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[115] The Echo Maker – Richard Powers

echo.jpg“To be awake and know: already awful. To be awake, know, and remember: unbearable. Against the triple curse, Weber could make out only one consolation. Some part of us could model some other modeler. And out of that simple loop came all love and culture, the ridiculous overflow of gifts, each one a frantic proof that I was not it…We had no home, no whole to come back to. The self spread thin on everything it looked at, changed by every ray of the changing light. But if nothing inside was ever fully us, at least some part of us was loose, in the run of others, trading in all else. Someone else’s circuits circled through ours.” (384)

This novel is very unsettling and rather disturbing. Under layers of suspense and dark terrain concerning the car accident that incurred severe head injury in 27-years-old Mark Schluter, it delves into something so unnerving that we are not always ready to confront: the fragility of human identity, and uncertainty of the human condition. With such powerful writing that describes the wonder of natural world, Powers wrangles the meaning of human consciousness. Following Schluter’s post-accident trauma, in which he misidentifies his sister Karin, the novel explores how we make meaning, define identity and sustain love. Not only that Karin seems an impostor to him, he believed some high power had followed him in various disguises, uploaded a bit of his sister’s memory and traits in this impostor. His most severe delusions dictated his newfound land a complete fake, as if between the night of his accident and the time he came out of coma the whole town had been replaced. Even his own house was a life-sized replica and the dog a double that had been trained to recognize his odor. He suspected conspiracy, the accident being no accident after all, but a careful plan to strip him of who he is.

When Karen, who is at wit’s end and on the verge of a meltdown, contacted the famous cognitive neurologist Gerald Weber for help, he diagnosed Mark as having Capgras syndrome, a condition of which sufferer generates some associated memories upon an intact facial match but credits no emotional ratification. But the narcissist doctor was a mere opportunist who entered the case for scientific ends. He met up with Mark, took down some notes, prescribed behavioral therapy that did little to help him, and whisked away as if the patient ceased to exist. Against critics’ backlash and accusation of privacy violations, Weber struggled with a plunge of his authority in the field and loss of his identity, as mid-life crisis threatened to drive his marriage apart.

The Echo Maker generates a sense of awe in how our brain functions to recognize faces, to attach meaning, and to dispel an identity. How we possess a subconscious perception of the identities of our friends and family and retrieve associated memories of these personalities upon facial recognition is beyond the grasp of our understanding and scientific gain. The mysterious nature of Mark’s disease, combined with the strange circumstances surrounding his accident, threaten to change all the lives beyond recognition. In charting the change of Karin and Mark’s relationship dynamics, the book creates a sense of hope in how we relationship and love can overcome something as unfortunate and disconcerting as face blindness. Karin knows that she is her brother’s only hope–the only remaining link–for as independent as human being can be, one’s identity is defined by exterior factors, by the connections one established with others. Out of these social loop come emotional bond and identity.

5 Responses

  1. I bought this for my husband, because he’s very interested in how the brain works. I’ll have to urge him to actually read it! Thanks for the review!

  2. This is fascinating. Like Robin’s husband, I’m also interested in how the brain works and always have been, although having a friend who has suffered through 3 brain tumors and a family history of Alzheimer’s Disease, intensifies my interest. Thanks for the review, I’m adding this to my list.

  3. I can’t wait to read this book. Now if only I can find it in my stacks!

  4. gentle reader:
    It’s engaging from the beginning. I’m sure you’ll enjoy the book a lot. 🙂

    My oldest aunt suffers from Alzheimer’s Disease as well, so books on the dynamics and functions of brain, whether they are fiction or non-fiction, always get my attention.

    Go dig it out of your pile and read it. You’ll enjoy it! 🙂

  5. […] in which the patient fails to recognize a close family member or friends. Richard Powers’ The Echo Maker has treated the subject with more medical intensity and more fully incorporated the consequence […]

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