It has been a long time since I've read a novel as good as Richard Power's The Echo Maker, published and short-listed for the Pulitzer in 2006. The story is something of a brain science mystery in which the author covers fairly complex material, but in such a readable way that it becomes as interesting as the unfolding stories of the main characters themselves.
The Echo Maker opens quietly on the banks of the Platte River in Nebraska, where the cranes are preparing for their annual migration. It becomes clear early on that Powers has assigned symbolic duties to these birds (the "echo makers" of the title), who are evolutionary oddities that visit the center of America each year. Much of the first quarter of the book suggests that we are in for a traditional novel of theme and character, complete with natural symbolism provided by the cranes.
The central character, is a 27-year-old meatpacker named Mark Schluter, who is found in a coma after a mysterious automobile accident. An amiable underachiever, he is devoted to trucks, his friends, computer games, and not much else. While he is unconscious, an unseen visitor leaves a note by his bed. The note's contents suggest that whoever wrote it was at the scene of the accident -- presumably the person responsible for calling the emergency services and saving Mark's life. Mark will spend much of his post-recovery trying to solve the mystery of who the note writer may be.
Mark slowly recovers, and appears to be "normal" except for one thing: He does not recognize his elder sister, Karin, who has always been devoted to him. Mark is the victim of Capgras Syndrome (a real complaint), in which patients refuse to believe that those closest to them are who they claim to be. Mark concedes that the woman who tends to him and takes him home is very like the real Karin and has done her homework on their family history, but he never really believes she is really his sister. Sometimes, he even thinks she is a machine.
Capgras is typically found only in psychiatric patients, but it appears infrequently in head trauma patients. Karin, who is both overwhelmed and desperate, writes to a famous East Coast neurologist named Gerald Weber, a sort of Oliver Sacks figure (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat), who is famous for publishing essays about his patients. His curiosity is aroused by the "one in a million" case study opportunity: "Capgras from an accident," he muses, "is a phenomenon that could crown or crash any theory of consciousness...It's the kind of neither-both case that could help arbitrate between two very different paradigms of mind."
Here, the novel switches temporarily to Weber's point of view, and we begin to see Mark and Karin in different lights. But it's still a character-driven novel with the puzzle of human consciousness as the primary mystery and with fascinating subplots: What really happened to Mark the night of the accident? Who wrote that note? Will he ever recognize Karin again?
After Mark is released from care and attempts to discover how the "new" world operates, the scientist Weber's well ordered world begins to fall apart. Adverse critical and public reaction to his new book, combined with his sense that he has failed to help Mark, causes Weber to feel like he is falling apart. He begins to question his life's work and to even mistrust the virtues, and motives, of those closest to him. Weber's breakdown, apparently psychological in cause and effect, is self-diagnosed and, the way Powers handles it, is both powerful and fascinating.
The narrative stakes have been raised very high in The Echo Maker. The novel's three mysteries are solved, and for all thematic complexities within each, we never lose sight of how human and deserving of resolution are its characters. Most significantly, Powers sympathetically shows how difficult it is to understand human consciousness, because each human being is born a unique and mysterious presence.
Copies of The Echo Maker are available at our local public libraries and on Amazon.