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
over.

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?

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One Comment

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