Wooden Disposition

jameswood2It is difficult to respond to James Wood’s remarkable misreading of Richard Powers’s Generosity without giving away the ending. As someone who respects a reader’s sense of discovery and who therefore stays mum on “spoilers” — a term that I suspect Wood is unfamiliar with — I would not dare give up the ghost. Needless to say, as I anticipated, Wood has again demonstrated his predictably vanilla failings with idea-driven novels. He is once again hysterical, starving and naked in a sad but interesting way, about a novel that is not always intended to be explicitly realist. Wood is certainly a fine literary critic and a giddy finger drummer. He’s been leveled with many needless generalizations about his aesthetic tastes and sensibilities, including Colson Whitehead’s puerile parody. But this latest New Yorker essay simply does not reflect his apparent good faith efforts to adjust his own opinions and prejudices.

To wit: Surely the many fades closing Generosity should have offered Wood a clue as to what was going on. Here is a novel that not only depicts why we are drawn to fiction, but why we are seduced by information. If Wood hasn’t been trawling along the edges of social networks in the past few years, then he’s missed out on some of the more pointed potshots on online authority. If only Wood had familiarized himself with Technorati’s definition, he might have understood some of the metrics at work here. (And indeed, Generosity‘s greatest flaw is that it may not date very well.) Surely the clear pisstake of Oprah Winfrey, with the novel’s stand-in given “the power to create instant celebrities, sell hundreds of millions of books, make or break entire consumer industries, expose frauds, marshal mammoth relief efforts, and change the spoken language” should have registered in Wood’s brain as goofy, but nevertheless true hyperbole. Surely the extended sequence when the power shuts off in Chicago, written in a sincere and melodramatic tone, should have clued Wood in that here was a novel in which narrative dichotomies were intended to fuse. Wood has read this book so without care that he makes no reference to the “author” who frequently jumps into this book to announce his presence. “Forgive one more massive jump cut,” this mysterious narrator says early on, revealing what happens to Tonia Schiff. “I have her flip up her window slide and look out the plastic portal,” concludes the passage. And we wonder whether the creative nonfiction here is written by Thassa or by the “author” of the book. If this is all about boxes within boxes, has Powers authored another author? Or is this him? Who’s being generous here? Certainly not Wood.

richardpowersThis life of the mind is fun stuff, as Powers has suggested to us throughout his work. But Wood is simply too married to the idea of characters as distinct individuals to smile. From How Fiction Works: “Even the characters we think of as ‘solidly realized’ in the conventional realist sense are less solid the longer we look at them.” The problem here is that Wood has failed to look long enough to see what Powers is up to. As Edmond Caldwell suggested some months back, Wood’s narrow definition of “negative capability” means that we are never permitted to forget that the terms themselves are limited.

While Wood is certainly qualified to write about realist and modernist books, he cannot have the orderlies loosen the straps long enough to understand that Generosity is, like all novels, a fictive construct. In his review, he shows his contempt for books outside his natural affinity by misconstruing “enhancement” for “entertainment.” And Wood’s failure to comprehend that Generosity is a postmodernist con about our present information age’s indignities and expectations — a con that is somehow fair and respectful to the reader, but a con nonetheless — says much about his critical and perceptive limitations in this piece.

Among Wood’s complaints: In one passage, “Thomas Kurton is sketched journalistically, as David Brooks might glance at him in an Op-Ed column.” But how we know Kurton through the written word — in this case, through a laundry list of biographical details — isn’t necessarily how we’d know him in person. And since Generosity constantly reminds us of the novel’s form, the journalistic sketch is part of the point. How can the written word convey all the complexities of life? And why are we constantly demanding more of it? After all, one can say something sincerely, but it may read as hokey when written down.

Wood falls into the trap of generalizing about Powers’s work. All of Powers novels, Wood writes, are double plotted, with the secondary plot “almost always boy-meets-girl, in which protagonists connected to the first plot meet and fall in love or lust.” Would that include Gain‘s secondary plot of a woman suffering from ovarian cancer? As Tom Bissell has noted, Plowing the Dark is more concerned with the inverse relationship between shifting ambition and young love. That hardly fulfills the “boy-meets-girl” proviso. Wood makes no mention of The Time of Our Singing in his essay, and the love contained within is hardly generic. Has Wood even read it?

Wood also points to Powers’s ambition for clarity, and he is right on this point. But he cannot seem to understand that those who inhabit the grand realm of ideas, whether Powers the author or his often brainy characters, are also contending with raw emotions. The day-to-day shit that is subconsciously tied to an active mind. Archimedes’s principle — or, rather, the principle behind the principle — means living a life to come up with an earth-shattering idea. In Archimedes’s case, it was discovering buoyancy while resting in the bathtub. And so it is with Powers’s fiction. This dichotomy is only difficult for the reader if he is morose enough to believe that the quotidian is low voltage. The scientists in Powers’s books talk like scientists because they are presented with the danger of a life with nothing but ideas and vocation. Thus, it is close third person description that reveals the sympathies behind Dr. Stuart Ressler’s nascent problems in finding that fused point, with Gerald Weber experiencing similar dissonance. He kisses his wife while studying the brain. Of course, he’s going to look for generic reference points. But will the reader find the unity before Weber does? The commonplace stuff of life also includes lines like “I’m not yelling” in Gain. Wood’s failure to understand these connective points suggest a critic who is afraid to be taken out of his comfort zone, a man who, despite his mostly dignified engagement, is too suffocated by the realist straps in his straitjacket.

UPDATE: James Wood responds:

Thank you for that sensible response to my review of Richard Powers’s new novel. It is absolutely not true that I am hostile to ideas in fiction — but if you think the “ideas” in his latest novel are worth much, then we do indeed have a real disagreement.

Of course I noticed all the metafictionality buzzing around the novel — Powers fairly hits us over the head with it. I’d have to be moronic to miss it. But it is very hard to read, let along forgive, a novel that has lines like: “Thassa is twenty-three years old, give or take an era,” or talks about the “travelogue aromas” of her Moroccan cooking. Every page has hideous sentences. Your position amounts to forgiving this kind of atrocious writing on the basis that Powers decided to write the entire novel self-consciously, as if with the pen of a very bad writer who is not himself. I guess it’s possible, and that thought did indeed cross my mind as I read the book. But it would be a pretty stupid thing to do, no? And then one goes back and looks at the much less metafictional earlier work, and finds equally atrocious writing (”mocha locks of hair,” and so on). Perhaps they are all written by alter egos of Richard Powers, programmed by him to write badly?

I think Powers is very brilliant, and very talented, in a way. It is hard not to admire the intellectual intensity of “The Gold Bug Variations.” But despite how daring he is with ideas, he is very conservative about the self, in fact (unlike Michel Houellebecq, say). And, technically speaking — I mean, as a writer of narrative — he is like Dreiser attached to the mind of Pynchon. It makes for curiously hobbled texts. And Dreiser, despite being a terrible prose stylist, has real power, which Powers has only intermittently.

New Richard Powers Novel Has Title and Release Date

FSG has recently announced a spate of titles for fall 2009. Among the bunch is Richard Power’s new novel, Generosity: An Enhancement, which is set for release in October. As soon as I determine any additional information, I will certainly report it here.

And if you somehow missed out on the comprehensive roundtable discussion of Powers’s last novel, The Echo Maker (which included a contribution from Powers himself), you can revisit the conversation here.

[12/17 UPDATE: I’ve been informed by several sources that the new novel is about the discovery of a happiness gene, which certainly places Power’s recent essay on the human genome in an interesting light. More info as I uncover it.]

New Richard Powers Interview

In this month’s Believer (incidentally, the first issue to carry an advertisement, of which the editors write, “This is the first time we’re taking ads, and it will allow the magazine to continue to exist. In future issues, there will be one page occupied by an advertising message, and this message will likely always be for a book or books you might want to buy. Having this one page of advertising per issue will enable us to pay our tiny staff better. Thanks for understanding.”), there’s a new interview with Richard Powers conducted by Alex Michod.

Atwood Nails It

New York Review of Books: “So if [Richard Powers is] so good, why isn’t he better known? Let me put it another way —why haven’t his books won more medals? It’s as if juries have recognized the prodigious talent, the impressive achievement, and have put him onto short lists, but then have drawn back, as if they’ve suddenly felt that they might be giving an award to somebody not quite human—to Mr. Spock of Star Trek, for instance. He’s got a Vulcan mind-meld on the critics, all right, but could it be that he’s just not cozy enough at the core—that he’s too challenging, or daunting, or— dread word—too bleak?” (Thanks Matthew!)

Richard Powers

First Vollmann, now Powers. It seems the folks at the National Book Foundation and I are in sync these days. At last report, shortly after the ceremony closed up, the poor man was mobbed.

For those who are absolutely new to Richard Powers (and what a treat you’re in for, if you are), here are some good places to start (I’ll add more to this list later):



Another Richard Powers Interview

While the New York papers don’t seem to be having a lot of luck these days talking with Richard Powers before the National Book Awards, yet another Chicago media outlet nabs an interview with Powers: this time, it’s the Chicago Reader. It’s an interesting interview. Here, for example, is s Powers on the midwestern narrative:

I don’t think there’s a single midwestern narrative. I’ve tried different ways in several books to tap into some of those long rhythms that the midwest invites us to hear. But it’s a subtle place that opens up only gradually as you keep looking at it, and keep listening.

But I think there’s something else about the midwest. It’s the portion of the country that supports the coasts and makes the coasts possible, so it’s absolutely essential to how the American mind works in its role as a kind of primary producer for all the rest of this complex ecosystem. So that’s always intrigued me: America stripped bare. America without props and without distractions or disguises and protections.

Esposito on Powers

Scott has an excellent Friday column on Richard Powers:

But if in Powers we lose a sense of mystery, we gain a sense of wonder. One of the most striking aspects of a Powers novel is the sense of genuine amazement at the natural world that the reader is left with. This is no small achievement tn an era in which it is often remarked that space shuttle flights are no longer televised because they have become so commonplace, so banal. Powers reveals a very real, very necessary awe at science and nature. This is no preachy exercise, no citing of facts and figures; it is something that is communicated through the stories and metaphors, something that takes hold of you as you read without Powers needing to lay it out for you. It is humbling, which I believe is exactly Powers’s point, to re-instill a needed sense of humility as humans gain truly God-like powers over their environment. This is something that neither Pynchon nor DeLillo does, something I think only a Richard Powers could do.

Oliver Sacks Victimized by Richard Powers?

As bad as William Deresiewicz’s Echo Maker review was, it doesn’t hold a candle to the silly leaps in logic laid down by Craig Seligman, who accuses Richard Powers of victimizing Oliver Sacks:

Modeling Weber so closely on Sacks was mildly insane, because it points you toward Sacks’s rigorous prose — next to which the heated emotions and the elaborate literary scaffoldings in this book seem overcomplicated and false. If there’s exploitation here, the victim is Oliver Sacks.

Given that there are probably no more than a few pages of “Weber”‘s work within The Echo Maker, I’m wondering precisely how Powers has pointed towards Sacks’ prose (Sacks’ ideas and techniques, perhaps; but what does Sacks’ prose style have to do with it?). I believe it can be safely stated that Sacks was certainly one of the inspirations for the Weber character, but I think it’s up to the reader to determine these implicit connections.

Echo Maker Roundtable #5

(This is the fifth in a five-part roundtable discussion of Richard Powers’ The Echo Maker. Be sure to check out Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and Part Four.)

Richard Powers writes:

Holy Hippocampus (Bat Man): settling into this braided conversation gives me the weirdest and most wonderful sense of estrangement. And having to play the Author (while not quite believing the role) feels a little like a Weber-like misidentification syndrome, say, clonal pluralization of the self, or like some kind of anti-Capgras, where everyone here feels kin-deep to me, except me!

In any case, I’ve felt so much pleasure in the comments so far that I really hesitate to do any additional water-muddying at all. But as several folks have already pointed out, the book is all about the long, inescapable descent into the messiness of existence. So here goes No One.

I was thrilled by Judith’s invocation of Stevens (after Yeats, the poet who has meant the most to me) and by Jessica’s mention of Stoppard (the body of contemporary work I covet most). To me, they are both Apollonian, formal, neocortex writers who, in their very different ways, find their ways back into the swirling, Dionysian amygdala. This was my aim in Echo Maker: to put forward, at the same time, a glimpse of the solid, continuous, stable, perfect story we try to fashion about the world and about ourselves, while at the same time to lift the rug and glimpse the amorphous, improvised, messy, crack-strewn, gaping thing underneath all that narration.

echo5.jpgTo this end, my technique was what some scholars of narrative have called double voicing. Every section of the book (until a few passages at the end) is so closely focalized through Mark, Karin, or Weber that even the narration of material event is voiced entirely through their cognitive process: the world is nothing more than what these sensibilities assemble, without any appeal to outside authority.

(In this light: Jenny raises the valuable and highly-charged [don’t get excited, Jessica!] question of using scientific information, when that info is already familiar in non-fictional forms. To me, all the science in the book is less data in itself than highly loaded material *inside* Weber’s (or Karin’s, etc.) psyche. What happens to a man who knows all these facts intellectually, when he is suddenly slammed with them viscerally, personally? By the way, I heartily second Jenny’s recommendation of Ramachandran, for deeper looks at the material *as* scientific material, and I’ll add the names Feinberg, Gazzaniga, Broks, Damasio, and Skoyles—an amazing and growing body of literature.)

But as Levi suggests, all this exploration of the locked room of brain and memory circles back on the question of empathy. Are we sealed off inside our own narratives, or can we briefly know what it means to be another person, another species, another earlier or later version of our own shifting selves? Can our perfect, self-protecting story break and reassemble in a way that is large enough to include someone else’s? This may connect to Carolyn’s insight into how “characters” in each of our authored stories double back to challenge and give life to their would-be authors—each of us, condemned to “bring back” someone else.

I loved Sarah’s account of her little bout of reduplicative paramnesia on returning to NY after finishing the book. My four years of working on the book were filled with those quicksand moments. I’d go to these evening parties and involuntarily recreate whatever misidentification I’d just been reading and writing about all day. Story as sympathetic symptom adoption! At best, I hope the book can raise in the reader a profound doubt about the stability and reliability of her own self-narration, while suggesting that Capgras and the like are not just pathological exceptions but resemble transient conditions inside baseline consciousness. And that fact can open us to one another. Only in self-uncertainty can we make a little space for someone else’s story.

I definitely understand Judith’s worries about brokenness and closure. For me, even as the plot “wraps up” the mystery of the note and night of the accident, it tears open all the real questions: will Mark and Karin recognize each other, this time next year? (Perhaps they will never be closer than that moment, before his chemical “cure,” when he asks the Kopy Karin to remember him, even if his real sister reappears.) Will Barbara face down her conscience, or flee? If she stays, will Karin come to terms with what Barbara did? Is Karsh right that Karin will come back soon, as she always does? Where will Daniel go, when he realizes that even Alaska is already irreversibly compromised? Will Weber stay raw to his dismantling over the last year, or will he tidy himself back up (as he did with his cleaned-up memories of Barbara’s precursors)? Messiness: unlivable, inescapable, invaluable, cyclical…

I’ve probably gone on too long already, even without taking up Ed’s nature/nurture challenge, Dan’s question about hard-wiring, Megan’s musing on the cranes’ true memory, or Jessica’s doosey about the precise location of God in the tangled network. But let me say how wild it is (in all senses) to share symptoms with a group of total strangers, about whose age, race, location, nature, etc. I have no clue, but who feel weirdly familiar to me, simply for our having briefly inhabited the cracks in the same story.

Echo Maker Roundtable #4

(This is the fourth in a five-part roundtable discussion of Richard Powers’ The Echo Maker. Be sure to check out Part One, Part Two, and Part Three, and Part Five.)

[NOTE TO READER: Because this particular conversation reveals plot points about the end of the book, the text has been set in white to protect readers from spoilers. If you would like to read this text, use your cursor to highlight the blank spaces.]

Jessica Stockton writes:

I am No One
but Tonight on North Line Road
GOD led me to you
so You could Live
and bring back someone else.

The totemic note that sets the structure of the novel, which we ultimately find out was written by all-American, fucked-up Mark Schluter himself (sorry for the spoiler if you haven’t finished it), has something of the outsider artist about it: those improper capitals and line breaks making a kind of deeper, even mystical sense — whether or not they were consciously placed. Talk about cyclical, Ed: Mark’s desperate point in his last moments before the brain spike that changed him into someone else was that all-American, fucked-up Mark Schluter himself Barbara (though he doesn’t know her yet) must follow the same path he has (like a crane?) and act as a savior. The implication at the novel’s end is that all-American, fucked-up Mark Schluter himself,has something of the outsider artist about it: those improper capitals and line breaks making a kind of deeper, even mystical sense, whether or not they were consciously placed. Talk about cyclical, Ed: Mark’s desperate point in his last moments before the brain spike that changed him into someone else was that Barbara (though he doesn’t know her yet) must follow the same path he has (like a crane?) and act as a savior. The implication at the novel’s end is that it may be the cranes she is destined to save (if Mark’s efforts to get her involved in the Refuge and contribute her reporter’s skills are successful); though could it also be Weber she saves, or Karin, or Mark himself? The pattern is a little messy, but that’s also in keeping with the themes of the novel. I love Sarah’s point that some of the novel’s messiness and even its imperfection is a structure-reflects-content thing about the complexity and illogic of brain circuits and relationships and the whole human thing.

echo4.jpgOne thing that no one’s pointed out is the oddity of Mark evoking “GOD” in his note — he doesn’t seem particularly religious before or after the accident, and it would seem his experiences with his wacked-out religious fanatic mom would have soured him on the whole project. It seems to be something deep in Mark’s brain and his culture that comes out only at this most intense of moments. (To take a stab at Ed’s question: maybe it’s the environment that creates the latent makeup, the Midwest acting as a sort of mini-evolutionary petri dish to breed a certain kind of person and way of thinking, whether or not they ultimately become aware of it.) I think another one of the big American/social themes of the novel is that really old one: where does God fit in as we learn more through science, and does embracing God mean rejecting acquired knowledge? The scene with Karin and Bonnie terrified over the suggestion that the idea of God is just a set of wires in the head is their most powerful scene together, and Karin’s unvoiced thoughts go a long way toward articulating what seems to be Powers’ less extreme take on it. But reading between the lines as Powers seems to ask us to do, it’s the church-choked town of Kearney that’s soaking up the water resources that keep the cranes around; so maybe it’s God vs. nature? Honestly, I don’t think so. I’d be curious what Mr. Powers would say about it, but I imagine he would be more likely to say that crane’s memories of migration and human’s ideas of God are somewhat the same, a way to navigate the world even as it changes around you, modified as necessary but no less “real” than the ground they travel

As an integrator and a see-both-sides kind of writer, it seems unlikely that Powers is interested in contributing to the right/religious vs. left/environmentalist polarization that was kicking into higher gear at the time the novel is set.

And that’s another big-picture-reflects-small picture part of the novel that has been talked about in some of the interviews: the traumatic event of 9/11 making America lose its memory, refuse to recognize its closest kin (all men being created equal) and spin strange, self-justifying delusions. Mark is looking for the author of the note. America is also looking for itself. Mark can ultimately take a drug that calms his frying circuits enough to re-recognize his loved ones and start to put his life back together. Is there a comparative measure possible for the body politic, or is it too far gone?

Carolyn Kellogg writes:

This is fun. I deliberated for a while about what to write but Jessica’s thoughts on the note got me thinking …. this.

The mystery of the note-writer is one of the things that drives the plot; Mark goes to extraordinary lengths to figure out who it might have been. The fact that we get to the end and Mark has written the note himself is both shocking and, really, the only possible answer (and, yes, Ed, cyclical). It’s a lovely reversal: what Mark is looking for, the person with the answers about his accident, is himself. But it’s a former version of himself, a post-accident, pre-Capgras Mark, one that will disappear as soon as the note is written. It’s another fractured self, one that is lost but for what is captured on paper.

What I read in the text was that Mark was addressing Barbara. Mark writes: GOD let me [Mark] to you [Barbara]. Mark is saving Barbara. She stepped in front of his truck, wanting to die; by steering away from her, Mark saved her life.

I picture Mark in the truck, at the crash. Everything is dark. His head is bloodied. His truck has landed among the birds gathered in the wetland, the cranes, with their “blood red” heads. Hmm. Mark is like a crane. Reading the Bookforum review with Powers, he says the inspiration for the book came when he happened across the crane migration. Taking these two things together, isn’t the note also about authorial inspiration? Mark, the character, speaking to Powers, the writer?

I am No One
But tonight on North Line Road
GOD let me to you
so you could live
and bring back someone else.

Mark doesn’t exist (“I am No One”) until Powers invents him. When Powers is on the road and sees the cranes, the story is born. With his bloody head, Mark is a crane out in that field. And with divine inspiration for a new novel — divinity being naturelike more than churchlike, but that’s just me — the author again has a reason to live, bringing back not just Mark but the whole kaboodle of “someone else”s that make up The Echo Maker.

Maybe it’s a little extreme to say that characters exist to give life to an author (“so you could live”). But Gerald Weber’s story is of a writer who’s lost confidence, of an author in crisis. And so much of The Echo Maker is about the construction of narrative, whether physically in the brain, psychologically, with an affliction like Capgras, or through memory and the stories we tell (or don’t, like Barbara) — that I think the note can also be seen as being about narrative. Even as being about the writing process itself.

Levi Asher writes:

I’ll take a shot at Ed’s question (“is it the environment that causes these characters to disconnect or is it the characters’ latent makeup?”). The first thing that comes to mind is how much the characters in this book *do* connect, as well as how much they yearn to connect with each other when they are unable to do so.

A few of us have noted with pleasure the central place a brother-sister bond holds in this book. Mark Schluter is such a likable character, and the warmth he holds for the idea of his sister is deeply touching (as is the warmth he feels for his lost dog, his lost home, his lost job, his lost truck). Mark also yearns to connect with Bonnie, Barbara, Gerard Weber and even his old rejected best friend Daniel. He’s a smart-ass who covers up his vulnerability with constant insults (“Kopy Karin”, “The Incredible Shrinking Man”) and yet the character practically gushes over with love for those around him. The humanity Mark Schluter evokes is one of the most remarkable things in this book, and added greatly to my enjoyment of it.

But Mark Schluter isn’t the only one hungry for connection. There’s a lot of hooking-up in this book! The book portrays a sudden clustering-together of humanity, almost a migration of people to the Platte plains. Emotions abound in this book — hurt feelings and new attractions and past resentments and new fascinations fly in all directions. And yet, it is a book about disconnection, about the failure to recognize the ones we love best. My best shot at an answer to Ed’s question is that it is an overflow of emotion — an overabundance of connection — that causes these characters to disconnect.

And I don’t believe this condition is found only in Nebraska, or only occurs as a result of brain injury. I’m pretty sure this is meant to be a universal condition.

I see two hints of this in the book. When Gerard Weber is talking to Dr. Hayes, he suggests that there must be an emotional basis to Mark’s syndrome. This is later apparently negated by the success of drug therapy, and yet we know as readers that Weber’s point remains important despite the ironic “easy solution” of an anti-psychotic drug.

The second hint is when Karin asks Mark whether their father ever abused him. This single mention is never returned to, never explained. Certainly, though, it relates to Weber’s point when talking to Hayes. There was some trauma — some reason why Mark clutched with sudden fear at Karin the first time he saw her face in the hospital, before the brain swelling that made his condition worse. Whatever is the answer to the question, it has something to do with this.

Dan Wickett writes:

Ed puts forth a question for us, specifically referring to incidents affecting Karin, and Gerald Weber:

“… is it the environment that causes these characters to disconnect or is it the characters’ latent makeup? Are they like the cranes, migrating by instinct, congregating in a diner to meet their spouses by complete coincidence?”

I wonder if it can’t be a combination of the two? There’s at least a minor assertion that even the cranes are not working solely on instinct alone:

The fledged crane colt follows his parents back to a home he must learn to come from. He must see the loop once, to memorize its markers. This route is a tradition, a ritual that changes only slightly, passed down through generations. (277)

And to look at Ed’s reference above, while Gerald Weber did meet his future spouse by complete coincidence, he was not in the diner by chance – he had been sent there specifically to find his potential future mate by friends. Without that aspect of his environment, does he boldly walk up to Sylvie and begin talking to her? Probably not based on his history.

I think Powers has differentiated his characters widely enough to make it very difficult, if not impossible, to unequivocally state it is environment or instinct. In the cases of Karin and Weber, you have two extremely different individuals. Karin was constantly beaten down by her father, growing up wanting nothing more than to receive acceptance and love. She seems to me to be on a very cyclical life plan, moving from one person to another throughout her life, searching for the one that she can conform to their ideal.

Weber, on the other hand, seemingly had it all. An enduring marriage, a successful child (though her sexuality completely throws him), and has become famous in his field through the success of his first couple of books. His life is more like a sin curve, going right up to a peak, and then plummeting drastically (with the seeming probability by the end of the novel that he’d hit that bottom and was on the rise again). He isn’t only reacting to critical response to his book, the questions he is being asked cause him to question not just his work, but his ethics, his morals, his complete person. Has he been nothing more than a vulture, picking the bits of flesh and mind from patients (victims?) that he needs and leaving the carcasses behind?

Their scenarios, as well as those of Barbara, Rupp, Duane, and nearly every character in The Echo Maker, has me wondering if perhaps Powers is noting that one instinct we all share is that of self-indulgence. Our environments may lead us in different paths towards how we work towards it, but instinctively, we all are drawn to it.

Megan Sullivan writes:

Okay, I don’t have much to say. Lots to think about though. I feel the need to go back and reread major portions of the book this weekend.

One of the things I noticed in the book is that though the characters all seem disconnected from the world at times, Powers gives them a connection at some point in the book. Karin and Mark recognize each other not as brother and sister, but as lost souls at the Fourth of July celebration. Weber feels like he recognizes Barbara from the moment they meet (which is really the second time they’ve seen each other). And everyone seems to want to recognize someone or something, be it their “mission” or whatnot or themselves in many of their cases. Perhaps Dan, Powers is saying that the one thing all humans have in common is the fact that we yearn to recognize, ourselves and others. That the disconnect in life could be both natural and man-made but the point is that we all struggle to overcome it?

Echo Maker Roundtable #3

(This is the third in a five-part roundtable discussion of Richard Powers’ The Echo Maker. Be sure to check out Part One, Part Two, Part Four, and Part Five.)

Dan Wickett writes:

Like Levi, and it seems Sarah, I’m indebted to Ed and his roundtable idea as I’d not read any Powers before, and now have a small mountain of books I look forward to getting into soon.

I think Powers has done a magnificent job, with The Echo Maker, in giving his readers a great deal to think about. The storyline of Mark Schluter and Capgras Syndrome, a condition I’m going to assume most are unaware of, would have been thought provoking enough, but the inclusion of cognitive neurologist, Gerald Weber, a man who has observed and taken case studies over the past two decades allows Powers to drop many different neurological syndromes onto the reader throughout.

Reading the various anecdotes Weber either tossed out to others in the novel, or thought to himself, left me wondering just how rare it is for a person to see him or herself, others, or the world, in what might be considered a normal way? Is it possible that a child who never seems to be able to stop him or herself from doing something we believe that they know they will get in trouble for, is actually just acting as their neurological system allows them to, and not out of some obstinance?

echo3.jpgNot having read other work by Powers (yet!), but having read an interview or two that he’s given, it’s pretty apparent, as others before me have mentioned, that he’s a writer of ideas, and I’ve seen his name linked with writers such as Delillo and Pynchon in this regard. I think one of the more difficult aspects for such a novelist is balancing along that very thin wire that holds him or her from falling too far into ideas and not writing about characters that the reader will care about — just creating enough to allow them to get into the ideas they want to dig into — something akin to an old Hollywood set with wooden fronts for buildings because the scene was going to be out on the street and not inside.

Powers, at least in The Echo Maker, has kept his balance. There are a good five or six characters within that I was interested in enough to worry about how the ideas were affecting them, and not just about the ideas themselves. Like Jenny, I love the fact that Powers concentrated so much on a sibling relationship, allowing Mark and Karin to delve into their individual and combined relationships with their parents as well. While marriage, and one’s nuclear family is certainly an important aspect to who we are, the fact is, most of us live with our parents and a sibling or two for the developmental stages of our lives, and especially through the stages where we develop the most in terms of neurological issues.

Megan Sullivan wrote:

Wow, people have thrown out lots of interesting ideas and questions. One of the things I love best about Powers is that his books always draw deep discussion. No matter the topic, I usually end up thinking long and hard about what I’ve just read. With The Echo Maker I would say that he’s succeeded in creating a novel of ideas complete with complex believable characters, which most critics don’t seem to think possible.

Like Dan, I found the relationship between Mark and Karin one of the more fascinating aspects of this book. Familial roles are hard to change. They seem fixed and can often seem like a burden. I know that when I go visit my family, we fall into old familiar patterns. Once Karin’s role as the steady caretaker is taken away by Mark’s Capgras, she loses her identity. WIthout those familiar “landmarks” how is she supposed to find her way? How does the crane find its way?

Also, I wonder if Powers is suggesting that the cranes and possibly Nature are the only real possessors of true memories. This passage struck me: “He blunders toward that fact, the only one large enough to bring him home, falling backward toward the incommunicable, the unrecognized, the past he has irreparably damaged, just by being, Destroyed and remade with every thought. A thought he needs to tell someone before it, too, goes.” (451) Nothing we remember can be completely accurate. Yet the birds are able to navigate their way back and forth each year, even with landscape changed by the vagaries of mankind. It’s imprinted, its memory is a map.

Ok, I’ll stop there. I’ve got a lot more to think about and I’m looking foward to more emails.

Edward Champion wrote:

Well, folks, you’ve set down some very interesting observations. Before I offer some additional thoughts (and I have about eight pages of notes here, so pardon the length), I wanted to jump back to Judith’s evocation of Wallace Stevens and suggest that there’s something considerably more intricate going on in this book about the role of absolute values in American culture. I believe that The Echo Maker is very much the social novel that Powers intended with Gain, revisited and repolished. As Jessica observed, while the book concerns itself with many nuanced social arcs, this novel is less partisan, permitting one to see “both sides of the argument.”

I don’t believe the broad ethical dilemma that Powers offers is solely a matter of what it means to “be” and “seem,” but how one negotiates through absolute environmental variables (e.g., “WELCOME CRANE PEEPERS”) that are ever shifting — a conundrum which extends not just to the cranes’ dissipating existence, but to the town of Kearney, Nebraska and nearly every character in this book. Karsh’s developmental fervor has already been remarked upon. But consider how Weber cannot pinpoint the name of his daughter’s lover, or Barbara’s overqualified status as a nurse (in particular, her great familiarity with books). Consider too the migratory nature of Karin’s life reflecting the cranes, viewed by her rebooted brother as an impostor (perhaps due to not being in a fixed environmental locale?) and fairly ordinary, even though Powers tells us, “She herself had altered, perhaps more than any of them.” (263) I also found Powers’ description of clothing quite interesting. Sartorially speaking, he was most specific with Barbara and Karin, the two characters who are perhaps hiding the most and who have, we are led to believe, failed the most.

This not only reinforces Judith’s dichotomy, but sets up a mighty textual terrain containing interesting fusions: “heavy bluegrass metal,” the consistent comparisons to life as a video game, the Wikipedia-like People’s Free Encyclopedia merging fact with conjecture, and cell phones often compared with mere props from thrillers and science fiction films. For me, one of the most interesting fusions was Mark as both hunter and naturalist, suggesting a working-class reincarnation of Theodore Roosevelt. There are references to gods, particularly near the end of the book, just as the characters hope to make one big existential kill before the end of the book’s year-long cycle (of which more quite soon). I think the recurrent imagery of cars is also very important: not just because it is the quintessential American symbol of power, but because the automobile (specifically, the truck) is a great symbol of momentum, of divagating through an uncertain environment, unsafe at any speed. And yet it is the truck that has caused Mark himself to spill over. He has moved too fast and hard, and it is this failed momentum that causes his life and the lives around him to shatter. (On a side note, I found it interesting that his girlfriend Bonnie is religious and yet is taken with painting toes, thus “marking” Mark. And what is painting toes but bending over in a circular and thus cyclical position? As I’ll go into more in a minute, I think The Echo Maker can be read as the representation of a cycle.)

No matter how happy or successful the characters are, they often face the pitfall of being unable to adjust to the world around them, often bogged down with self-destructive, solipsistic impulses (Karin smoking and Weber letting his book’s critical reception tear him down, to name just two). Now for each of these two examples, I think it’s fair to judge these as “self-destructive and solipsistic,” since Powers himself judges as omniscient narrator and thus invites us to, portraying both Karin and Weber’s feelings as these incidents happen. It is clear that what these characters feel is as important as what they perceive.

As Sarah suggested, this is very much about “meditations on levels of discontinuity.” But I think it’s important to identify where this discontinuity comes from. So I put forth the question to the group: is it the environment that causes these characters to disconnect or is it the characters’ latent makeup? Are they like the cranes, migrating by instinct, congregating in a diner to meet their spouses by complete coincidence?

In some sense, Capgras Syndrome is something of a liberator for Mark. Because while the other characters must face the challenge of continually adapting to ever-shifting absolutes, Mark has the advantage of a fresh perspective. He is, as I suggested above, reborn. Rebooted. Does this make him susceptible to false ideologies, whether science or religion?

No one has made mention of the mysterious note: “I am No One / but Tonight on North Line Road / GOD led me to you / so You could Live / and bring back someone else.” There is something within this note that suggested to me the capitalized nouns of the Declaration of Independence, that the note, like our founding document, is a statement of ideology, a blueprint for surviving in a world changing too fast. But this note is about random compassion, of paying it forward, so that the powers of good might live to restore brothers or cranes or any other target of basic human decency. The real question is whether kindness will be enough to preserve the world.

To return to the troubling William Deresiewicz review, I was initially inclined to agree with Deresiewicz’s criticism that some of the characters’ voices “sound like Powers’ mouthpiece” — in particular, the Three Muskrateers, who, despite Powers’ efforts to flesh out Rupp’s backstory with Karin, felt particularly singular. But it occurred to me, upon further rumination, that Powers may have intended this trio to serve as a 21st century Greek chorus. It is their singularity of voice which imputes absolute cultural values that crush the Muskrateers’ spirits, turning them into perfect synchronous tools, and, as Levi notes, in at least one case causing them to be unconsciously exploited by external forces promising them a reliable answer. But on the other side of the coin, Daniel himself is also quite singular, retreating to a “monk’s home” — in his own way, relying upon others to help him safe the Refuge. It cannot be an accident that Karin is attracted to both
of these men.

This brings up another aspect of Echo that I found interesting: the concentration on fixed labor vs. work that one enjoys doing. Both Karin and Weber find a certain redemption when they choose work that comes closer to their hearts. And yet Mark, by contrast, wants to get out of cognitive therapy and get back to his job. There is the moment when one of the Muskrateers confronts Karin about how much he makes a month, and this suggested to me that money is, likewise, an absolute value that clutters the more individualistic and heartfelt powers of goodness.

I was also curious if any of you viewed the four main parts (with the fifth part serving as an epilogue of sorts) as four seasons. I think it’s pretty significant that Mark’s accident happens during the winter, the peak time when the cranes are migrating (as opposed to flying, like Kalatozov’s great 1957 film, to which I kept mining the text for a reference, curious if Powers was familiar with it, because there’s a good deal of cinematic references in this book). I also believe that the first part’s imagery of wheat and plant life pushing through snow is as suggestive as the cows that occupy the third and fourth parts, grazing upon the grass and waiting for their eventual demise upon a barbeque. What’s interesting is that the seasons here don’t quite match up with the way the narrative is split up into four parts and yet I sensed an agricultural cycle at work here, something perhaps undetectable, if not wholly disregarded, by humanity.

I would also like to remark on Jenny’s observation about the relationships in this book. I found it interesting that Weber referred to his wife as “Woman” and, while I appreciated the sincerity of this marriage, seeing Powers’ attempt to qualify a type of relationship he hasn’t really written about, I felt that something about the telephone calls was askew. Then again, like the Three Muskrateers, this may have been part of the point: another meditation on discontinuity that further flummoxed Weber.

In case it isn’t clear enough, I could probably go on about this novel for some time. So I’ll shut up for now, maybe weighing in later, and let others riff from here.

Echo Maker Roundtable #2

(This is the second in a five-part roundtable discussion of Richard Powers’ The Echo Maker. Be sure to check out Part One, Part Three, Part Four, and Part Five.)

Levi Asher writes:

I’m really glad this roundtable inspired me to read this book. I find The Echo Maker to be a very big book — big themes, big scope, a big impression on anyone who reads it. Like the Platte River, its greatest dimension is not its depth but its width — like the brain in the neurologist’s fictional first book, The Echo Maker is “wider than the sky.”

Why is this so? Well, as Sarah’s observations indicate, the book seems designed to give each reader a taste of Capgras Syndrome. Broken connections are everywhere. To fall in love, as both Karin Schluter and Gerard Weber find out, is to will yourself into forgetfulness. One of the funniest moments in the book is when Capgras-stricken Mark Schluter complains that he doesn’t recognize his favorite radio station anymore, because it doesn’t play the same kind of music it used to. Who among us hasn’t suffered from this particular societal disassociation?

echo2.jpgMany reviewers have listed the numerous metaphors for memory
dislocation in this book: the flimsy Homestar trailer where Mark lives, the magnificent birds that only one sorry hippie named Daniel bothers to commune with. I love it like crazy that Powers dares to hit on current events and hand us the Iraq War as the book’s culminating break with reality (and it’s one of Richard Powers’ grimmest jokes when the lovable slaughterhouse-laborer and reservist Rupp packs off for the Middle East, expecting to return in a few weeks).

What does it mean to forget something you know, as Mark forgets his sister, his dog, and his home? In this book, I think it’s Richard Powers’ method not to address this question, but to turn it upside down, to make us realize that, from a neurological point of view, recognition is an act of synthesis, even an act of will. This is a large point. Like the pterodactyl living inside the sandhill crane, Mark Schluter lives inside us all.

Jenny Davidson writes:

I’ve got two things to contribute here: the first an observation (well, maybe a sequence of observations) and the second a question.

I found The Echo Maker an extremely moving and satisfying read. The Powers novel that I really particularly fell in love with (I read it pretty much in one greedy long sitting, I couldn’t believe how much it was the perfect novel) was The Time of Our Singing; I’m drawn in general to his style of fiction-writing, which is at once highly intellectual and extremely humane, but elsewhere I’ve sometimes felt the cerebral comes at the expense of the character development. I’m not sure The Echo Maker is quite as high up on my list of favorites as The Time of Our Singing (I’ve got a soft spot for novels about music, I’ve added that one to Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows and James Baldwin’s Just Above My Head as my top-favorite three best music-and-family novels of all time), but I found its contribution to the ongoing conversation in Powers’ fiction about human nature and human identity very compelling. It’s also becoming clearer to me that one of Powers’ great topics is the sibling relationship. I am a sister but not a wife, so I am especially pleased to read a novel (marriage is one of the novel’s all too classic topics, and I am often grumbling that not enough novelists — Muriel Spark is a striking exception — are interested in the dynamics of small groups or non-romantic pairs rather than sexually involved couples) that so thoughtfully explores the
same-generation familial bond.

I took the intellectual crux of the book to come when the narrative arrives at neurologist Gerald Weber’s doubts about the ways that “[i]maging and pharmaceuticals were opening the locked-room mystery of the mind”:

[S]ometing in him did not like where knowledge was heading. The rapid convergence of neuroscience around certain functionalist assumptions was beginning to alienate Weber. His field was succumbing to one of those ancient urges that it was supposed to shed light on: the herd mentality. As neuroscience basked in its growing instrumental power, Weber’s thoughts drifted perversely away from cognitive maps and neuron-level deterministic mechanisms toward emergent, higher-level psychological processes that could, on his bad days, sound almost like elan vital. But in the eternal split between mind and brain, psychology and neurology, needs and neurotransmitters, symbols and synaptic change, the only delusion
lay in thinking that the two domains would remain separate for much longer.

He knew the drill: throughout history, the brain had been compared to the highest prevailing level of technology: steam engine, telephone switchboard, computer. Now, as Weber approached his own professional zenith, the brain became the Internet, a distributed network, more than two hundred modules in loose, mutually modifying chatter with other modules. Some of Weber’s tangled sybsystems bought the model; others wanted more. Now that the modular theory had gained ascendancy over most brain thinking, Weber drifted back to his origins. In what would surely be the final stage of his intellectual development, he now hoped to find, in the latest solid neuroscience, processes that looked like the old depth psychology: repression, sublimation, denial, transference. Find them at some level above the module. (189-90)

This seems to me to capture miraculously well both the pathos and the pull of old-fashioned depth psychology (even the term has an antiquated ring to it these days, it makes me think of the classic mid-twentieth-century discussions of Chaucer and Shakespeare and the workings of the first-person character soliloquy), as well as the lure of the new brain science. This takes me, though, to my question.

I’m completely addicted to popular science writing, especially to stuff about neurology and genetics. I like the way Powers handles Weber being an Oliver Sacks intellectual lookalike; it’s a running joke, people mistaking the doctor for the author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife. One of the other neurologists Powers name-checks is V. S. Ramachandran, whose book Phantoms in the Brain really and seriously totally blew my mind when I read it. (If you have not read it, get it and read it at once, Ramachandran has a truly and endearingly dire sense of humor but the book is in every other respect pretty much perfect.) I can’t give the exact quotation here, since I’ve bought and given away several copies of the book since I initially read it, but the thing that absolutely transformed my notions about identity and consciousness (I’ve had a longstanding obsession with the phantom limb problem, starting with my intractable addiction to Locke’s chapter on personal identity in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding) was Ramachandran’s discussion of the confabulation of, say, a stroke patient unable to use a particular arm and in the grip of extraordinary forms of verbal rationalization for what feels to him- or herself like a decision not to act rather than an incapacity. This book also includes some of the mind-bending experiments with body parts and mirrors and boxes that Powers alludes to in the novel. But at times, particularly in the first half of the book, I wondered whether it’s really a good idea to rely so heavily on a relatively recent set of scientific developments that have already been so effectively popularized in non-fiction. If you’ve read Ramachandran and Sacks and others seriously (and these are, after all, bestsellers rather than obscure or long-ago writers), doesn’t it spoil some of your pleasure in the material? I especially felt that integrating this material in a third-person narrative is problematic. If it’s a first-person narrator, it makes sense in terms of that person’s, oh, enthusiasm or preoccupation with material that he or she can presumably have read about in the same books as the novel-reader. Any thoughts on the fiction/non-fiction question, and ways of handling this potential “seen it before” problem? One context for this kind of conversation might be the way similar questions arise around, oh, a novel like Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon; this is a somewhat different question from the debate about using real people’s biographies in novels (David Leavitt and Stephen Spender, various people and Sylvia Plath, etc.). Alternately it might be more fruitful to consider it in the context of the nineteenth-century social novelists’ use of work from disciplines like economics and geology. Like my friend Steve Burt, who reviewed the novel for Slate this week, I found myself very much reminded me of George Eliot.

Echo Maker Roundtable #1

(This is the first in a five-part roundtable discussion of Richard Powers’ The Echo Maker. Be sure to check out Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, and Part Five.)

[This week marks the release of Richard Powers’ ninth novel, The Echo Maker. Recently nominated for the National Book Award, Powers’ novel chronicles a man named Mark Schluter, who gets into a truck accident. His sister Karin quits her job to take care of him and Mark awakens with Capgras Syndrome, believing Karin to be an impostor. From here, Mark, along with many of the book’s other characters, finds himself unable to distinguish the world around him. Through this deceptively simple concept, Powers unleashes an intricate and nuanced meditation on the nature of place and memory in our world. I enlisted several pals and Powers enthusiasts to discuss the novel. The results of these thoughts will appear here this week. Be sure to stay tuned on Friday, when Richard Powers himself will make an appearance, graciously contributing his own thoughts to the discussion. Many thanks to Ami Greko, James Meader, Richard Powers, and all of the participants for helping to make this discussion happen.]

Judith Zissman writes:

Hello. Thanks for inviting me to be the first to dive into the pool of incoherent rambling, Ed. Hopefully you can all join me here soon. Here goes.

I finished reading The Echo Maker in the middle of the night a few weeks ago. The next morning when I woke up, my brain had unearthed a line of Wallace Stevens in response: “Let be be finale of seem.” It sent me off into a recursive thought loop about the novel and about what it means to “be” and to “seem” — not just within the context of the novel, but with the dazzling chemical processes our brains go through to make memories, words, and stories — the echo making process of narrative.

echo1.jpgThe challenge is that the categories of “be” and “seem” are, of course, not fixed: not for the characters and not for us. We can complicate this further by sticking more ideas into categories [and some of the reviews of the book to date have done precisely that]: “natural” vs “artificial,” “healthy” vs “diseased,” “science” vs “art,” or we can do what I wanted to think Powers asked us to do, which is to understand that we only have “seem.”

We get more “seem” at every turn in the novel, from the central premise of Mark’s Capgras Syndrome to Bonnie’s job as a costumed historical reenactor to the mystery of Barbara’s identity, the revelation that there are multiple characters “working on a story” and, as Weber describes Barbara, “being a totally unreadable story.”

Unreadable and unreliable. And when I was thinking about all of this as I fell asleep after reading it, I wanted the novel itself to be more unreadable and unreliable, less resolved, less giving in to the underlying notion of what “actually happened.” I found myself disappointed by what I’d wanted Powers to do with this story — to resist the demands of narrative for resolution and closure, to leave things more broken.

And then I woke up with that damn Stevens line stuck in my head. And I thought about echo making — the neural and social processes by which we repeat perception into memory into stories into history — and felt sort of better about the idea of resolution. Perhaps in resisting a more semiotic “seem” for the less unresolved “be,” Powers calls our attention to this act of narrative and the power it holds over us.

So hey! All that and no mention of cranes! Your turn!

Jessica Stockton writes:

Judith, it’s interesting to me that you bring up this list of dichotomies: “be” and “seem,” “natural” vs. “artificial,” “healthy” vs. “diseased,” “science” vs. “art.” One of the little things that bothered me about Echo Maker (and I’m starting with the gripes, because it was so unusual to me not to feel that a Powers book was a perfect, complete work of art — I have to deal with feeling like I’m seeing the cracks in the surface, or the structure underneath) was that the two men in Karin’s life seemed like such a schematic opposition: Daniel the conservationist and Karsh the developer, the compassionate and the selfish, the ethical and the sexy. It seemed so obvious which one is bad news.

But as with my other favorite writer of ideas, Tom Stoppard, I think Powers’ oppositionals are never there to show us which side should win. They’re there to play with each other, to complicate each other, to converse with each other, and ultimately to make resolution impossible except maybe by way of a sort of Hegelian integration. Daniel’s ethical absolutism is unbearable and limiting: he ultimately can’t deal with the situation at hand because it would involve too many compromises. And Karsh isn’t an evil corporate shill, just a guy trying to do something big. They have to fight, because their two sides — me vs. the world, progress vs. tradition, saint vs. businessman, man vs. nature (remember junior high English class?) — are as old as history. Maybe they have to, ahem, echo off each other in order to make some meaning.

And Weber’s professional qualms are kind of about oppositionals too: hard science vs. anecdotal science, the statistic vs. the story. I’m not sure, obviously, but it seems like this must resonate for Powers personally as a writer who uses science in the service of story (The Nation‘s snarky
that it’s all about the ideas notwithstanding). As with Stoppard, I suspect writing about the two points of view is, for Powers, a way of wrestling them into some sort of understanding, or at least peace.

Personally, I’ve always been most interested in science when it serves as a metaphor: back to junior high again, this time chemistry, where the attractions of positive and negative particles were an irresistible image for a lovesick teenager hoping to make it with someone completely her
opposite. But it seems like such a project often gets dissed both by the science folks, who complain you’re missing the point of the facts, and the literature folks, who claim you’re more interested in the structure of the metaphor than in the emotional reality it’s attempting to describe. Kind of like being a Karin-level environmentalist, huh? — not serious enough for the fanatics, a little too crunchy-granola for the locals. But that in itself is a way of navigating a world of opposites, and maybe the only way to keep from becoming an extremist, an “if you’re not with us you’re against us” type, who can do no good to themselves or the world. Someone like Mark, maybe. Only extremism is a kind of craziness that seems to need no traumatic head injury to instigate it.

Point of my rambling is, I think Powers is one of that noble breed of novelists who call us, in the simplest terms, to see both sides of the argument, to open our tangled, self-justifying little brains to the possibility that someone else might (also) be right.

Sarah Weinman writes:

I wanted to jump off from Jessica’s point about “seeing the cracks in the surface.” Because isn’t that, in a way, what The Echo Maker is all about? Take Mark, a young man who ambled along throughout his life, doing his thing, not necessarily questioning. His structural map was intact, complete. And along comes this accident to completely throw him asunder, make him question the very bedrock of his identity, his family, his life. Take Karin, who is still battling to find out who she really is, and who so assumes roles familiar and not that it completely changes her perception of herself. Weber, too, being unnerved by Mark’s case that he’s questioning why he explores neurological impairment as he does, and even goes so far to wonder if he, himself, might be neurologically impaired.

Capgras is a fascinating syndrome on its own but, because Powers coupled it with bigger themes, greater explorations of identity, it becomes so resonant, so powerful that after I put the book down, I had a very strange experience. I’d read The Echo Maker to and from Madison, so deeply enmeshed in the book that surfacing to go to the bathroom became difficult. And when I arrived back in New York the place seemed different: not just because I’d endured two flights and switched a time zone after a very hectic weekend, but because even familiar locales seemed strangely foreign. The kicker was when I walked into my apartment, into my bedroom, and even though nothing had changed, I didn’t recognize it as my own.

Then everything snapped back into place, but the experience was unnerving. Situational Capgras? Some kind of momentary disconnection? I’ll never know. But I doubt that would have happened if I’d not read the book, with its meditations on levels of discontinuity.

So maybe Jessica saying that The Echo Maker “wasn’t a perfect form of art” is precisely the point of the book. I’ve not read his earlier work yet (something that will be rectified damn soon) but this novel seemed particularly accessible and poignant, a real study of human interaction, frailty and shifting landscapes. Everything is in flux; no one is as they seem. So I’m not sure that a perfect structure or a flawless work of art would necessarily have been the right approach. If the structural underpinnings weren’t 100%, well, maybe that’s more honest and realistic. And certainly more thought-provoking.

More later, but I’ll stop for now.

Author Photographers: Richard Powers vs. Marion Ettlilnger

Okay, so I like both of Tayari’s author photos. But if I had to pick between the two, I’d go for the one shot by Richard Powers, which, despite the quarter profile framing, had a slight August Sander quality to it (not surprising, given the subject of Powers’ first novel), what with the just discernible twinkle in Tayari’s right eye and the slight raise of Tayari’s right cheekbone suggesting a mischief-maker beneath the contemplative author.

Echo Maker Roundtable Next Week

For those curious about Richard Powers’ The Echo Maker, this is a reminder that next week, starting on Monday, a grand gang of literary enthusiasts will be discussing the book here at this site. Aside from this trusted group, who have been tossing around a number of extremely interesting ideas about the book, a very special person may be making an appearance. More to come.

Cryptographic Protocols, Complex Quantum Mechanics: Just to “Fool Around”

While looking for something else, I discovered this episode of Radio Zero. About sixteen minutes in, there’s a story involving Richard Powers, a VR lab similar to the one depicted in Plowing the Dark called “The Cube” (where apparently Powers tinkered around with on the keyboard, just to “fool around”), and Wired‘s Steve Silverman. I can find no trace of the Silverman article mentioned.

You Can’t Go Home Again

“He’d forgotten about midwesterners. He could no longer read them, his people, the residents of the Great Central Flyover. Or rather, his theories about them, honed through his first twenty years of life, had died from lack of longitudindal data. They were, by various estimates, kinder, colder, duller, shrewder, more forthright, more covert, more taciturn, more guarded, and more gregarious than the mode of the country’s bean curve. Or elese they were that mode: the fat, middle part of the graph that fell away to nothing on both coasts. They’d become an alien species to him, although he was one of them, by habit and birth.” — Richard Powers, The Echo Maker

Throw William Deresiewicz Into the Echo Chamber

I hate to jump the gun on the forthcoming Echo Maker discussion, but I have to agree with Richard at the Existence Machine concerning this William Deresiewicz review of Richard Powers’ The Echo Maker. Deresiewicz makes all manner of generalizations about what Powers must set out to do, refusing to allow for any impression other than Deresiewicz’s. Deresiewicz writes:

…but like Powers’s other novels, it won’t tell you much about what its laboriously accumulated information and elaborately constructed concepts have to do with what it means to be alive at a particular time and place, or what it feels like. And that, crudely put, is what novels are for.

Deresiewicz makes several mistakes here, his hubris being the first of them. (Indeed, as Mr. Orthofer has noted, Deresiewicz has a history of dismissing authors with inexplicable vitriol.) First off, is it not possible that the “laboriously accumulated information” is intended as a contextual prism for the reader? Let us consider the character of Mark, who, suffering from Capgra’s syndrome. He cannot recognize his sister. He is trying to determine what is real and what is fabricated. Therefore, it cannot be an accident that Powers has Mark living in a modular Homestar. One can simply accept this detail as a narrative value to ignore or, if one wishes to delve deeper, contemplate how this relates to Mark’s shifting perception of the world and the way it appears to be constructed as swiftly as his home.

Further, since Mark is suffering serious displacement, why should the information provide an answer to “what it means to be alive at a particular time and place?” Life, last time I checked, was a pretty complex affair, loaded with intricate issues and, if one is lucky, difficult answers.

Even if we accept Deresiewicz’s criticism about “laboriously accumulated information,” given Mark’s displacement, should not such conflict work in the obverse? Should there not be more symbolic ambiguity to reflect the cataclysmic disorientation? In The Echo Maker, Power includes a good deal of banter, both descriptive and dialogue-driven, about birds, giving the reader the option to examine how Mark and Karin’s plight relates to a deeper history of nature and evolution. The sense of being alive so apparently absent to Deresiewicz is here in an engaging and intellectual manner, if you read between the lines. Later in the review, even Deresiewicz has to confess that he is enchanted by Powers’ wordplay. Is not wordplay a way of being alive at a particular time and place? If not, I suppose we should throw Nabokov to the dogs.

Deresiewicz then complains about the “extravagant praise” heaped upon Powers, suggesting that culture fails to understand the role (or, rather, Deresiewicz’s unwavering belief) of what fiction should be. I don’t understand what role previous plaudits granted to Powers have in gauging this current volume, but Deresiewicz appears more game to attack Powers for his background training in physics and computer science rather than address what he has accomplished (or specifically failed to do) as a novelist. It seems to me that Deresiewicz is the one confused here. Should not the book itself be the place to start? Why should it matter if Powers labors in a steel factory or teaches in Urbana? A responsible critic should dwell on the text rather than biographical details to articulate his opinion. Deresiewicz has written the book reviewing equivalent of a puff piece. Perhaps he should be writing for People or Us Weekly instead.

Deresiewicz then goes on to suggest that Powers views the novel as “a container for scientific ideas,” specifically complaining about The Gold Bug Variations’ emphasis on idealized characters and love stories that are “mawkish and clichéd.” But again, Deresiewicz fails to cite specific examples, nor is he capable of articulating what he believes the novel should be, save for a few vague notions of Powers’ predecessors “bring[ing] out their human meanings, their impact on individual lives.” I think Deresiewicz confuses the purpose of The Gold Bug Variations, which concerns itself with how the innate talents of both Dr. Stuart Ressler and librarian Jan O’Deigh are used, ostensibly for the purpose of something greater, only to discover that their specialized interests are undervalued by the world around them and that this, in turn, spawns failure and debilitation. Even if one quibbles with the traditional narrative employed, is this not bringing out human meaning? Is this not demonstrating an impact on individual lives? Perhaps Deresiewicz is hostile towards novels that examine social influence upon individual (and, in this case, introspective) action. If so, he should have stated this at the onset of his review.

Richard at The Existence Machine has already remarked upon Deresiewicz’s lunk-headed summation of The Time of Our Singing. So I’ll stay silent on this point.

Once Deresiewicz gets to the plot summary, he finally sets down his baseball bat and begins to provide some answers as to why The Echo Maker didn’t sit with him. He objects to characters serving as Powers’ mouthpieces and, to a certain extent I agree with him. One of the long-standing issues within Powers’ work has been his difficulty separating his characters’ voices, although I believe that with Powers’ last two novels, he has made significant steps forward — in part, because he has painted himself into corners, focusing upon characters who are not scientists, geniuses, and doctors.

But if Deresiewicz objects to Powers’ ocassional platitudes, I would argue that this is the bane of any author who attempts sincerity. Powers received similar complaints for being openly sentimental for Gain (the novel which The Echo Maker most closely resembles). I will be sure to bring this issue up in the roundtable discussion.

Deresiewicz then concludes, “The novelist who refuses to grant his readers imaginative and moral freedom…is serving neither the cause of art nor of justice.” One might say the same of any book reviewer who does this.

The Echo Maker

I overlooked this Richard Powers interview with the Sun-Times‘ Stephen J. Lyons, but it’s worth your time. Interestingly, like The Time of Our Singing, The Echo Maker was composed entirely through Powers lying in bed, speaking directly into the computer.

Those keen on Richard Powers will want to check here next week. That’s when we’ll be unleashing our Echo Maker roundtable, containing a good deal of in-depth discussion about the book.

“The Echo Maker” Roundtable in October

For those who enjoyed the roundtable discussions involving David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green and T.C. Boyle’s Talk Talk, I’m pleased to report that, at the beginning of October, we’ll be plunging forward with another one.

This may be our most comprehensive roundtable yet. Fourteen people will be participating, offering their thoughts on Richard Powers’ forthcoming book, The Echo Maker, and discussing the book in light of previous work. Some of the participants are well-schooled in Powers. Some of them are people you know.

But you’re definitely going to want to stick around for this, because a few unexpected guests may also be putting in an appearance. More details to come.

While We’re on the Subject of Infobahn Novelists

Let’s not forget that Richard Powers has a new novel, The Echo Maker, coming out in October. While half the size of Pynchon’s near 1,000 page opus, my guess is that it should appease Pynchonites just before December. Publishers Weekly offers the following review:

Starred Review. A truck jackknifes off an “arrow straight country road” near Kearney, Nebr., in Powers’s ninth novel, becoming the catalyst for a painstakingly rendered minuet of self-reckoning. The accident puts the truck’s 27-year-old driver, Mark Schluter, into a 14-day coma. When he emerges, he is stricken with Capgras syndrome: he’s unable to match his visual and intellectual identifications with his emotional ones. He thinks his sister, Karin, isn’t actually his sister—she’s an imposter (the same goes for Mark’s house). A shattered and worried Karin turns to Gerald Weber, an Oliver Sacks–like figure who writes bestsellers about neurological cases, but Gerald’s inability to help Mark, and bad reviews of his latest book, cause him to wonder if he has become a “neurological opportunist.” Then there are the mysteries of Mark’s nurse’s aide, Barbara Gillespie, who is secretive about her past and seems to be much more intelligent than she’s willing to let on, and the meaning of a cryptic note left on Mark’s nightstand the night he was hospitalized. MacArthur fellow Powers (Gold Bug Variations, etc.) masterfully charts the shifting dynamics of Karin’s and Mark’s relationship, and his prose—powerful, but not overbearing—brings a sorrowful energy to every page.