Sept/Oct/Nov 2006

Beyond Recognition

James Gibbons


The latest novel by Richard Powers, The Echo Maker, had its origin, as any good book probably should, in a visionary experience. "I'd taken a long cross-country trip down to Arizona and was heading back home to Illinois through Nebraska," he told me when I phoned him in Urbana, home to the university where he teaches. "I'd been driving for a very long time and suddenly saw this hallucinatory sight of birds along the Platte River." What Powers had stumbled upon was a breathtaking phase of the annual sandhill crane migration, in which an enormous congregation of these birds—half a million cranes, about four-fifths of the global population—use a seventy-five-mile stretch of the Platte and the surrounding locale as a staging area before heading north to their Arctic breeding grounds. "It really seemed like an aftereffect of highway hypnosis. I almost crashed my car. I pulled over, then decided to spend the night in Kearney so I could see more of the cranes the next day."

This last proposition, Powers went on to stress, has social as well as spiritual resonance and moves the politics of The Echo Maker beyond its evident environmentalism and into the realm of American identity since September 11. Powers views The Echo Maker as a post-9/11 book, and although the interweaving of public events with the fictional narrative is not as conspicuous as in The Time of Our Singing (in which historic episodes such as Marian Anderson's 1939 concert on the National Mall in Washington and the 1992 Los Angeles riots are integral to the novel's formal patterning), the political climate of the first Bush term is quietly insistent and impossible to ignore. The destroyed Twin Towers are described as a phantom limb, a metaphor in keeping with the novel's neurological concerns; one of Mark's friends is called up for reserve duty in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq; a climactic scene toward the end of the book occurs as the start of that war unfolds on television. In the end, the tales of misrecognition in The Echo Maker lead outward from an exploration of the conundrum of consciousness to a consideration of identity and allegiance, whether biological, familial, professional, or social. As our conversation drew to a close, Powers spoke about some of the defining scandals of the last few years and the pressures they placed on Americans' self-understanding. "When we hear reports about Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo Bay, or secret CIA prisons abroad," he said, "we have to devise a way of dealing with such knowledge. The social question for us in the United States is how we now make sense of ourselves as Americans." After such knowledge, what stories do we now tell ourselves, and what do they say about us? When I brought up President Bush's statement to reporters on a visit to Panama last November, "We do not torture," in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Powers quipped, "He could be a character out of an Oliver Sacks book."

Out of Powers's fortuitous encounter with one of the most ravishing natural spectacles of the American prairie was born a novel with the crane as its presiding spirit. Each of the five sections of The Echo Maker begins with a kind of overture about cranes, considering the bird both as animal and as symbol. The contemporary plight of the crane is at the heart of the novel's green politics—the battle over human encroachment into the birds' staging ground along the Platte, already reduced to about as small an area as is viable for them to use on their yearly journey, is played out in one of the book's subplots, which pits the brash developer Robert Karsh against the ascetic activist Daniel Riegel. But if the peril threatening the cranes is certainly real—and there's no doubting Powers's outrage at how development has disfigured the Platte and the surrounding region—The Echo Maker's environmental concerns refuse to be localized. Rather, the ecological awareness is linked, in Powers's typically expansive and surprising fashion, to a series of explorations about memory, the precariousness of perception, and the fragility of the human brain.

Seeing the cranes perform their astonishing feat of return was a catalyst for Powers to delve into the nature of consciousness itself. "I'd wanted to write about the brain for a long time and had done so indirectly in some of my earlier books," he said. "I'm interested in the reciprocal process by which we understand the world. I wanted to find a narrative basis for talking about this unstable, two-way process, the rapidity with which it can break down, and the instability of the self." The pursuit of such large themes is characteristic of Powers's ambition, an intellectual reach that, amid the plaudits and awards he has received (including a Lannan Literary Award and a MacArthur Fellowship), has prompted some reviewers and critics to regard him as a chilly writer, a bit too cerebral, possessed of a forbidding intelligence more at home in the professions he writes about—molecular genetics, theoretical physics, and, in Galatea 2.2 (1995) and now The Echo Maker, cognitive neuroscience. Such a view ignores the tremendous reservoir of emotion Powers pours into his novels; along with the more conspicuous (because they are unusual) forays into science and technology, his books delve deeply into such traditionally literary domains as loss, love, and family. What the dissenting criticism reveals is a persistent, doubtless nostalgic, habit of opposing the head and the heart, as if the dance of the mind on display in Powers's novels leaves no space for more primary feelings. If this opposition were ever tenable, it certainly is not so in our technology-drenched era, of which Powers is our foremost realist; and in any case, one of Powers's goals in writing is, as he told me, "to dismantle dualisms."

One of those taken apart in The Echo Maker is perhaps the most fundamental of all, the presumed division between the human and the natural worlds. The novel begins on a frozen night in late February 2002, at the outset of the cranes' annual Nebraska stopover along the Platte, as the birds "converge on the river at winter's end as they have for eons, carpeting the wetlands." In the midst of the cranes' roosting, a Dodge Ram flips over on a local road. We will learn that the man driving the truck is Mark Schluter, a twenty-seven-year-old lifelong Nebraskan who works at the local meat-processing plant. Although he survives the accident, Mark is stricken with Capgras' syndrome, a rare neurological disorder whose victims can no longer recognize the people closest to them (though they perceive others accurately); the novel's drama is fueled by his delusion that his sister Karin, his only living family member, is actually an impostor. These facts will soon be filled in; the accident is, however, dwarfed in this opening account by the haunting spectacle of the cranes' arrival. In a book about defamiliarization—not just Mark's but also Karin's, as she struggles to understand her strange exile in her brother's perception—Powers begins with a defamiliarizing gesture of his own, reversing the customary hierarchy of human foreground and natural backdrop. As initially described, the accident is rendered with the discomfiting effect of authorial distance, a detachment seemingly better suited to describe a geologic event:

A squeal of brakes, the crunch of metal on asphalt, one broken scream and then another rouse the flock. The truck arcs through the air, corkscrewing into the field. A plume shoots through the birds. They lurch off the ground, wings beating. The panicked carpet lifts, circles, and falls again. Calls that seem to come from creatures twice their size carry miles before fading.

By morning, that sound never happened. Again there is only here, now, the river's braid, a feast of waste grain that will carry these flocks north, beyond the Arctic Circle.

For these "living fossils," the accident is a mere pause in their acting out of the blueprint of migration coded into the species: "Then, as if the night took nothing, forgetting everything but this moment, the dawn sandhills start to dance. Dance as they have since before this river started."

Powers has always taken the long view, and if his interest in emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (Galatea 2.2) and virtual reality (Plowing the Dark [2000]) crashes up against an uneasy future that at times seems already upon us, he also acknowledges structures of cognition and consciousness that stretch deep into the past. Time has an epochal resonance in his novels. In The Echo Maker, the truck accident that initiates the narrative, the birth moment of the human drama that follows, is set against the beauty and indifference of a nonhuman order—or rather, an order that in its prehistoric rhythms seems to us, wrongly, separate from our own. "We don't recognize nature as our next of kin," Powers told me, elaborating on how Mark's Capgras' syndrome and the novel's ecological concerns are intricately intertwined. He emphasized the point, perhaps because the insight was achieved only through the writing of The Echo Maker. "This was something I didn't know when I started the book. I had to discover this through the characters. That was a new process for me."

Neurology and ecology may seem worlds apart, but much of the excitement in reading Powers's books lies in his uncovering of hidden affinities between apparently disparate themes and narrative scenarios. His previous novel, The Time of Our Singing (2003), is a vast meditation on race and identity that centers on the story of a gifted singer and the younger brother who serves as his accompanist; it's hard to picture anyone but Powers giving such centrality to a subject like classical music (one of his passions) when writing about America's racial divide. In Plowing the Dark, the tale of a disillusioned painter invited to help develop a virtual-reality playground called the Cavern is twinned with the drama of an American taken hostage during the civil war in Lebanon, two narrative strands that fully converge only in the novel's final pages. In bringing unlike elements into play with one another, Powers creates formal hurdles that he patently delights in mastering, and juxtaposition itself becomes an almost-magical formal principle—consider the nearly ecstatic joy of the Crazed Quotations game in The Time of Our Singing, in which the Strom family performs complex, ever-stranger assemblages of far-flung musical citations that arise out of the sheer giddiness of improvisation. In Galatea 2.2, the ascendant consciousness of Imp H, or Helen, the computer program being trained to pass a graduate-level literature exam, absorbs a widening circle of quotations and bits of information about the world.

• • • • •

Powers's everything-and-the-kitchen-sink method is not without its drawbacks: At times, the torrent of erudition can be as wearying as it is impressive. And yet one never feels he is downloading the contents of his prodigious mind to show off. There is a philosophy animating the flood of information. Beneath the brainy conceits of his novels, Powers is a full-blown romantic, a believer in passionate intelligence, confident that art can shatter the false barriers of difference. His career as a novelist began with a leap of faith; after chancing upon a photograph by August Sander at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Powers decided to quit his job as a computer programmer and throw himself wholly into writing his first novel, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance (1985). To do so required more than simply an attraction to the image. As he recalls in one of the autobiographical sections of Galatea 2.2, the encounter with Sander's photograph possessed an uncanniness akin to that of déjà vu:

The photo was itself a prediction of its own chance viewing. . . . I felt the shock of recognizing a thing I knew I had never seen before. Every text I'd ever read formed an infinite, convergent series calling out for the recursively called-for, the obvious next term. In that narrow space between what the picture handled and what the caption named, I had my story.

To say "I had my story" at this initial epiphany given by the work of art is true only in a particular sense. The intricacy of Three Farmers, which took Powers several years to write, surely exceeds its embryonic inspiration. What he is expressing here is a faith that the world can crystallize into moments of luminous clarity, revelations that direct the work of the mind. In Powers's novel The Gold Bug Variations (1991), the geneticist Ressler is guided by the principle "Each thing is what it is only through everything else." In a more aesthetic idiom, one might say only connect: There is no dissonance that cannot be transfigured into a larger harmony.

Or, at least, the momentary illusion of harmony, which is perhaps just another word for safety, a key term in the Powers lexicon. For if, derived from a vision of the human that emphasizes the grandeur of individual aspiration and endurance, his novels express a stubborn hopefulness—"Hope," he told me wryly, "has always been my Achilles' heel"—his outlook is scarcely one of optimism. The bleakness of the social order surrounding his exceptional characters often stops just short of despair: American capitalism runs amok in Gain (1998); Angel City, a hellish imagination of Los Angeles, provides the setting for Operation Wandering Soul (1993); endemic racism derails the lives of the Strom brothers in The Time of Our Singing. In The Echo Maker, Karin Schluter considers the impassioned environmentalism of her boyfriend, Daniel Riegel, and senses his need for "humans to rise to their station: conscious and godlike, nature's one shot at knowing and preserving itself. Instead, the one aware animal in creation had torched the place." The social tableau of Powers's novels is one of squandered possibilities writ large.

So many of his characters wander, lost, in search of some sanctuary, which will at best offer temporary solace. One of the more poignant moments in The Echo Maker comes when Mark fleetingly reconnects with Karin at a Fourth of July cookout (the first since 9/11, filled with bellicose talk from Mark's friends), recognizing her not as his biological sister but simply as another dazed soul, baffled by the reality they've come to inhabit: "She saw him look around, trying to catch the attention of his friends, searching for confirmation none of them could give. . . . His eyes finding hers, the slightest sign of kinship issued from him: You're lost here, too, aren't you?" For Powers, experience itself is just another name for risk: "Every human being," he remarked, throwing out the sort of aphorism with which he litters his conversation, "is involved in a desperate attempt to narrate himself into a safe place."

Narrative, then, is a primal reflex, a mode of action as integral to our species as the sandhill cranes' migratory programming is to theirs. "Consciousness is a storytelling machine," Powers said, articulating a view bolstered by recent science about the brain, and proposed that narrative is the means we use to bridge the gap between who we are and the memory of what we were—or might have been, or perhaps weren't quite. And yet telling stories to ourselves is all we can do to make sense of our past. "A single, solid fiction always beat the truth of our scattering," Powers notes in The Echo Maker. We live, that is, in distorted remembrance of ourselves. "When animals and people all spoke the same language, crane calls said exactly what they meant," Powers writes, concluding a bravura section about crane symbolism across time and culture:

Now we live in unclear echoes. The turtledove, swallow, and crane keep the time of their coming, says Jeremiah. Only people fail to recall the order of the Lord.

Thus in The Echo Maker, Powers's holistic vision of creativity—his faith in the power of stories—meets something far more unsettling about the self (though hardly new in his work): a vertiginous sense of identity as atomized, contingent, continually splitting off into unfamiliar future iterations. Emerging from his coma after the accident, Mark asks Karin, "Wake me up—this is someone else's dream. . . . This isn't me. I'm stuck in someone else's thoughts." The hint of metafictional play hardly displaces the urgency of Mark's fear or the implications of his trauma. What can it mean to think thoughts you can't recognize as your own? If such thoughts can only belong to "someone else," what's happened to the "me" you think you are? Mark's condition throws questions like these into high relief—though not as medical exotica, because the delusional syndrome, as Powers suggests throughout the novel, is unusual only in its extremity. Mark's spectacularly ruptured being is an emblem of how we all become estranged from what we once were, what we once loved; what sets Mark apart after his accident is merely his lack of the normal neural machinery that smoothes over the fractures and disjunctions endured by the self. "The defamiliarized world," Powers stressed when we spoke, "is already inside us."

Such insights about the inconsistency of the self are at their core novelistic, but they are also grounded in the author's study of cognitive neuroscience, that most literary of scientific specializations. "One of the things that attracted me to neurological science," Powers told me, "is its inescapable suggestion that intellectual processes are dependent on emotional processes. The power of Capgras' is to show what happens to reason when it's separated from emotion." Emotion, in The Echo Maker, has its source primarily in the ties of family, which with its deep claims and intimate history fosters the illusion of permanent connection; the account of Mark's improbable disorder is ultimately less important than the story of how Karin copes with her own sense of dislocation after her brother's accident. For a Powers character (usually gifted, and often a genius), Karin is almost ostentatiously average, but her predicament yields profound realizations. As the family bond with her brother becomes instantly irrelevant simply because Mark's brain won't acknowledge it, Karin is led to a wider confrontation with her past, returning to Nebraska to care for him and becoming involved with an old boyfriend. Her attempts at a new relationship with Mark are emotionally wrenching, but there's something liberating, too, about the aftermath of the accident. She is compelled to abandon her former life and "learn how not to be her knee-jerk, self-protecting self":

The last few weeks had emptied her—just having to look at Mark laid bare. How easy now, to float above herself, gazing down on all the killing needs that controlled her and seeing them for the phantoms they were. . . . Everyone alive was at least as scared as she was. Remember that, and a person might come to love anyone.

The obligations and burdens of family are also at the center of The Time of Our Singing, but in that book there is something claustrophobic about the emotional stage on which the conflicts among the Stroms unfold. Here in The Echo Maker, Powers offers an outsider's perspective on Mark and Karin's story through Gerald Weber, the middle-aged cognitive neurologist who travels to Nebraska to study Mark and whose career as a renowned popular author begins to crumble while investigating Mark's case. Weber is in every way alien to the Midwestern, lower-middle-class world Mark and Karin call home. Derived from Powers's reading in the literature of cognitive neuroscience as he worked on The Echo Maker, the character is a pastiche of the most intriguing writers in the field, most familiarly Oliver Sacks. Through Weber, Powers sets in motion a familiar dialectic in his fiction, one of potency and fragility, in which the exhilaration of technical mastery collides with the shakiness of human endeavor. Just as he can plausibly imagine a dizzying scientific triumph—"Weber chanced to be working at the precise moment when the race was making its first real headway into the basic riddle of conscious existence"—the neurologist endures a humiliating personal and professional crisis: Vicious reviews lead to undisguised schadenfreude on the part of colleagues, amid ominous signs that his mind has begun to fray.

A beguiling raconteur, Weber has achieved his success because of the care he takes to listen to his subjects rather than rush to assert his expert judgment: "He'd championed the idea: facts are only a small part of any case history. What counted was the telling." He established his reputation through "exposing the inadequacy of all neural theory in the face of the great humbler, observation." Beneath the lab coat, one might say, Weber is really a novelist, and what's most striking about him, especially in light of more common imaginings of the scientist as an either heroic or demonic keeper of specialized knowledge (and technological power), is his vulnerability, the self-exposure inherent in his professional enterprise. Refusing to be a merely clinical explorer of the human brain, Weber merges his scientific expertise with an empathy toward the people he studies, a posture that requires a diminishment, if not an effacement, of the self.

"I was intrigued by the implications of a call to empathy present in the best kind of neuropsychological writing," recalled Powers, when I asked him about the inspiration for Weber and his role in the book. "I've always been attracted to the danger of empathy, the risks taken by the true practitioner of empathy, though I don't think any of us is ever strong enough to be completely empathetic. A figure like Weber is called to empathize because he stands outside the terrifying process that the self finds itself in, seeing how transitory everything is and how all its assumptions about the world have been stripped away." The breakdown of the self's presumed coherence occurs most dramatically in neurological peculiarities such as Capgras', but something analogous happens during "the crises of reading and writing"—reading, Powers said, is like "watching yourself disappear"—"and of love."

The vocabulary of inner crisis, of an unavoidable laying bare of the self, suggests that for all the science informing The Echo Maker, the book is also a kind of religious novel, if we understand religion in its most ecumenical sense. The work of consciousness to forge an illusory but necessary sense of wholeness might even be called, in a theological idiom, a form of grace. Without such neural processes, how could we be intelligible to ourselves? How could we endure trauma, or even lesser changes? The religious dimension to The Echo Maker is also evoked by its epigraph, from the Russian neuropsychologist A. R. Luria, "To find the soul it is necessary to lose it," and by the mysterious note that Mark is shown after the accident: "I am No One but / Tonight on North Line Road / GOD led me to you / so You could Live / and bring back someone else." On its most basic level, the plot of The Echo Maker is structured by the quest to discover who wrote the note and how it got to Mark's hospital room. But the note also invites our speculation about how we might understand this "GOD"—as a function of consciousness? an ethical imperative? a necessary fiction? a real presence?

• • • • •

When I invited Powers to talk about the spirituality of The Echo Maker, he reflected for a moment and replied, "The quest to comprehend the way that the inside turns the outside into an understandable story is going to have as its counterpart the spiritual. The book asks, Are animals religious? What does the spiritual quest mean in the largest sense? In some sense the book may be struggling toward the spiritual. The sense that you are not who you think you are."

This last proposition, Powers went on to stress, has social as well as spiritual resonance and moves the politics of The Echo Maker beyond its evident environmentalism and into the realm of American identity since September 11. Powers views The Echo Maker as a post-9/11 book, and although the interweaving of public events with the fictional narrative is not as conspicuous as in The Time of Our Singing (in which historic episodes such as Marian Anderson's 1939 concert on the National Mall in Washington and the 1992 Los Angeles riots are integral to the novel's formal patterning), the political climate of the first Bush term is quietly insistent and impossible to ignore. The destroyed Twin Towers are described as a phantom limb, a metaphor in keeping with the novel's neurological concerns; one of Mark's friends is called up for reserve duty in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq; a climactic scene toward the end of the book occurs as the start of that war unfolds on television. In the end, the tales of misrecognition in The Echo Maker lead outward from an exploration of the conundrum of consciousness to a consideration of identity and allegiance, whether biological, familial, professional, or social. As our conversation drew to a close, Powers spoke about some of the defining scandals of the last few years and the pressures they placed on Americans' self-understanding. "When we hear reports about Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo Bay, or secret CIA prisons abroad," he said, "we have to devise a way of dealing with such knowledge. The social question for us in the United States is how we now make sense of ourselves as Americans." After such knowledge, what stories do we now tell ourselves, and what do they say about us? When I brought up President Bush's statement to reporters on a visit to Panama last November, "We do not torture," in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Powers quipped, "He could be a character out of an Oliver Sacks book."

James Gibbons writes frequently for Bookforum.

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