The Echo Maker, by Richard Powers, Read by Bernadette Dunne, BBC Audiobooks
Capgras syndrome (or delusion) is one of the very strange ways our brain can cease to function properly. Simply put, sufferers believe that people they know and love have been replaced by identical impostors. The who and why of this duplication remains individualized for each sufferer. Considered a kind of mirror reverse to another disorder known as prosopagnosia, Capgras sufferers tend to show physiological recognition of familiar faces (measured by galvanic skin response), but a resistance to actual emotional, psychological recognition. The implications of this, of how the brain processes emotional responses to visual stimuli, are rather far reaching.
Scientifically speaking. For the purposes of literature, Capgras opens up an entirely different vista, revisiting the familiar theme of the notion of self and identity. Are we who we perceive ourselves to be or are we who others think we are? Are both views correct to some degree or neither?
In his National Book Award finalist novel, The Echo Maker, Richard Powers drops his narrator Karin Schluter right into this crisis shortly after her brother Mark’s truck flips over out on the highway. The resulting brain damage from his accident causes Mark to recognize his sister physically, but not emotionally. The way he becomes dependent on and resentful of this “replacement Karin” is fascinating, and Power makes sure that Karin feels the full extent of the estrangement.
Having moved away years ago, having repeatedly tried throughout her history to redefine herself, having cut almost all connections with her past, Karin is a portrait of character in search of identity stability. Mark’s Capgras-based accusations that she is not who she is pretending to be are both frustrating for her, but also the traumatic means by which she works towards coming to terms with that most elemental of all questions, Who am I?
Powers’ book has a kind of engaging power, the story moving along with certain rapidity for a tale that is mostly about recovery and recuperation. After flipping his truck on an icy road, with evidence provided by the police that it was unlikely to be an accident, Mark, when he finally moves out of his coma, decides he will solve the mystery of his wreck. Also working toward a solution, Karin calls in an Oliver Sachs-like world-famous neurologist, Gerald Weber, to test and try to cure her brother.
The addition of Weber to the plot provides rather interesting scientific analysis of Mark’s Capgras, but it also underlines and reinforces Powers’ theme of identity. Once considered a kind of pop-savior in neurological disorders, Weber is coming increasingly under fire for what many consider his unethical poaching on those with brain disorders for his own fame and glory. Weber, in a more extreme form of identity crisis than Karin’s, has to confront the very real prospect that his most severe critics might have a point.
Part of the novel’s energy comes from the hidden secrets, the secret of who called the police to save Mark’s life, the secret of who ran Mark off the road, but even more intriguing in the tale is how much Mark knows that he can neither communicate to others nor completely reconstruct in his memory. He is helped in his reconstruction by his nurse, the seemingly overqualified Barbara Gillespie, who carries secrets of her own.
More prosaically, Karin finds herself caught between the two men with whom she was romantically linked in her past, Daniel and Robert Karsh, neither man fully understanding the other. It is perhaps too pat that Daniel is an environmental crusader on a doomed mission to save the town’s cranes from exploitation while Karsh is a developer, determined to build on the birds’ nesting site, though both men’s certainty of self act as differing paths of recognition for Karin. Daniel, too, holds a secret about Mark (or is it the other way around?), and the anticlimactic revelation of this paves the way for larger and more complicated revelations later on.
The book’s final chapters resolve so many differing plot points it’s almost as if Powers wished for a neat conclusion or came to like his characters so much that he couldn’t bring himself to let any more unhappiness pass their way. Nothing that unfolds is particularly dramatic or hard to credit, but there does linger a kind of too-patness to the book’s closing. At the very least, the author left one string dangling for us to consider after we’ve read the last words.
The Echo Maker (and Powers as a writer in general) has been described in many places as powerful and muscular, though this latter adjective feels wrong, feels like the kind of thing people say about machismo-inflected world of Hemingway or Raymond Carver. His prose here tends toward the philosophical, the repetitive, and the expansive, though with a kind of stark
Reader Bernadette Dunne has a kind of whispery tone as though she were imparting family secrets with a fear of being overheard. This is rather fitting for a book like this, an unfolding of the secrets each character is constantly murmuring to him or herself.