[13 December 2006]
What is memory?
In a computer, it’s the capacity to store information in an organized collection of bits and bytes. In a human, it’s a constant self-correcting and deluding exercise in selective thinking. In Richard Powers’ world, where technology and humanity are inexorably fused, it’s both: a mashed-up maelstrom that’s random and repetitive, elusive and deceptive.
His ninth novel, The Echo Maker, starts with a siege of sandhill cranes, a one-vehicle highway accident and a mystery. It’s Nebraska in the dead of winter, and Karin Schluter responds to a dreaded call in the middle of the night about her brother Mark by making a miserable, lonely drive to the hometown she rejected years before.
She puts her life on hold to care for him, but the sad truth is that her life has been in neutral for some time. Or as Karin reflects: “Past thirty, she had no more time or pride to risk on ambition.” So she throws herself into the role of big sister, caring for her brother.
Only thing is, he rejects her. Awakening from a mini-coma, Mark sees Karin as an imposter, and nothing she says can convince him otherwise. He remembers nothing about the crash, but someone apparently does because Karin discovers a cryptic note on his hospital bed that only an eyewitness could’ve written.
He’s diagnosed with Capgras syndrome, a rare condition suffered by victims of closed-head trauma in which the sufferer recognizes family members and loved ones but doesn’t process any associated emotional connection.
Enter Dr. Gerald Weber, a cognitive neurologist who’s broken through to mainstream celebrity and responds to her e-mailed plea by taking Mark’s case. But like Karin, who is worn down by her brother’s delusion to the point of losing her identity, and Mark, who’s desperately trying to regain his lost sense of self and figure out what happened on the road that night, Dr. Weber nearly becomes undone by the case. The fine line that he’s straddled between helping and exploiting patients is redrawn before his eyes with painful consequences.
The three-way personality pile-up is set against the narrative and eco-subplot of the world’s largest concentration of sandhill cranes that, via memory, have returned to the same area along the Platte River for so long that tourism was inevitable.
But natural resources, like emotional ones, are finite, and the reason why the annual crane gathering is so crowded and spectacular (a shrinking source of water) is what is also dooming them to extinction. Karin knows intuitively that you can never go home again, and Mark’s reaction confirms that even if you could, you wouldn’t remember it accurately. It’s just a matter of time until the cranes learn the same lesson.
“Now we live in unclear echoes,” Powers writes after detailing the Cree legend regarding the crane, known as the echo maker, the great orator, when animals and humans spoke the same language. Here, specifically, the echoes are of 9/11, with an uncertain society marching unsteadily into the fog of Iraq.
Divine and delightful, Powers’ writing always gets into your head. In previous works, he has weighed in on virtual reality (Plowing the Dark), artificial intelligence (Galatea 2.2), the cross-pollination of music and genetics (The Gold Bug Variations) and the daily eco-disasters wrought casually by conglomerates in their quest to sell you the perfect product (Gain).
Despite some passages that read more like real medical case studies than literary work, The Echo Maker, which recently won the National Book Award as the year’s best work of fiction, is Powers’ most accessible work to date.
His brand of high-tech lit is always in step with today’s jargon and pop culture, teeming with characters who are influenced by forces they neither understand nor control as they pursue their dysfunctional dreams. The Echo Maker is the perfect primer for the 21st century because it reminds us that while the promise of science is great, so is its toll on nature and humanity because it ultimately creates more questions than answers.