on 10 April 2007
As a true fan of psychological reading I must have been among the first ones to have ordered the hardcopy from Amazon only to find myself surprisingly disappointed even after having read only the first few chapters. I struggled till the very end not giving up, but there was hardly anything to prove my first impressions wrong. A few thought-provoking but too well known neurological facts scattered across an obscure and dull narrative, some speculations over a handful of other popular ideas e.g. ecological crisis, overpopulation, pressures of modern life etc. (well-done, but not too persuasive), a couple of in-built lectures to throw in the face of the reader more "gripping" facts (is it some mocking of Dan Brown?). No matter how hard I tried I could not feel the author's sincerity or his genuine interest in the ideas he is writing about. It is a decent piece of writing, well thought-through, well structured, and full of "correct" ideas, but just has no sense of direction, no soul. Probably that was the whole idea though - to convey the pointlessness of modern-day life and tell us once again that we are going nowhere? Please, not again. If you want to try, go ahead, but go for a cheap paperback and don't forget to recycle it.
on 7 September 2011
I always ending buying copies of this book (mostly second hand I confess) because I give so many copies away, or people borrow a copy and it never comes back and i feel I'm taking something important away from them if I ask for it back.
This book more than most others you can read again and again because it has a poetry and a depth you cannot find in other novels and because you change over time so does this book.
The story? A sister looks after her brother after he has a terrible accident: 'he stops recognising his sister, because some part of him has stopped recognising himself.'
American author Richard Powers explores the ideas of mind, soul and self in this prize-winning novel. Mark Schluter suffers a near-fatal car crash one cold night and awakes unable to recognise his only sister, Karen. In fact, he believes that Karen is a doppelganger of the version he has in his memories. He is diagnosed as suffering from the extremely rare disorder known as Capgras Syndrome. Over the course of the novel his paranoia develops even further.
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.
It's hard for me to know who would like this book. It contains a great deal of information about how the brain works, consciousness is created, and the quirks of various mental disorders . . . but someone interested in those subjects would typically read a nonfiction book on the subject instead.
At the same time, those who like novels generally are looking for a story that moves through actions rather faster than the repeated ramblings in the characters' minds on the same subjects. With three narrators, you get to read about three sets of repetitive ramblings.
I must agree that I've never read a book quite like this, and I enjoy learning more about the latest in the neurosciences and how unusual conditions arise. Much of the book, however, reminded me of the paranoid ravings of a schizophrenic I knew once. Realizing the similarity to what a schizophrenic would say and do . . . and what the treatments are, I became skeptical about how accurate this book's fiction is for this particular brain injury.
There's some poetic material tying our common genetic heritages together between the human and animal worlds, but that's clearly secondary to the main messages.
I felt, too, that the book took too long to develop: Seemingly trying to make us suffer along with some of the characters by having to bear up with the problems for a long time.
I certainly agree with those who are impressed by the scope of the book's vision . . . I just don't agree with how well that vision was implemented. There are instances of fine writing in the book, but the overall plan didn't satisfy me as a way to communicate those points.
Unless you feel compelled to read this book because of the disagreements about it, I suggest you skip it.
on 1 June 2007
An interesting storyline is terribly overwritten by Richard Powers. The prose is dense and pretentious, with seemingly innocuous exchanges between characters sitting oddly next to deeply melodramatic soul-searching. The neurology is fairly sound (I was given the book because I'm a neuropsychologist) and I, like one of the other reviewers, stuck with the story in order to see what happened. Powers' desperately erudite style, though, and his efforts to weave philosophy of consciousness into almost every sentence, make for a very unsatisfying read. Although grammatically correct, his glaring use of the possessive pronoun with gerunds "It wouldn't have made any difference, *our* coming forwards", in all characters from the well-spoken neurologist to the beer-drinking, truck-racing lads, makes the speech stilted and unrealistic. Overall, a very disappointing book.
on 6 December 2007
If you spent a week reading "The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat" while watching the Hallmark Channel, you might end up writing this novel. Mark Shluter has crashed his truck and his sister, Karin, quits her job and dumps her boyfriend to take care of him. But Mark suffered a brain injury in the accident and insists that his sister is not his sister but someone pretending to be his sister. A famous neurologist, Gerald Weber, arrives to see Mark so he can write about him in his next book. And some cranes fly through town on their way to Alaska.
The main problem with the story is that Powers does nothing with the story. His characters are uninteresting to start with and are completely unbelievable. They don't react to situations, they overreact. Everything that happens is the most important thing that has ever happened and every character reacts that way. And Powers doesn't tell a story, too often he tells us about a story. For example, when Weber goes on a television show, we only find out that he embarrasses himself during the interview but not what he said that was so terrible that it destroyed sales of his book. Weber, a crucial character in the story, is the weakest written character in the book. It is virtually impossible to justify or understand his actions. And if two people have sex in the mud, don't you think they might want to shower or at least change their clothes before going off to lunch and then on to some tourist attraction?
There are some good parts of the book. The mystery of the letter left at the hospital is interesting and is wrapped up quite nicely. In a clever and effective technique, Powers writes alternating sections from the point of view of the various characters. But the book would have been much better if Powers had reduced the length by about 200 pages. I found myself becoming bored with the characters and the story. Serious editing and the elimination of certain story threads could have kept the book short enough to make us not care that the characters are completely unlikeable and unbelievable. But at 450 pages, the holes in the characters shine through.
"The Echo Maker" is the only novel by Richard Powers that I have read so far. It's obviously the product of a curious and interesting mind, and Powers can write effectively and even eloquently in more than one register. For all that, the overall effect is less than the sum of its parts. Because one of its centers of consciousness is a reflective, even narcissistic, neuroscientist, and because he's called in to help understand a young man (another of the book's centers of consciousness) who as a result of an automobile accident suffers from post-traumatic Capgrass syndrome, there's a lot of mulling over the questions about the stability of identity and the possibility that a rigorous science of mind might solve all the problems of understanding consciousness. In Capgrass syndrome, the sufferer recognizes relatives and friends but can't be brought to believe that they are really who they seem to be. Thus the young man's sister, Karin (the novel's third center of consciousness), is believed by her brother to be another person acting the part of Karin. He calls her at times Kopy Karin or Karbon Karin in his thinking about her. Because of the doctor's presence, all three of these main characters become relatively fluent in the jargon of neurology, but as the novel progresses, the reader never comes to feel that the language of neuroscience is ever any more than the language in which these characters, because of their circumstances, deal with fears and anxieties that are in fact quite ordinary -- indeed, the standard stuff of much contemporary middlebrow fiction. These fears and anxieties have to do with feelings of individual self-worth in relation to profession and family, and the whole business of neuroscience in the novel has less to do with clarifying their internal states (to themselves and the reader) than with providing the means by which these states (anxiety, depression, fear) are expressed (as opposed to resolved).
The professional/personal anxieties of the three centers of consciousness also turn out to be being experienced by another character, Barbara, a medical aide in the clinic where the young man is being rehabilitated. We learn this about her VERY late in the novel -- up to that point she has been a focus of moral and erotic interest on the parts of the other main characters because of what seems to be an almost impossibly calm self-possession and confidence. Powers's use of Barbara is a serious problem for the novel. She becomes the means by which Powers resolves some of the questions that the plot raises for us and for the young man, mainly those surrounding the circumstances of the automobile accident that damaged his brain. Without giving too much away, I would just say that the deployment of the character is unconvincing. She ends up, really, as a plot-convenience: there is no real reason why things that are revealed at the end of the novel could not have been revealed earlier.
Then there are the cranes, the echo makers of the title, which call forth some of Powers's most lyrical and affecting writing. The novel is set along the Platte River in Nebraska where the cranes stop over (in their tens of thousands) on their migratory path. The mystery of the birds' brains -- their ability to orient themselves in a huge natural environment, year after year, prompts obvious comparisons with the narcissistic self-consciousness of the human protagonists. There are plot elements that bear on issues of over-development of natural habitats by entrepreneurs and on the the struggles to weigh the benefits to a human community against the damage to the cranes' habitat. All of that is quite predictably handled and is tied into the main story via the brain-damaged young man's paranoia: ironically, it turns out that there ARE people plotting and deceiving one another -- but not for any reason having anything to do with him.
All in all, I wasn't bored by the book, but the characters are irritating in their narcissism, and the plotting does seem to me to come down to a trick by which Powers wraps everything up.
on 3 January 2011
A good story with a twist in the tale, along with a good portrayal of the tragedy of brain injury and the effects on the family.
on 9 May 2008
The Echo Maker is Richard Powers nineth novel, and its greatness can be measured by the fact that it was a Pulitzer prize finalist and went on to win the National Book Award, 2006. Reviewers have been dumbfounded by the fact that Powers is not well known in the United Kingdom. I too find it hard to understand why he is not well know in this country. Indeed, I will go a step further and perhaps make a controversial remark to the effect that Powers is a greater novelist than any contemporary British novelist. His subject matter is broad, his themes are huge and universal and his prose is stylish and always relevant to the subject matter.
The novel is set perhaps in the unglamorous state of Nebraska and has at its centre four main characters: Mark and Karin Schluter, brother and sister, Gerald Weber a neurologist and Barbara Gillespie who would have us believe that she is a mere hospital worker. However, the story narrated in the third person, focuses on Mark who suffers a truck accident and finds himself in hospital. As he slowly revives it is discovered that he is suffering from Capgras Syndrome a brain affliction which can lead to the sufferer not recognizing those close to him. Indeed, Mark fails to recoginze his sister, Karin. Meanwhile, as Mark lie unconscious someone leaves a mysterious note at his bedside that reads: "I am No One but Tonight on North Line Road GOD led me to you so You could live and bring back someone else." Karin becomes distraught by the fact that her brother no longer recognizes her so she summons the help of neurologist Gerald Weber. This conumdrum of Capras Syndrome, the mysterious note, the lives of the four main characters and an interest by Powers in the activities of Sandhill Cranes set up a story, that is broad, complex and rich in detail; around ecology and the environment, a love story, a psychological thriller and a powerful character analysis of Weber.
Deriving from that web of stories are some huge universal themes such as: evolution, consciousness, the philosophical promlem of personal identity, memory, ecology, the fragile nature of the self, the human need for love and belonging and the progress of science. Powers manage these themes confidently and with expertise. Although the text is littered with technical terms, Powers is never codescending and his prose is crystal clear. Here in lies part of his greatness: his ability to take up big issues, and render them clearly so that he appeals to people from vastly different cultural backgrounds.
Powers has been called a genius. To some extent I can see why but I will stop short of that and say that he is a very, very clever novelist. Whilst tackling the above realistic issues, in the same novel Powers have the ability and skills to turn the course of his narrative onto a symbolic level. Symbolically, he draws a lot of significance from the Cranes that visit the Platte. The first section of part 3 is told in the form of a mythical parable. The Cranes are the echo makers and when animals and humans shared the same language the Cranes were supposedly able to communicate with us. However, Powers believe that, "we now live in unclear echoes." Its as if he is suggesting that we must take heed of the signs around us in relation to what we do to ourselves and the plannet.
Yet on another level Powers' novel is more than a brilliant display of science, philosophy and psychological thriller. It also presents four character portraits none more revealing than the character analysis of the neuroscientist Gerald Weber. Through Weber Powers paint a portrait that is as complex, bright and vivid as any other character portrait that I have come across in the comtemporary novel. And let me not forget Karin, Powers certainly cannot be accused of being unable to draw female characters. Through Karin he reveals how events, tragic though they may be, can unlock the self and bring out hidden qualities.
As for the how of this great novel, the story is shot through with great panache and style. Powers has the ability to vary his style easily so where the story takes the form of a thriller his sentences are short and crips creating a quick pace to maintain interst. Where he narrates the story of the cranes his style becomes poetic and his of language is pristine. He is a novelist that looks at and presents the familiar in new ways. Here is an example, Karin takes Mark for a 'spin' outside the hospital and Powers comments on the surroundings thus: "The air around them filled with spring's first insect drones. The winter aconite was already fading, and the crocuses and daffodils pushed through the last clump of snow." Furthermore, although he deals with some serious and profound issues in parts the story is told with a light touch of humour.
The Echo Maker does not take the reader on an emotional journey. Instead, what it does, and does it brilliantly, is to take the reader on a thought provoking intellectual journey. I know that we the British tends to be averse to anything that pertains to the intellect but there is nothing wrong with such a journey. Ultimately, it appears to me that what Powers has done in this novel is to explore the huge question of what it is to be a human being and how as human beings we should find a way of sharing the planet and make the best of the environment. Given such a huge and ambitious aim, I cannot claim to have fully comprehend this great novel in one reading. But that in itself is a mark of all great art when one returns to it some thing new is revealed. The book is a demanding read but it is worth the effort.
on 18 February 2008
"The Echo Maker" is the ninth and latest novel by American author Richard Powers. One winter's night in Nebraska, Karin Schluter receives a call: her brother Mark has been involved in a near-fatal road accident and is in hospital, critically injured and possibly brain-damaged. When finally he awakes from his coma, he seems to have made a full recovery except for one detail: he believes that Karin is not his real sister but in fact a near-identical impostor. Mark is suffering from an extremely rare recognition disorder known as Capgras Syndrome. Devastated by her brother's insistent denial of her, Karin calls on renowned neurologist Gerald Weber in a desperate plea for help. Meanwhile, Mark struggles to understand why and how his world appears suddenly changed. With the sole clue available to him - an anonymous note left by his hospital bedside - he slowly begins to discover what actually happened on the night of his accident.
This is a novel full of grand themes, namely the relationship of mind, soul, brain and body, and the very nature of memory, reality and identity. What is the essence that makes us who we are? Does it matter how other people perceive us, and how are we ourselves shaped by their actions? This is by no means a dry read, however, since Powers fills his narrative with a cast of interesting and brilliantly realised characters, from the at-times neurotic Karin to the rational but increasingly depressive Weber, from Mark's beer-guzzling buddies to the mysterious care worker Barbara. All of these characters, too, have their problems, which are only exacerbated as they respond to the pressures of assisting Mark's recovery.
At the same time there are some elements of a detective story, or a psychological thriller, and indeed Powers does remarkably well to maintain the suspense over the course of 550 pages. For the most part his prose flows very well, and is not impeded either by the gravity of the issues at hand or by an excess of neurobiological information or language. Unfortunately, it is let down in the closing twenty to thirty pages of the book, where the narrative degenerates to the point where it is almost unintelligible, and the dialogue becomes a mess of cryptic half-sentences. Indeed the resolution as a whole feels somewhat rushed and chaotic, and ultimately unsatisfying for a novel of this length.
This aside, however, "The Echo Maker" is a fascinating - and in many places unsettling - journey through the manifold quirks of the human mind. On the whole it remains a stimulating and engaging read, and one that I can recommend.