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.

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2 Comments

  1. I wrote down the same quote Jenny did, in order to review the book myself once I read it. It is indeed the defining moment of the book as far as neurology is concerned.
    Not having read Ramachandran and Sacks, it didn’t spoil the pleasure of reading at all: on the contrary, a lot of things would have escaped me had Powers considered most of his readers were bound to have some sort of background in the field.
    Thanks for making me aware of the two authors.

  2. I don’t think the ‘popular science’ problem has much to do with a first-person/third-person narrative, since a third-person narrator can surely have the same preoccupations, but rather the way Powers presents large chunks of ‘popular science’ partly as internal musings, partly as close narrative – not a ‘seen before’ problem, but one of how best to integrate scientific material into fiction. The closer the voice, the less convincing the musings as mimesis become.

    A good overview to the ‘drill’ Powers refers to in the above quote is provided by Douwe Draaisma’s Metaphors of Memory: A History of Ideas About the Mind.

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