capgras Syndrome. Believing his sister, Karin, is really an imposter who is pretending to be his sister, Mark's recovery from his injuries takes the reader along a winding path of self-discovery, misidentification, conspiracies, and the complex and sometimes fragile nature of relationships. Powers constructs the novel around four major characters: Mark Schulter, his sister Karin, a renowned scientist named Gerald Weber, and Barbara Gillespie - a nursing home aide who is surrounded by mystery. It is not only Mark who struggles with his identity. Karin, a woman who has tried unsuccessfully to shed her past, finds herself searching to re-define it.
Gerald Weber is shocked to discover that perhaps he is only defined by the way others perceive him - that perhaps his life's work is no more than a critics review: 'He'd let his critics convince him. Something had eroded, the core pleasure in his accomplishment.' - From The Echo Maker, page 315-
This novel is meant to be read slowly - it is a thoughtful novel, and one that is challenging on an intellectual level. Powers deftly constructs a story which questions the very core of who we are and how self is defined - a fascinating treatise about what makes us human. The backdrop of Nebraska and its incredible crane migration - an astounding feat of migratory memory and ritual - is a fitting symbol of the novel's thematic content. With a surprising twist at the end, the novel is ultimately a satisfying read.
The novel opens with a traffic accident. Mark Schluter suffers serious head trauma as a result of flipping his truck over on a lonely stretch of Iowa road one night. His sister Karin leaves her job and condo in Sioux City to stay by his side in their small home town of Kearny, the town Karin always wanted to leave. Karin and Mark are basically alone in the world; their parents have both died and neither has anyone close enough to them to come spend time at Mark's bedside. Eventually, Mark does come out of his coma and speaks. Almost immediately he accuses Karin of not being his sister, but an imposter. He is convinced that although she looks like her and she knows everything his sister knows, she is not Karin.
In desperation, Karin writes a series of emails to Dr. Gerald Weber a famous cognitive neurologist who has written several popular books about people with unusual brain injuries to ask for help. (I suspect Dr. Weber is loosely based on Dr. Oliver Sacks.) Dr. Weber agrees to pay Mark a visit thinking he may be able to use this story in a future book. His diagnosis--Mark has Capgras syndrome, a condition that causes people to reject what the logical part of their brains tell them, that a person is really their sister, in favor of an irrational gut feeling that the people around them are not whom they seem to be.
Karin’s position is tragically difficult. She has spent her life trying to please others. She loses herself in repeated attempts to always make those nearest her happy: bosses, friends, co-workers, boyfriends, her brother. In Sioux City, she found a perfect job in customer relations, trying to make others happy for a living. Her relationship with Mark has not been great, but the two of them were always devoted to each other. After Mark denies her, he begins to describe what his real sister is like. Karin listens to him describe a person who is better than she really is. Mark’s “sister” is actually an improvement over Karin. A brother who constantly insists you are not his real sister would probably cause anyone to have doubts about who they really are, but Karin’s situation is further complicated by her return to their childhood hometown, where she meets up with both of her old boyfriends, one a conservationist trying to protect the cranes that migrate through the area, the other a developer who wants to build on the cranes nesting grounds. Karin habitually tries to please both, altering what she really wants to fit the situation to the point that she often loses sight of herself.
Mark himself, once he wakes from the coma, is not who he used to be at all. Outside of Capgras syndrome, the post accident Mark is kinder, more reflective, more mature, a definite improvement. So much so, that later in the novel when a cure becomes possible Karin hesitates to approve its use. Mark is haunted by a figure in white that he believes appeared before his truck the night of the accident and by a note that someone left at his beside afterwards claiming to be an angel sent by God to save him and charging him to go out and save someone else. But so much of Mark’s world is now alien to him. His sister is not really his sister, his best friends are not really his best friends, even his dog and his home have been switched with imposters. Why would anyone go to all this trouble? What do they want with him? Who left the note and did an angel really appear to him that night?
Dr. Weber comes to Iowa to see Mark just before his new book is set to release. He sees himself as a famous author, popular lecturer, important researcher who has brought the complexities of the human brain to a public eager for knowledge. Just before his book is released, a series of negative reviews begin. They claim that Dr. Weber’s case studies are outdated, his stories have no place in the new world of chemical based brain research, the people he describes are not much more than sideshow freaks he has exploited for his own aggrandizement and financial gain. Though he knows he should not let the reviews get to him, he can’t help but notice the new way his colleagues look at him, the way his students now whisper when he comes into the lecture hall, the changes in the questions he now gets after a lecture. Who is he, if he is no longer the famous Gerald Weber. On his trip to Iowa he meets Barbara Gillispie, a nurse’s aide who has become dedicated to Mark Schluter. He is attracted to her, wants to have a relationship with her, but he has been completely devoted to his wife of some 30 years. Who is this new man, this post famous Dr. Weber?
I think this is much more plot summary than I usually give, but I’ve left out quite a bit. Though there are not that many characters in The Echo Maker their story is quite complicated. Karin’s attempts to cure Mark, and Mark’s dedication to his own delusion and to finding out who his angel is make for compelling reading. What would you do if the family members you love most denied you were who you say you are? What would you do in Mark’s shoes? Add to this mix the brain science and personal drama that Dr. Weber brings and you have a very interesting reading experience, unlike anything I’ve read before, one that touches both the heart and the mind. (I’m assuming that the cases Dr. Weber describes and Capgras syndrome itself are all based on fact; they are all certainly interesting.) The Echo Maker presents the human mind as the final frontier, however one can’t help but dread the day when science finally finds all of the answers just a little. Are we simply a series of chemical reactions among neurons? Is the love we feel for each other simply the result of the way one set of neurons happen to connect with each other? (Dr. Weber thinks so and his colleagues are intent on proving him correct.)
But, to be honest, I didn’t have much patience for any of the characters in the book. Karin’s situation is compelling certainly, but she uses the two boyfriends in ways that bring havoc into their lives and after a while, I began to feel that she should just leave Mark alone and go back to the life she had in Sioux City. It’s hard to feel sorry for Dr. Weber, too. He has been at the top of his game so long, without any apparent effort, that the way he crumbles once he faces some opposition just made him seem wimpy to me. The relationship he has with his wife is so wonderful that jeopardizing it the way he does makes him look simply stupid. I expect more than a few readers have been tempted to throw the book against the wall. I almost was. Karin’s boyfriends both figure prominently in the story, and though she uses them, they are hard to feel any sympathy for. One is a heartless real estate developer and follower of Ayn Rand. (I don't mean to imply that all followers of Ayn rand are heartless. Okay, maybe I do.) The other is a conservationist who clearly cares for his river and his animals to the detriment of the people around him. I cannot discuss Barbara without giving away the plot so I won’t, but she is another person I came to dislike in the end.
But, in spite of these faults, there is plenty to enjoy in the book, so I’m giving The Echo Maker by Richard Powers four out of five stars.
Karen, who has given up her house and job to come take care of her brother, is deeply hurt by his inability to acknowledge her as his sister, contacts famous popular author and neurologist Gerald Weber.
Weber's character and his battle with his demons add a further strand to this deftly woven novel. After a series of well-received popular science books, he now faces some critical rejection and struggles to deal with it. Each character is suffering through their own mental problems and this allows the book to expand and examine the nature of memory, reality and identity.
Add in the mystery character of Barbara, who fights her own demons, which are revealed at the end of the book, and we have a host of characters struggling with their own mental problems and issues. Over the course of a year, the author invokes some beautiful imagery as he describes the cyclical journey of the threatened crane. Every year the crane return to the Nebraska town where this novel is set, as they move on their migrational path.
Despite the grand scale of this book, and the weighty topics that it tackles (self-identity, memory and love), it somehow fails to ultimately satisfy. It is a demanding read, and we do become more and more involved as Mark struggles to deal with the differences in his memory and to find out what happened to him that cold night. However, there is some spark of emotion missing in the novel that would fully bind you to the characters.
The story starts with Mark, a young man in left in a coma after a car accident that almost killed him. His sister and only remaining relative Karin comes back to her hometown to care for him. This is just the start of a complex web in which nothing and nobody is quite what it or they seem to be. When Mark recovers consciousness, he is unable to accept that Karin is his sister, obsessing on minor differences between what he sees and what he remembers, illustrating what is known as Capgras syndrome. The case is brought to the attention of Gerald Weber, a writer about psychological disorders (who must be at least partially modelled on Oliver Sacks). Gerald becomes involved against his better judgment and the case causes him a crisis of confidence that leads him to question his professional integrity.
Interspersed with the story of Mark's disease, there are two other major strands to the story. Firstly Mark becomes obsessed with a mysterious note left at his bedside on the day of the accident, and needs to find out who wrote it, what they know, and how his friends were involved. Secondly Karin becomes involved with Mark's estranged childhood friend Daniel, who works on an environmental project protecting the cranes' habitat and fighting a development project that threatens it.
The material on the brain, how brain science evolves and what is known and not known about various brain disorders is fascinating, but perhaps overlong and a little too detailed for all but the keenest readers. The personal story is gripping, and some of the turns it takes are genuinely surprising.
I am still just scratching the surface of what could be said about this book, all I can really do is recommend it. Perhaps not quite as extraordinary as The Time of Our Singing, but it seems invidious to compare such different books, and my respect for Powers as a writer has only increased.
Adding, I agree with some of the other reviews here that Powers' prose and dialogue (especially) at times seem painfully contrived. But who is doing the contriving? Are the playful conversations between Weber and Sylvie indicative of 30 years of relaxed intimacy--or do they represent a ritualized distance?
I am probably missing some layers here. The book is a kind of blending of neurology and ecology. Reminds me of David Abram or Morris Berman or maybe Richard Grossinger. But this is an excellent novel, one way to explore the issues.
His Holiness the 17th Karmapa will be in the USA in just a few days, in March 2015 and through April. His Holiness is a high level Buddhist figure. So that's largely the neurology angle. How our sense of self is a kind of illusion or mask, a collage. But then His Holiness takes compassion to the ecological level. Yeah the point seems to be, that what we really are is a piece of life, a part of a vast pattern that runs through space and time far beyond our petty conventional boundaries and concerns.
Then, how can a person live, make a life, make meaning, recognizing the situation, the vastness, the emptiness? Just dig in right here and do the work that is right in front waiting, calling.
This episode came to mind while I was reading "The Echo Maker." Powers seems to have forsaken some of the more enjoyable and comprehensible aspects of The Novel in order to use the narrative and the text itself as a showcase for failures in cognition. In short: interesting but crazy-making.
I'm still unpacking all the many aspects of the novel, but I'm trying to think of each one in terms of the title. It's such a strange phrase: Echo Maker. Not sound maker, not music maker, not noise maker, not maker of something others can see or echo of something in particular. Why Echo Maker? I can't tell you the most obvious reason without spoiling the thread of mystery that begins with a note found in a hospital room, but I can tell you that, as the responsible yet unconfident sister, the head-injured brother, the neurologist observing him, and the cranes themselves narrate portions of the story, each is trying not so much to make a sound as to create an answer. The sister wants affirmation, the brother an answer to what has happened and why things seem off, wrong somehow; the neurologist wants his work to be understood for what it is rather than strictly as science or strictly as publishable narratives, and the cranes, most mysterious of all, seek the memory of places as they flow from north to south and back again, echoes left by genetics and behavior over thousands of years. It's a powerful image, the Echo Maker, and it circles through each narrative in migration patterns of its own.
In the end, the story shows us that all life, all mind, is echo making. Identity itself is little more than the received impression we interpret after acting, communicating, thinking, and doing over a lifetime. And yet, identity is no small thing; it is a beautiful thing; it is the thing we can best create, and the thing we must strive to create. It may seem hopeless. The cranes don't understand that the stress they feel, cramming themselves into what little space humans have left them, will eventually hurt their whole species, just as humans, specifically in this story and generally in the world, seldom see the entire interconnected picture of causes and effects, habits and leaps. But in the end, the cranes will adapt, or something will, and in the end so will we, somehow overcoming the stress that causes us to commit horrors in the world quickly or slowly, somehow adapting to the asynchronous, discontinuous facts of our neurology and our quotidian existence, somehow creating a pattern that has meaning and beauty.
The echoes this book has left with me haunt me, like strains from an intricate symphony still recalled, still elaborated, still reverberating. I can't imagine a reader passing through this book unchanged - or uninspired.
The protagonists are constantly agonizing: who am I really? who is that other person? Mark, injured into honesty, is the only one who tells it like it is: you and you and you are no one but imposters. The self, Powers writes, is an ongoing composition made from chemical media: glutamate, magnesium, calcium constantly making adjustments to the picture. [Joan Didion, "On Keeping a Notebook," : "I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be."]
The characters in "The Echo Maker" have some similarities to those in "The Gold Bug Variations": they refer to each other as "woman" or "man"; names are familiarized in the same ways: Mark becomes Marker, just as Frank became Franker in "Gold Bug." The women are generally on the attack, and the men blithely unaware. A younger couple's relationship is "echoed" and intwined with an older couple's.
The differences from "Gold Bug" are heartbreaking. Whereas "Gold Bug" was an elaborate, even breathtaking fugue of intellectual ebulliance, "The Echo Maker" seems more like "Richard Powers For Dummies." The characters are mostly concerned with their own weaknesses and failures. Elevated prose is in short supply. Yet a plot centered on the brain is rife with possibilities. One thinks wistfully of Powers' exploration of conscious thought explored in "Galatea 2.2," or the paean to emergence in "Gold Bug."
Although "The Echo Maker" won The National Book Award, I was disappointed with this book. I wondered if Powers were feeling affinity with his character Gerald Weber, who worries incessantly about being past his greatest work and "on the back nine" so to speak. But perhaps one expects more of Richard Powers than of other writers. (JAF)
Beyond the 'Wizard of Oz' connections, this is a novel about living in a virtual reality (the land of Oz) - a sort of 'The Matrix'-like theme of how do we know what is real. This may seem sci-fi, but when you consider something like %50 of all Americans are on some sort of mood or behavior modifying drugs, that we live in electronic bubbles of communication, and other "virtualizations". Except unlike Oz when Dorthy wakes up and returns home, there is no home to return too, just a facsimile of one.
Another subtle but constant theme is the characters move in an East-West axis while nature moves in a north-south axis (the birds, the seasons). The intersection of these axis is the scene of Marc's accident, and the location of where the nature-destroying building complex is to be built. The further west one goes, the more into the land of Oz one travels, such as at "Carhenge" where nature and man are flipped around entirely.
I personally found this a very rewarding novel as I have traveled I-80, been to Grand Junction and can visualize and remember the place, people and geography. In fact, I have traveled through Grand Junction both along a east-west axis on I-80, and a north-south axis when going from South Dakota to Kansas right down the middle of the plains. It really is the center of everything, and the middle of no where (the geographic center of the lower 48 is about a quarter days drive due south of Kearny in northern Kansas). Thanks for the trip Richard but I'm sure glad to be home.
These are the characters in The Echo Maker, an exploration of the brain, the mind, the self, and the mental ties that keep us coherent human beings. Mark suffers from Capgras syndrome, a rare delusion which leads the person to believe that a close relative is replaced by an imposter. His sister, his dog, and even his home are all imposters in his world. His sister, Karin, finds herself drawn back to the small town she thought she had successfully escaped, and makes many of the same mistakes she had in the past. Weber finds that this third book is not critically praised, and begins to question whether any of his work was more meaningful than an exploitative opportunity.
The novel’s strengths lie in the character sketches of Mark and Karin. Karin, especially, is a drab, unhappy, passive character, whereas Mark is full of bluster, rage, and energy. Mark fairly leaps off the page. Weber, on the other hand, is a muddle in his mid-life crisis, depression, and self-revulsion. I wondered, wrongly, at times if he was having a stroke. The novel is far more of a character study, but there is a mystery that provides some satisfaction in its resolution.
The book leisurely and lyrically makes it way through season after season, often starting each section with vignettes of the cranes. There is a mystery behind Mark's accident, and the two other sets of tire tracks that were found there, that is only gradually revealed. Often as I was listening to this book I got a little impatient with it, but those that enjoy language and books that expound on the scenery would enjoy those parts more. It was interesting to learn some of the stuff about the way the brain functions, but it got a bit old after a while. Bernadette Dunne was the narrator, and she did an excelent job.
Reviewed by: Diana
All these aspects of the story are at heart mundane, but Powers injects the story with a mysterious quality and a constant stream of ideas that make for a mindfuck of a read. The book is slow and thoughtful but also impossible to put down.
The Echo maker which won the 2006 National book award for fiction is set in a small city--Kearney--in the middle of Nebraska along the Platte river. It's waterways an annual migratory point for hundreds of thousand of cranes under threat by local developers. Mark Schluter--a somewhat ordinary hellraising young man swerves off the road and is taken to the hospital in critical condition with head trauma. An anonymous caller has saved his life as the accident scene is along a dark and remote road. His one surviving relative--his sister Karin is all the support he has. An anonymous note is left by his 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.' Upon coming out of his coma a diagnosis of Capgras Syndrome soon becomes inevitable as he believes his sister to be in actuality a replica--a stand-in--a double. Frustrated by his slow progress and rattled by her brother's hostility she turns to a famous neuroligist, brain guru and best selling author Gerald Weber. Capgras being a very rare diagnosis Weber is excited about the opportunity and flies out from his home base in the NYC area to see first hand.
Weber's visit is soon over and overall is a disappointment for Karin and the local doctor that is in charge of Mark's rehabilitation. Mark only trusts his friends Rupp and Cain and a nurse Barbara Gillespie. Weber does not really prescribe anything new--just more patience. Karin who has left her job to take care of her brother is left to deal with him as best she can. His condition worsens--becomes more paranoid--he comes to believe that not only Kopy Karin, Karbon Karin is a replica but also his dog, his house, the road, the other houses on the road, the town itself are replicas as well. He badgers his friends Rupp and Cain (who often stop by to play video games with him) about it as well as his former girlfriend Bonnie. He wants to know who left the note in the hospital.
In the meantime Weber begins to go through a bad period himself. In the past his work having always met with positivie universal appraisal--his new book is getting panned by a number of reviewer some accusing him of bad science, others of opportunism. Weber does not take the critiquing well--he begins to accuse himself straining the relationship between himself and his wife. He returns briefly to Nebraska and finds himself curiously attacted to Mark's nurse--Barbara. He abruptly leaves again--his departure causing a chaotic situation to worsen. Karin moves in with Mark's former childhood friend Danny Riegel and starts an affair with a local businessman behind the wetlands development plan--Robert Karsh.
A different thread intersects in the battle over the wetlands led by Riegel--a hardcore activist conservationist against Karsh and his business associates determined to put across a veneer of goodwill on their plans to develop and market the wetlands site. A bitter battle ensues out of which Karin betrays one lover (Riegel) for the other (Karsh). Mark begins to see his accident as no accident but part of a plan as his home is very near the wetlands site. Weber returns to Nebraska amidst all this betraying his own wife with Nurse Gillespie who is not quite who or what she appears to be either.
What's remarkable about the book is how Powers keeps his story moving along--the different threads intersecting seamlessly with each other--the key character being Mark who's condition everything revolves around. The stuff about neuroscience and the cranes innate migratory intuition I found especially fascinating in respect how threads from past life and memory move us in the present . Powers seems to know quite a lot about both subjects and the interaction between characters seems very real. He writes with compassion for his characters--even in their worse--most selfish moments. The writing is fluid, the plot is extraordinary and moving. I liked it a great deal and will be sure to read more of his work in the future.