Monday, May 12, 2008

cranes, brains and connection

At 451 pages, Richard Powers’ The Echo Maker is actually a highly economical novel given the subject matter it takes on. It’s the story of a young woman and her brother, the latter of whom doesn’t recognize his sister after a mysterious auto accident sends his psyche on a ride more bizarre than any Nebraska highway could deliver. Mark Schluter knows he has a sister named Karin—he just doesn’t believe this imposter is her.

It’s also the story of an Oliver Sacks-like brain researcher who, in studying Mark, starts to question his possibly exploitative relationship to his case studies—all while questioning the usual things he questions: the brain, the body, the self. Finally, The Echo Maker is also the story of the cranes who migrate through Nebraska each year as part of an ancient journey on a road that’s being whittled away by modernity.

I worship at the altar of Richard Powers because he manages to combine reams of research (ecology, the latest neurological developments) with the most intricate of human emotions. In lesser hands, either could easily be lost. In this and his last book (The Time of Our Singing, which I loved slightly more), he also takes on some of literature’s biggest questions—about the nature of the self and the infinite fallibility of narrative—without turning to highly experimental techniques, which, though interesting to think about, are often unsatisfying to read.

In fact, even as The Echo Maker breaks down identity and story (Karin wonders whether she really wants her brother to recover his full faculties, given that his memory of the “real” Karin paints a much rosier portrait of her), it makes a case for story being the only genuine thing we can cling to. There’s something deeply spiritual about this idea—that only meaning has meaning, and that meaning is always larger than the sum of its parts.

The Echo Maker is one part mystery, one part narrativized science, but the part that resonates the most with me is the quiet why-we-write manifesto at its heart. For me (and Powers, I suspect), writing, creating meaning, connecting and loving are almost interchangeable. It’s what the human brain does, it’s not so unlike what the crane brain does, and its fragile loveliness is all the more reason to take better care of each other.

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