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The recognitions

The Echo Maker A Novel Richard Powers Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 452 pp., $25

October 01, 2006|Albert Mobilio | Albert Mobilio's most recent book of poems is "Me With Animal Towering." He is fiction editor for Bookforum.

"I am No One / but Tonight on North Line Road / GOD led me to you / so You could Live / and bring back someone else." This cryptic note found on the hospital bed stand of an accident victim plays a key role in Richard Powers' ninth novel, "The Echo Maker." The overt religiosity, if not mysticism, might seem to be a slightly odd point of departure for Powers, whose reputation for scientifically erudite fiction derives from his deeply researched explorations of genetics and computer science ("The Gold Bug Variations"), artificial intelligence ("Galatea 2.2"), virtual reality ("Plowing the Dark") and classical music ("The Time of Our Singing").

But even though "The Echo Maker" contains nuances of faith, obligation and familial love, its central metaphor and main plot device is the subject of cognitive neuroscience. This might give pause to readers unwilling to brood at least a little upon the connection between the "amygdala and the inferotemporal cortex." Like the author's previous polysyllabic outings, this book also puts the pedal to the brain's metal.

After flipping his pickup truck on a lonely Nebraska road, Mark Schluter awakes from a coma unable to recognize his older sister, Karin. As the result of the severe head trauma he incurred, the young slaughterhouse employee is diagnosed with Capgras syndrome -- a rare neurological condition whose sufferers believe "their loved ones have been swapped with lifelike robots, doubles or aliens." Karin is Mark's only surviving relative. Their parents -- the mother was a religious fanatic of sorts, the father beat his wife and his son -- are both dead, so she quits her job as a customer service rep at a large computer manufacturer to minister to her ailing sibling.

In the first hours of Karin's hospital vigil, she discovers the note, which she clings to like a "magic charm," a sign of some "saint" who might return and make contact with Mark. Divining his mental state becomes a desperate quest for her as she interrogates the doctor, who assures her, "His reptilian brain is showing nice activity."

"What about his ... human brain?" she persists.

Through Karin's ardent need to comprehend her brother's newly foreign consciousness, Powers gives a tip of his metafictional hat. All other minds are foreign to us, but novelists make it their business to inhabit -- or perhaps merely ventriloquize -- other people's thoughts. And Powers demonstrates just that ability as he deftly renders Mark's inchoate awareness in an elliptical, poetic prose that somehow sounds natural and credible -- something that can't be said for all of the writer's stiff dialogue. Shortly after waking from a coma, the patient's hospital-bound thoughts are given voice, with intonation borrowed from Faulkner's Benjy Compson in "The Sound and the Fury":

"They make him say a lot, humans. They take him out spinning, and it's murder. Hell in a hall, bumper to bumper, worse than freeways, people flying all ways too fast to miss. And still they want talk, even while moving. Like talk isn't crazy enough. But once they work him, they let him lie. Sleeping old dogs, up to new tricks. This he loves: when they give him his body back, and no need. Loves just lying still in the world buzz, all channels at once pouring through his skin."

This is a mind reassembling itself, and to guide us through the process, Powers introduces the cognitive neuroscientist and bestselling author Gerald Weber, a character based on Oliver Sacks. Weber provides the intellectual gloss for Mark's mis-recognitions. He also serves suspiciously as the novelist's surrogate, saying things like, "Consciousness works by telling a story, one that is whole, continuous, and stable. When that story breaks, consciousness rewrites it. Each revised draft claims to be the original."

Karin contacts Weber in hope of finding a cure, or at least mitigating Mark's increasingly aggressive claim that she's a sinister double meant to do him harm. Sister and brother share a sad history: Mark was a ne'er-do-well with no desire to leave the barren corner of Nebraska where they were born. He worked his job, popped pills and drove his truck. Karin had moved to San Francisco and tried to pull ahead of her past. But she can't resist its deadening weight. Within weeks of returning to the small town of Kearney to nurse Mark, she's involved with one high school boyfriend, and, some months later, another. And the ghosts of their unhappy parents hover close. If Mark's injury has set him on a ceaseless circle of mistaken identity and consequent paranoia, his sister's fealty to him has condemned her to an equally dreary cycle of solicitation punctured by barbed rejection.

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