The Echo Maker, Richard Powers, Farrar Strauss and Giroux, 2006, 451 pp
This was the fourth Richard Powers novel I read. After being so impressed by The Overstory last year, I decided to read one of his novels every month in reverse order of publication. I usually read an author in order of publication so doing Powers's books this way is giving me the weird sensation of experiencing an author devolving. In fact, so far I have liked each novel just a tiny bit less while remaining in awe of how he ties science and/or the arts to stuff that happens in real life.
Powers won the National Book Award for this one and it was also a Pulitzer Prize finalist.
Mark Schluter lives in a remote Nebraska town. He has been a slacker most of his life but due to his first steady job in a meatpacking facility, he has managed to purchase a mobile home at the age of 27. Though he spends most of his off time getting drunk and stoned with his buddies, he feels he has got something pretty close to his dream life.
Then he has a near fatal car accident in the middle of the night while driving his pickup truck on a deserted road, leaving him in a coma from a severe head injury. Enter his older sister Karin, who has always been his protector. She moves into his mobile home and spends her days by his bedside. When Mark finally comes out of the coma, he is convinced that this woman, who looks and talks and sounds just like his sister, is an imposter.
He remembers very little about his accident but a mysterious note left by an unknown person seems to him to be the key to recovering his memory and finding out what happened.
Karin, who despite having only bad luck with men, is an intelligent person. Not satisfied with the doctors on Mark's case she does her research and contacts a famous cognitive neurologist, Gerald Weber. This man comes from New England to take a look and diagnoses Mark with Capgras syndrome; the delusion that people in one's life are doubles standing in for the real person.
After this the story gets stranger by the page. Gerald Weber is having a midlife career crisis. Karin takes up with an old friend who is involved in a green initiative to save the local river basin from business investors. The basin is a stopping off place in the migration path of sandhill cranes. Karin's old boyfriend is involved with the investors. Mark falls in love with one of his nurses, but Weber is convinced he has met her somewhere before in his life.
I read this while I had the flu so in some ways the convoluted plot fit in with my semi-delirious state. Richard Powers has stated in an interview that his intention was "to put forward...a glimpse of the solid, continuous, stable, perfect story we try to fashion about ourselves, while at the same time to lift the rug and glimpse the amorphous, improvised, messy, crack-strewn, gaping thing underneath all that narration."
Well, yes he did that at the same time the flu was doing that to me. So I don't know. Maybe it was the best time for me to read The Echo Maker. Everything gets worked out by the end of the book, except that none of the main characters remain the same as they used to be. Kind of the way I felt when I got better.