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Dr Alistair Brown
Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more


Richard Powers, The Echo Maker

Abstract

Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind.

Essay

The Echo Maker is well titled, for the novel is a sustained meditation on the reflections we see of ourselves in other people. At the centre is Mark Schluter, who suffers from Capgras syndrome as a consequence of a car accident, causing him to believe that his older sister, Karin, is being impersonated by an imposter. His paranoid vision of a sibling who was once his role model reflects the respectable life this talented man has chosen not to lead, as he prefers to bum around with friends and work at a meat processing plant. Karin leaves behind her good job in the city to return to the introverted Nebraskan neighbourhood of Kearney, to care for her brother over his drawn-out rehabilitation. In him she sees the image of everything she fears about herself, the unfulfilling life she has been trying to escape at the expense of her family and roots. Finally, Gerald Weber is a cognitive neurologist and popular science writer, modelled on Oliver Sacks, whom Karin calls in desperation. He is fascinated by Schluter’s unique pathology. In Mark, Weber perceives a vindication of his lifelong claim that the physical cannot fully explain the psychological, that there is more to mind than the grey matter that his younger colleagues are studying so avidly in their MRI scanners.

As a structural whole, Powers sets up echoes between these three characters that are deeply humanistic. Weber’s mantra is that “baseline consciousness involves suffering,” that those case studies of bizarre syndromes – synaesthesia, prosopagnosia, Anton’s – that he describes in his books are on a continuum with “normal” consciousness, rather than being qualitatively different. Weber might have stepped out of an earlier Powers’ novel, Galatea 2.2, which is set in a cognitive science laboratory where the boundaries between the sane and the insane, or between human and artificial intelligence, are fuzzy. The universally peculiar instincts of the mind are certainly demonstrated in the characters of The Echo Maker, whose interactions are portrayed with an awkwardness and misperception that is very human.

Yet if Powers’ intention is to convey the spectrum of human behaviour, it is inconsistent that his major and his minor characters are so sharply discriminated. His principle antagonists are given rich inner lives, such as when Powers switches to a present tense, free style to convey their inner thoughts, something which works particularly effectively to convey Mark’s skewed view of the world. Yet the other surrounding characters are treated more in two dimensions, even rigidly caricatured. Daniel, Karin’s lover, is a modern day saint, a naturalist who puts up too resiliently with her anxious responses to her brother (also his estranged best friend). Mark’s girlfriend, Beatrice, works as an actress in a living museum of frontier America, and is an idealised, all-American girl right from her religious sincerity to her Daisy Duke shorts. Sylvia is the supportive wife of Weber, who accepts his self-doubts about his career and continuous trips away from home to promote his books with barely a whimper. Barbara is Mark’s assured and sensitive nurse who exudes a strange aura of calm and care. These stereotypes are epitomised by Karsh, Karin’s former adulterous boyfriend and now a real-estate developer, whose ambitions are as big as his libido. When Karin returns to Kearney, Karsh seems peculiarly too timid to get in touch with her, yet when she confronts him in the city that he has renovated he claims that he has “always wanted to do at least one thing in my life that would make you proud of me” (296). Maybe Powers’ point in these minor figures is that some people are inexplicable by being so simplistically the echoes of stereotypes, performing up to a role just as Mark, in his own way, acts according to the delusions of his brain. However, since this stereotyping makes them incapable of surprising us with any complexity, they fail the first test of E.M. Forster’s definition of the rounded character, and thus incongruously cast. They contrast awkwardly with the three main characters who throughout The Echo Maker teeter unpredictably, and therefore interestingly, on the brink of breakdown.

In one of the major figures, Weber, there is another problem. It is always challenging for a novelist to write about scientific culture, because the reader needs things explaining that the scientist him or herself would take for granted. Thus there are passages of free indirect style in which, peculiarly, Weber has to explain to himself (that is to say, for the benefit of the reader) the vocabulary he uses:

The meeting gave him a chance to try out a talk he didn’t dare present anywhere else: a theory about why patients who suffered from finger agnosia – the inability to name which finger was being touched or pointed to – often also suffered from dyscalculia – mathematical disability. (230)

Admittedly, it is hard to negotiate a way around this issue, although Powers managed it more comfortably in Galatea 2.2 by having a novelist (a witty impersonation of himself) ask of the computer scientists the naive questions that readers need answering. Powers’ alternative technique in The Echo Maker is to quote verbatim passages from Weber’s previous books, which works somewhat better – although it risks that the made-up passages are almost as engaging as the novel that these details are there to support.

More problematic is the notion that a scientist at the height of his career would attend so sustainedly to a single Capgras patient. In The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, which always lurks in the background here, the neurologist Oliver Sacks represented case studies of patients who had actively come to him; but in a deeply humane work there was little suggestion that he was exploiting them for literary effect without first treating them medically. In Weber, by contrast, we have a figure who, like some kind of psychiatric mercenary, dashes half way across the USA in response to a pleading letter from the patient’s sister, ostensibly because he is interested in the pathology but possibly too because he sees in Mark’s unique case the inspirational spark for his next book. Apart from it not being credible that a scientist at a major university could drop his lab research to pursue a whim, it seems unlikely that something like Capgras would excite him so much, either for literary or for medical reasons. What is there that makes Capgras a more striking insight into the mind than synaesthesia, or paranoid schizophrenia? Undoubtedly Mark’s case is interesting in terms of the novel and its echoing structure, and Powers conveys his misperceptions in careful detail, accurately showing how such patients rationalise their view of the world (with the novel set in the wake of September 11th, Mark believes his sister has been substituted as part of a government plot). But it is hard to see what in terms of solving the mysteries of consciousness makes Mark’s case any more explanatory than those pathologies Weber has covered in his earlier work, which Powers pastiches here. Consequently, it is hard to avoid feeling that Capgras is not the accidental cause of the relationship between Mark, Karin and Weber, but a deliberately-chosen metaphor for it, and indeed a metaphor for a world after 2001 in which Americans generally are suffering a crisis of confidence and identity.

The second structural metaphor of the book is similarly troublesome. The recurring motif of the mass of migratory cranes that roost on the River Platte beside Kearney sets up echoes with its major themes in a swirl of lyrical writing about flocks and fantasy. As material things, the cranes suffer from an ongoing environmental catastrophe, the analogue to Mark’s accident (which they passively witness). As mythic creatures, their ability to return to the same breeding grounds cannot be explained, thus figuring the mysteries of consciousness. They also stand for the more basic behaviours and instincts that, Powers suggests, lie at the root of us all – not least, if perhaps unwittingly, embodied in flat characters like Karsh who is motivated simplistically by sex. The cranes provide a grand naturalistic pattern of the events that are happening at the human scale, reminiscent of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Human beings are primitively biological. But such a Darwinian concept is hardly new, and as the metaphor gets repeated through 450 pages it starts to wear thin. Powers’ passages of description thus risk seeming like a lyrical sideshow, the chance to free his literary wings when the overall realism of the book gets too constrictive.

Just as Mark is deceived by his sister, assuming she has been replaced by a double, so in wider society science and literature are sometimes misperceived doubles of each other. One of Powers’ aims here, in keeping with the novel of “two cultures,” is to show their common ground. Weber’s mysteries of mind are given alternative explanations through the novelist’s point of view; the biological phenomenon of the cranes offers a creative metaphor – a mirror image in nature – for the cognitive phenomena of our inner thoughts. For all its flaws, the novel serves to give us a rounded portrait of human experience through setting up these echoes. However, effective though these sound at the start, as the book keeps calling out in its didactic game, the later returning echoes start to sound increasingly hollow and unrealistic.

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This page was published on July 12, 2012 | Keywords: The Echo Maker, Capgras, consciousness, Richard Powers

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