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.

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One Comment

  1. Thank you, all. Here it is, the end of August 2008 and I have recently finished this wonderful book for an online book club that is supposed to discuss this in the month of September.
    Reading all your thoughts and ideas is a gift. I have little read stickers all over the book but many of the things that you have sited are new ideas for me to chew on and play with.
    I, too, am quickly accumulating a pile of Richard Powers books to read and will eagerly await upcoming work. I do believe in that desire to make a connection with the book, the ideas, the author and other readers. Which is how we happen to collide.

    Thanks again!

    Trudy

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