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.


  1. Very interesting start to the roundtable! Looking forward to the other parts. I am currently about midway through “The echo maker”, and I was wondering if Powers wasn’t somehow making the point that post 9/11 america is suffering some sort of Capgras syndrome? The WTC and Pentagon attacks as well as the subsequent reaction do feature quite a lot in the narrative so far – and I can certainly see how some of the characters seem to be struck by a metaphorical capgras syndrom when they are justifying and accepting the governement betrayal of civil liberties – making an alien of what used to be much loved about the USA. Maybe this is a bit far-fetched, but I would be interested in knowing your views on this.

  2. I thought it a bit strange that Powers casually inserts that Mark’s dad died of fatal familial insomnia. It is a very rare prion disease, and the combination of that with Mark’s Capgrass sybndrome felt a little forced. Oh well, still a wonderful, imaginative, and brave book.

  3. everyone but Daniel seemsto learn something from what has taken place…and he flees to be protected within his moral absolutes.

  4. point of information, please…
    Is “A Guide to Unseeing: 100 Artists Who Gave Us New Eyes” (p 241) a Powers invention or a wink towards an exisitng book? Many thanx for a response….

  5. Powers’ characters experience a loss of self because they see themselves in a very post-modernist vision–as mirrored in the opinions of others. When their self-images and the distorted or critical attacks of others on their identities collide, they rationalize, hide, flee, or seek other more physical forms of gratification. Though they attempt tocouch their responses to others in reasoned arguments, their underlying motivations are more primal and emotional. Thus, Powers tears away the veneer of civilizaton, showing how fragile our identities are and how easily they can disappear in the modern world where image is everything.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *