Sunday, August 10, 2008

Richard Powers: The Echo Maker

Apparently, "The Echo Maker" was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. I'm not quite sure why- the book was good, but not that good. Then again, I don't know quite what it takes to be nominated to for the Pulitzer, so that's a topic for another day. Richard Powers covers a lot of ground in this book- families, siblings, marriage, deception, environmental destruction, and mostly, the brain and what it means to be human and to know who you are and how you exist in the world. Karin and Mark, two adult siblings, are torn apart and brought together again in new ways (do I sound like cliche back-cover copy or what?) when Mark has a traumatic head injury and develops a rare syndrome that causes him to think that Karin is a stand-in for his real sibling.

The first third of the book is mesmerizing: Karin throws her life aside to take care of Mark on his long and slow journey to recovery, and Mark tries to put his life back together with the help of "Kopy Karin." The second part of the book introduces the world-famous Dr Weber, and the book goes downhill as he drops into Nebraska to check Mark out as a case study and then leaves. The story follows the neurologist as he (and his brain) spins in unexpected circles. This part is less convincing- Powers takes on too much- in attempting to show us just how fragile and fragmented our grasp on the brain and knowledge and connectivity is, Powers loses the train of the story. In the last part of the book, Weber and the siblings are brought back together for a little bit of a Disney ending.

Even with the slow middle chunk, "The Echo Makers" is worth reading- better than vacation reading, but slightly less moving than what I would ordinarily think of as Pulitzer Prize-worthy. It is fascinating (and slightly creepy) to think how tenuous our hold on reality is, and how easily a lesion or trauma can change that. What we know, or what we think we know, is either a construction, or a biological fact, depending on who you believe, and thinking too much about it, as Dr Weber's character reminds us, is treacherous territory.