Richard Powers's ninth novel is both a mystery and a documentary.
The mystery centers on the single-vehicle accident that shatters a
young man's life. The documentary portion of the story, still
fiction, delves into the human brain when it is injured. As a
result of the crash, Mark Schluter is in a coma. When he re-enters
the real world, he's left with a syndrome known as Capgras. He
believes his sister, Karin, to be an imposter, a Hollywood actress
who is doubling as his elder sibling. In addition, there is little
evidence about an anonymous call to a 911 operator the night Mark
rolled his truck into a ravine.
A note left on Mark's hospital bed stand is equally puzzling. It
"I am No One
But Tonight on North Line Road
GOD led me to you
So You could Live
And bring back someone else."
Set in Kearney, Nebraska, a second scenario follows in tandem with
the main storyline. Half a million Sand Hill Cranes migrate
annually to the Platte River's edge along the flats. At winter's
end, the birds converge on the area and blanket the wetlands to
nest until spring. The night of Mark's accident, the cranes are
disturbed by the sound of failing brakes, a broken scream and a
plume flying through their midst. In the morning, quiet resumes
when the cranes continue their eerie dance on the river's
Portions of THE ECHO MAKER are written in present tense --- those
passages that describe the cranes' migration and the annual tourist
attraction they become --- while Mark and Karin's story is told in
past tense. The novel is divided into four major parts but without
numbered chapters; chapter breaks are denoted by bold type when a
new scene begins, which is an unusual format. Once a rhythm is
established, the reader expects the form to continue.
Karin's frustration with Mark's lack of progress peaks when she
brings in New York psychoanalyst Gerald Weber, himself a renowned
author of books that deal with bizarre brain disorders. He
interviews a physically recovering Mark and tries to sort out the
mystery of Capgras. At times, the clinical descriptions of the
syndrome become a tedious read. But Powers wields his pen with
dexterity and rescues his reader by depicting the personalities of
his main characters when the storyline continues.
Gerald enters a plane of self-awareness that parallels those of
Mark and Karin. They each bring a back story to be understood in
light of present circumstances. Mark's longtime friends are useful
as aids in his return to health, but the mystery remains about the
causes of his accident. Mark had been a near professional driver,
and drugs or alcohol was not an issue. When the writer of the note
is finally revealed, backgrounds begin to make sense.
Small-town Midwestern life set against the panorama of the
magnificent Sand Hill Crane migration is the essential portion of
THE ECHO MAKER. The chosen title makes for thought-provoking
analysis of Powers's riveting story. Both Karin and Gerald doubt
themselves but muddle through the intricacies of solving the
Capgras mystery in order to restore Mark's brain to self-awareness.
A highly recommended read.
Reviewed by Judy Gigstad on January 21, 2011