The Echo Maker by Richard Powers explores the fragility of the self. What makes us who we are? Are the people we love really who we thing they are?
The novel opens with a traffic accident. Mark Schluter suffers serious head trauma as a result of flipping his truck over on a lonely stretch of Iowa road one night. His sister Karin leaves her job and condo in Sioux City to stay by his side in their small home town of Kearny, the town Karin always wanted to leave. Karin and Mark are basically alone in the world; their parents have both died and neither has anyone close enough to them to come spend time at Mark’s bedside. Eventually, Mark does come out of his coma and speaks. Almost immediately he accuses Karin of not being his sister, but an imposter. He is convinced that although she looks like her and she knows everything his sister knows, she is not Karin.
In desperation, Karin writes a series of emails to Dr. Gerald Weber a famous cognitive neurologist who has written several popular books about people with unusual brain injuries to ask for help. (I suspect Dr. Weber is loosely based on Dr. Oliver Sacks.) Dr. Weber agrees to pay Mark a visit thinking he may be able to use this story in a future book. His diagnosis–Mark has Capgras syndrome, a condition that causes people to reject what the logical part of their brains tell them, that a person is really their sister, in favor of an irrational gut feeling that the people around them are not whom they seem to be.
Karin’s position is tragically difficult. She has spent her life trying to please others. She loses herself in repeated attempts to always make those nearest her happy: bosses, friends, co-workers, boyfriends, her brother. In Sioux City, she found a perfect job in customer relations, trying to make others happy for a living. Her relationship with Mark has not been great, but the two of them were always devoted to each other. After Mark denies her, he begins to describe what his real sister is like. Karin listens to him describe a person who is better than she really is. Mark’s “sister” is actually an improvement over Karin. A brother who constantly insists you are not his real sister would probably cause anyone to have doubts about who they really are, but Karin’s situation is further complicated by her return to their childhood hometown, where she meets up with both of her old boyfriends, one a conservationist trying to protect the cranes that migrate through the area, the other a developer who wants to build on the cranes nesting grounds. Karin habitually tries to please both, altering what she really wants to fit the situation to the point that she often loses sight of herself.
Mark himself, once he wakes from the coma, is not who he used to be at all. Outside of Capgras syndrome, the post accident Mark is kinder, more reflective, more mature, a definite improvement. So much so, that later in the novel when a cure becomes possible Karin hesitates to approve its use. Mark is haunted by a figure in white that he believes appeared before his truck the night of the accident and by a note that someone left at his beside afterwards claiming to be an angel sent by God to save him and charging him to go out and save someone else. But so much of Mark’s world is now alien to him. His sister is not really his sister, his best friends are not really his best friends, even his dog and his home have been switched with imposters. Why would anyone go to all this trouble? What do they want with him? Who left the note and did an angel really appear to him that night?
Dr. Weber comes to Iowa to see Mark just before his new book is set to release. He sees himself as a famous author, popular lecturer, important researcher who has brought the complexities of the human brain to a public eager for knowledge. Just before his book is released, a series of negative reviews begin. They claim that Dr. Weber’s case studies are outdated, his stories have no place in the new world of chemical based brain research, the people he describes are not much more than sideshow freaks he has exploited for his own aggrandizement and financial gain. Though he knows he should not let the reviews get to him, he can’t help but notice the new way his colleagues look at him, the way his students now whisper when he comes into the lecture hall, the changes in the questions he now gets after a lecture. Who is he, if he is no longer the famous Gerald Weber. On his trip to Iowa he meets Barbara Gillispie, a nurse’s aide who has become dedicated to Mark Schluter. He is attracted to her, wants to have a relationship with her, but he has been completely devoted to his wife of some 30 years. Who is this new man, this post famous Dr. Weber?
I think this is much more plot summary than I usually give, but I’ve left out quite a bit. Though there are not that many characters in The Echo Maker their story is quite complicated. Karin’s attempts to cure Mark, and Mark’s dedication to his own delusion and to finding out who his angel is make for compelling reading. What would you do if the family members you love most denied you were who you say you are? What would you do in Mark’s shoes? Add to this mix the brain science and personal drama that Dr. Weber brings and you have a very interesting reading experience, unlike anything I’ve read before, one that touches both the heart and the mind. (I’m assuming that the cases Dr. Weber describes and Capgras syndrome itself are all based on fact; they are all certainly interesting.) The Echo Maker presents the human mind as the final frontier, however one can’t help but dread the day when science finally finds all of the answers just a little. Are we simply a series of chemical reactions among neurons? Is the love we feel for each other simply the result of the way one set of neurons happen to connect with each other? (Dr. Weber thinks so and his colleagues are intent on proving him correct.)
But, to be honest, I didn’t have much patience for any of the characters in the book. Karin’s situation is compelling certainly, but she uses the two boyfriends in ways that bring havoc into their lives and after a while, I began to feel that she should just leave Mark alone and go back to the life she had in Sioux City. It’s hard to feel sorry for Dr. Weber, too. He has been at the top of his game so long, without any apparent effort, that the way he crumbles once he faces some opposition just made him seem wimpy to me. The relationship he has with his wife is so wonderful that jeopardizing it the way he does makes him look simply stupid. I expect more than a few readers have been tempted to throw the book against the wall. I almost was. Karin’s boyfriends both figure prominently in the story, and though she uses them, they are hard to feel any sympathy for. One is a heartless real estate developer and follower of Ayn Rand. (I don’t mean to imply that all followers of Ayn rand are heartless. Okay, maybe I do.) The other is a conservationist who clearly cares for his river and his animals to the detriment of the people around him. I cannot discuss Barbara without giving away the plot so I won’t, but she is another person I came to dislike in the end.
But, in spite of these faults, there is plenty to enjoy in the book.
I first ran this review on my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2008, a few years before it became clear jus how much I overuse the word ‘complelling.’ “Makes for compelling reading” is hearby banned from my lexicon. Sheesh.