Friday, January 8, 2010

'The Echo Maker' Examines Intricacies of Brain and Questions Reality

One cold February night, Mark Schluter flips his truck on a straight stretch of road near Kearney, Nebraska, a wreck which places him in a coma. His sister Karin rushes from South Souix City to be by her brother's bedside, but when he awakens, he doesn't recognize her. Mark doesn't have amnesia, or not exactly amnesia. Rather, he has developed a peculiar psychological disorder known as Capgras syndrome. This is the story of Richard Powers' The Echo Maker: A Novel.

Capgras sufferers are unable to recognize their loved ones; some even believe that these loved ones have been replaced by doubles or are robots. Karin, faced with caring for Mark during his stay in the hospital, then in rehab at a local nursing home, and finally at home, enlists the help of famed author and psycho-neurologist Gerald Weber. Despite being examined by Weber in addition to his own team of doctors and nurses, Mark continues his strong belief that Karin is an imposter.

Mark spends his time with friends old and new who attempt to make his life what it once was. However, Mark doesn't remember what happened the night of his accident or who was with him; the police were never able to determine what occurred, either. The mystery and suspense persist throughout the novel, which Powers builds with skill. Each character is richly developed, although Powers examines the demons of Karin and Gerald Weber in particular. The reader learns the full history of the Schluter family, and additionally, learns about Weber's triumphs and falls.

Powers incorporates the Nebraska landscape into the novel so thoroughly that without Nebraska, the novel would only be a shell of itself. Of vast importance in the novel are the sandhill cranes that migrate to the Platte River each spring. Those birds come to embody the spirit of the land and the spirit of the people who live there. Powers also makes references to Nebraska plains author Willa Cather and her novel My Antonia.

Powers won the National Book Award in 2006 for The Echo Maker: A Novel, and the novel was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 2007. Margaret Atwood wrote an article in The New York Review of Books comparing the novel to The Wizard of Oz. Don't pick up this book expecting a modern copy of the old fairy tale, though. It's not there. However, Atwood's comparisons between Oz and this new world that Mark Schluter finds himself in, a world in which nothing is as it seems, rings true. She even goes so far as to link the characters in the novel to their corresponding characters in The Wizard of Oz: Karin as Dorothy, Mark as the poor-brain-functioning scarecrow, Weber as the all-knowing Wizard, and nurse Barbara as Glinda the Good witch. A bit farfetched, perhaps, but interesting to ponder all the same.

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