Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Echo Making: Character and Relationships in The Echo Maker

Picking up, roughly, the middle third of the book, and continuing discussion points by John and august in the last thread. Hope no one minds a new top post.

Powers serves up a handful of cringeworthy moments in this book. John noted one below, the restaurant scene in which Karin accused Daniel of a wandering eye. Ouch! I've been in those "you know what you did" moments (who hasn't?), and there's no winning them. I agree with John: there was Daniel's chance to walk away, dignity intact.

It's something, we realize, that Karin observes with some frequency: maybe it's her test. She accuses Weber of scoping the waitress in another restaurant, and Robert Karsh of the same. Karsh, to his credit maybe (except that we don't ever forget that the guy is basically an asshole) rolls with it and is unapologetic. No doubt it's part of his appeal to Karin. She has a tendency to identify herself through other people (an echo maker, if you will), but then when she's secure in that, she has to hurt them. Not someone you want to fall in love with. For a book about identity, Karin the mimic is a good character to have: is it any wonder Mark doesn't recognize her? Ironically, the only individual to whom she's sincere in her charity is Mark.

The wandering eye bit bothered me because I think it's a weak catchall for male dishonesty. Yeah, reptile brains and all that, but even if it's true that men look (and no comment), Powers maps it out pretty clearly in ethical space. Those cranes mate for life, ya understand. Weber, we find as he declines, does this habitually. This is a guy that projects himself, and projects himself hard on women he meets. That he's right about his similarity to Barbara doesn't make it any less comfortable to witness.

These are the two sexless infidelities going on at this point in this book: Karin needing to mimic Karsh's self-assurance, and Weber needing to discover and share whatever Barbara's need and self-doubt is. On page 340-ish, Powers, speaking as usual through Weber, makes a point that even though these characters need to connect it's fundamentally an infidelity. (And the unlikely perfect Weber family kind of cements the author's emotional judgement of that infidelity.) Ouch! Connection as infidelity? Man, that's a fear in these parts, but it's a harsh verdict too. You can't expect your mate to supply every conceivably needed connection. Hell, especially not if you love her. Why did needing to talk to someone have to annihilate Weber's marriage?

I know taht Karin's infidelity rang as harsh, but I don't know if it rang as true. This shell of a girl might be more legit as as seen through a male observer. None of the female characters come through as very redeeming (or redeemed), or, really as very actualized. Barbara is closest, but Sylvie (Weber's wife) is a caricature; Bonny is a dimwit, and ...that's really it for the girls. Of the men, Mark's got the best chance of mental health, but his buddies, though unpalatable, aren't as fucked up as they seem, and this Karsh guy at least gets to live with security about his identity. I think a bit of gender bias is creeping in, however unlikely it is in a book like this.

I said I identify with Weber. It's a lot to do with the credentials and the too-frequent unfolding of self-doubt, but yeah, his decline was way to fast and improbable (which is why I'd assumed he was, in fact, sick or injured). He also played, as I mentioned, with some (male) fears. Okay, I get all that. I'm less forgiving, however, of Powers' need to to supply Weber with an indulgent authorial voice. Weber the writer has a lot of doubts as to his credentials "Public appeal meant nothing until he had it," he says on p. 217.* As I mentioned before, Weber considers his anecdotal work a sham, but at least he's not a novelist. Writer's insecurity much? On p. 414 he goes on and on about how Weber told case stories to make his characters and himself real.** So now it's writer's vanity--a little of that goes a long way.


* hey, ask me about my tenure status on the fray!
** edit: I original said "his theories," which was not what I meant. (Also expanded that gender bias paragraph to, you know, make sense)


JohnMcG said...

All I can think is that Karin must be pretty damn amazing in bed, to have Daniel and Karsh continue to repeat the same dance with her over and over again.

Dawn Coyote said...


Karin twists herself into something that she’s not in order to get what she needs from people, and then she’s angry at them for the degree to which she’s betrayed herself, and because there’s the nagging suspicion that they couldn’t really love her, since she’s not letting them see that person. I'd guess this precipitates her jealousy.

All the women in the novel make significant sacrifices. We’re socialized this way: it’s true. My housemate came home yesterday and reported that he’d gotten a lecture from several women in the lunchroom for microwaving his food in plastic containers. “It’s difference when you’re working with women,” he said. “Men don’t give a shit.” Do any of the men make sacrifices? They get their own raw deal, of course: they're forced to sexualize every women they come across! Even their own sisters. Hmm, trite - like, yeah, and we all get out of bed one leg at a time, too.

The wandering-eye thing – ack! – don’t get me started. People like people, and sometimes they think about fucking them? Shocking.

The Buddhist idea of the self…well, I'm pretty much a novice, a bad student of ten years, and august is right that there are many different approaches to Buddhism, some of them quite complex. These days I’m a purist of the Stephen Batchelor school, and in simple terms, I’d say that the practice of letting go of clinging and yearning and worrying and wishing very naturally requires that you live in and pay attention to the present. When you do that, your idea of the self naturally transforms. Because it’s so dependant on concepts of past and future, on memory and projection, once you relinquish the obsession with these illusions, the self naturally contracts until you can’t be sure it was really ever there at all. It also expands from time to time, and that can be fun.

I was trying to come up with a WikiFray T-shirt slogan the other day after reading the one parodying Second Life ("I fornicate using my acutal genitals"). The best I could do was "My other post was a dissertation."


JohnMcG said...

I can see why Karin would be miserable being with Daniel, since she defines herself as living up to others' expectations, and Daniel has ordered his life around not expecting anything from anyone.

Is there such a thing as a real "sacrifice?"

On the surface, it appears that Weber is making a sacrifice by making two trips to Nebraska. But he's motivated by scientific curiosity and wanting to know Barbara. It is probably a sacrifice for Daniel to put Karin up, at least initially, without expecting much in return from her.

Are Karin's acts truly sacrifices? Isn't she chasing after some cosmic "attagirl," and is frustrated that she's not getting it?

I'm not a woman, but I have found myself slipping into this pattern as well, particularly in parenting. I don't parent from how I want to do things, but how I think my wife would want me to do things. The end result is I end up pleasing nobody, and I'm trying to break this pattern.

And I honestly don't see Barbara and Bonnie or Sylvie's sacrifices. Barbara, for example, seems capable of greater things than she is doing, but doesn't want to operate outside of her comfort zone.

Dawn Coyote said...

meant to say that all the women make sacrifices like Karin's - to greater or lesser degrees, they surrender their identity for the benefit of others (thinking about Bonnie in her period costume that Mark asks her to not change out of). In my experience, this is accurate, but I didn't know I was doing it until I couldn't do it anymore. THEN there were some long faces, let me tell you.

Also, regarding what Daniel might have done - he's the only one in the story who may not be utterly deluded. Naw, forget it - they wouldn't have listened.

Dawn Coyote said...

Well, John, I'd say that all the sacrifices are made in order to gain something in return. Everyone's caught in their egotism, while scrambling to gather the tatters of identity around their shoulders, and failing.

Seems pretty accurate to me. Again, the failure to use Daniel here really irks me.

Or someone from any contemplative discipline. He doesn't have to have a Buddha lamp. In fact, one might argue for a failure of religion in the world of the novel. Bonnie's Left Behind church and Daniels passive detachment fail to offer the sufferers shelter or succor.


JohnMcG said...

I'm not so sure about that.

To take one example, I know a lot more couples where after or shortly before marriage, the husband converted to the wife's religion rather than vice versa.

Now, maybe what this reveals is a higher order of surrender -- the woman has already surrendered herself to her religion, and thus is not free to move to another in a way the man is, and the man is simply opting for peace.

I agree it would be difficult to imagine a brother giving up house and work to come to the aid of a sister (or brother). But I have two sisters, and it would be difficult to imagine either doing this for me, either.

What you're talking about may be true before marriage, but IMO marriage (at least modern marriage) reverses this dynamic. If my wife were to complain often enough about microwaving food in plastic containers, I would stop microwaving plastic containers, even if the harm in doing things the old way escaped me.

In that vein, I would say that Weber's return to Long Island is a bit of a sacrifice. His heart desires to spend more time with Barbara, but he knows he "shouldn't." Maybe this is more to fortify his image as a married man than an act of love for Sylvie, but I think the same could be said for Karin's sacrifices.

august said...

I like the idea that Karin kind of rearranges her internal self to fit the expectations of others, and then there's fallout when that self sproings back to some semblance of its former alignment. Certainly I can identify (from both sides).

I also think Karin presents herself as someone who requires care, and that the men she finds like to see themselves as caregiving. There's a pathology to that sort of relationship as well. It's fully as fictional as Mark's attempts to figure out how they built an exact replica of the town. Daniel looking at other people is failure to care for Karin, as is Weber leaving.

I guess that gives me another way of thinking about the novel -- as an exploration of useful and useless forms of caregiving. I like this idea, as it makes me like the book a little better. I've been holding back regarding my dislikes until we get to the end.

T shirt slogan may be as hard to come up with as name for the blog. "Soul-bearing procrastination", "My best friend is a bot," "You'll get my nic when you pry it from my cold, dead pixels."

Dawn Coyote said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dawn Coyote said...

Michael Wood in the London Review of Books provides insight into Powers’ body of work and makes me want to read more of him (best stuff is in the last couple of paras).

As I stop nitpicking and draw back a bit, I’m struck by the incredible poignancy of the novel.

A deft and brilliant little novel with an unreliable narrator that aggravated me almost as much as The Echo Maker: A DREAM LIKE MINE, M. T. Kelly (winner of the Governor General’s Award, 1988).

Symbolism of cranes:

The legendary crane which belonged to the philosopher Leonicus Thomaeus and which was commemorated by Itluffon, suggests that constant of Far Eastern symbolism, longevity, and, above all, unrivalled faithfulness. Even more significant was the Crane Dance performed by Theseus after his escape from the Labyrinth (see Corona Borealis) and of which parallels existed in China. Cranes being migratory birds, the dance undoubtedly relates to the cyclical aspect of the ordeal of the Labyrinth. In Ancient China the Crane Dance suggested the power of flight and consequently of reaching the Isle of the Immortals. Humans on stilts copied the dance. Indeed, the crane may, like the tortoise, be the symbol of longevity, but it is supremely the Taoist symbol of immortality. The Japanese believed that cranes (zuru) lived for thousands of years and old people were often given as presents paintings or prints of cranes, tortoises and pine-trees, all three symbols of longevity. According to Ancient Egyptian tradition, during the reign of the son of Manes a two-headed crane was seen over the Nile and this was taken as presaging an era of prosperity.

Cranes were supposed to live a thousand years and to practice a breathing technique which was something to be copied. Their white feathers were symbols of purity, while their cinnabar-red heads showed the endurance of their vital forces, concentrations of yang. Furthermore, cranes were the customary steeds of the Immortals and their eggs were used to prepare drugs to confer immortality. The annual return of the crane was a symbol of regeneration, and this is why it was associated with plum-blossom as an emblem of Spring. Its cinnabar crest associates it with the alchemist's furnace and specifically with its fire. Indeed the Pi-fang bird, resembling a one-legged crane, is a fire-spirit. It foretells outbreaks of fire.

In India, cranes were seen in a completely different light and doubtless from some idiosyncrasy in their behavior were symbols of treachery. The crane-headed goddess, Balgala-mukht, is the deceiver, the embodiment of sadistic and destructive instincts. In the traditions of their initiation ceremonies the Bambara regard the crested crane as being at the birth of speech. Their secret doctrine declares: 'The beginning of all beginning of the word was the crested crane. The bird said: 'I speak.' The crested crane, it is explained 'combines in its plumage, its call and its mating dance the three basic characteristics of the word - beauty [it is supposed to be the most beautiful of birds], sound [it is held to be the only bird which inflects its call] and movement [its mating dance is an unforgettable sight].' This is why mankind is supposed to have learned to speak by copying it. But the real reason why this bird is so highly regarded is that Africans are convinced that it is aware of its own gifts - and indeed it looks as though it is - and that it possesses self-knowledge. It is therefore by reason of being the symbol of self-contemplation that the crested crane was at the birth of the Word of God and of the knowledge which mankind has of God. Their implicit, intuitive reasoning is as follows, that man never knew the 'word' relating to God until he knew himself. This presupposes that knowledge of God derives from self-knowledge. Such would seem to be the deep symbolism of the crested crane.

["The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols", 1969, Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant" translated by John Buchanan-Brown, Penguin books].

WikiFray tee-shirt slogans:

“WikiFray: Treppanning for Nuggets”

Keifus said...

Dawn, I meant to mention that your replies here were awesome. Thanks.

To use a word for the third time in as many days, I just find Powers to be little indulgent. And yes, he does get beaucoups points for maintaining tension and interest with all of that exposition and arbitrariness and so on. Hey, it kept me up late, which is saying something these days.

K (trepanning for nuggets!)

JohnMcG said...

This is not the first book, by the way, which implied a moral superiority to birds over humans because they mate for life. And I have found it grating each time.