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.

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  1. Also jumping the gun, because Deresiewicz’s claim about “our culture’s skewed understanding of the nature of fiction, and of knowledge” bugged me:

    “It’s not just that we don’t understand the relationship between stories and ideas, it’s that there’s a particular realm of ideas to which we assign supreme value: science. Much of Powers’s early training was in physics and computer science, and the ideas around which he builds his novels are mostly scientific ones.”

    For me [and yes, I’ll be bringing this up till everyone is tired of it when the roundtable starts], Powers’ work is almost entirely about the relationship between stories and ideas, the echo making of narrative. And about how we make sense of the world through systems and patterns, some scientific, some linguistic, some natural, some artificial. Deresiewicz misses the point rather remarkably.

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