Sunday, February 18, 2007

WikiFray Book Club: The Echo Maker

I'm going to be late, but thought I'd start a thread for Part 1 in case anyone's waiting for me...


JohnMcG said...

Not quite sure what to make so far.

I guess one of the thems, with this being a "post-9/11 novel," is that America is suffering from its own version of Capgas -- not recognizing those who are its allies.

I don't completely buy Karin as a sympathetic character. A little to prone to "woe-is-me why can't I escape this goforsaken town?"

TenaciousK said...

I think she's a sympathetic character. Powers is trying to portray her as flawed and brave - struggling to overcome her past, which is now being disavowed/invalidated by her brother. I think he wants her to be a little off balance and prone to dependency in order to set up the drama about who left the note (ex-boyfriend conservationist or ex-boyfriend bad boy). One theme is distrust, and I think he wants to parallel the protagonist’s distrust of the people around her and her brother’s Capgas syndrome. I think he wants her to feel helpless again as a parallel theme to her brother’s helplessness. Other themes – saurian/birds, reptilian/human brain, alienation.

I was a little irritated with the flow-of-consciousness stuff that was supposed to represent his preverbal re-awakening, though the rest of the presentation is plausible, for someone who has had some brain damage.

So far, an enjoyable read. I’m hoping it doesn’t get too predictable with the “who wrote the note/caused the accident drama.

Dawn Coyote said...

Loved the opening. I was reminded of something I saw in Gibraltar: a flock of birds (don’t know what kind) wheeling and dipping together in a swarm, like a single creature. I’ve never seen anything like it here. Three days from Gibraltar, I saw cranes in Marrakech – big, awkward things building their enormous nests on the rooftops. The cranes in the book are like neurons, their action is mirrored in Mark’s shattered mind, the “million schooling thoughts” he grapples with as his identity coalesces. “Ribbons of them roll down . . . the air red with calls . . . [wings] spread like fingers, primaries tip the bird into the wind’s plane.”

Despite Mark’s brain damage, the person who really lacks identity in this story is Karin. She defines herself by others, by their support of her, by what she is to them. Mark’s denial of her is profoundly threatening. Karin sees people in idealized terms until they fail to meet her needs, but she’s not blindly exploitative. She has self-awareness enough to make her a less-than-sympathetic character. On another level, her wrong-headed but awkwardly human efforts to manage her distress make her quite sympathetic. Her attempts to find meaning are poignant, but for Karin to be comforted, she needs proof that some plan is in place in which her life is important. Daniel and Barbara provide contrast with their humility and their dedication to service. I find them a bit trite, particularly Daniel with his apartment like a “dark monk’s cell,” his vegan thinness, his thoughtful silences. And a Buddha lamp? That made me giggle.

While I find there’s a lovely subtlety in the way the characters interconnect, affecting each other, I could do without the heavy-handed delineation of the philosophical questions at play in the story. Of course, Powers is probably not writing for a Buddhist audience (and I admit to being secretly thrilled that he’s using the philosophy to which I subscribe to address the novel’s themes).

Karin (like many things in this novel) is a little too close to home for me. I hope she finds the redemption she seeks, but not at the expense of the people around her.

JohnMcG said...

From what we've seen, I don't know that Karin's past is extraordinarily traumatic to the point where it needs to define her as it does. Her family was a bit poor, her dad was somewhat absent. Maybe I'm missing something, but while that may be more difficult than my childhood, I'm not sure it needs to be the albatross that forever defines her.

Agree that Daniel is a little to neat -- the type of character that only exists in fiction -- completely perfect in every way, yet also completely available to the protagonist.

JohnMcG said...

Also, what do you think of the buddies from the plant? To me, they smell like red herrings.

topazz said...

I'm waiting for swit to join in, offering an interesting take on this chapter.

Especially since he won't necessarily have even read it.

Dawn Coyote said...

John: aren't the parents described as fanatically religious, somewhat neglectful, and doesn't Karin protect Mark from the father's beatings? That's sufficient to give her the cracks in her personality with which she's struggling.

How far do people want to read for next week?

Dawn Coyote said...

And yeah - Mark's friends remind me of characters from the Newhart show of the 80's - Larry, Darryl and Darryl. Red herring - probably.

Did y'all read that bit about how Powers wrote the book on a tablet PC, using voice recognition software? Thought that was kind of cool.

topazz: girlie book club next?

JohnMcG said...

I don't specifically remember the father's beatings -- probably wasn't paying close enough attention.

I'm pretty sure I can get through the next part.

switters said...

Wait. Sorry. Hold on.

I'd comment on Chapter 1, but the thing is, I'm not finished not reading it, or, rather, I'm still in the process of not having read it.

So until then y'all are just going to have to wait.

God bless The Fray.

JohnMcG said...

Due to some commuting hiccups, I will probably be through a good part of Part 3 by Sunday, so don't let me hold you up.

Keifus said...

Sorry I'm late. (Whole family, except me, is off from school and work for a week, and so command much attention.) Don't remember where part 1 was supposed to end, but I'm pretty sure I haven't passed it. Sorry this will be brief too:

Stylistically, there seems to be a "contemporary great writing" style that Powers is going for. This style avoids genre tags and conventions (so that it's not cached in some ghetto presumably), but in doing so, almost seems like a genre itself. Hallmarks include a conversational tone alternating with Deep Thoughts, straightforward and often lovely descriptions, characters who are ordinary but unique. Karin seems cut from that mold. I'll call her sympathetic, not overly strong, has reservations, but gets the job done. Who can ask better of themselves?

Is it a Buddhist outlook Powers is presenting? I haven't gotten so far as to see the mystery of self as described on the book jacket.

In the scene where Mark "snakes" his arms out during his awakening, however, and stammers "kee kee kee" monosyllables, it reminded me of Voudou possessions I'd been reading about, namely by one of the more interesting gods of the bunch. (Ezili Danto: think of her as the avenging saint of abused women.) It's probably nothing that Powers is going for, but it perked my ears. You could, at a stretch, call the Voudou religion an exploration of how the self coccupies the body as well.

As for the mystery of what happened, I'm finding it gripping, and whether the business with the note is annoying or clever will depend entirely on how he works it out. I'm a sucker for weird machinations though.


august said...

Okay, I picked up the book yesterday and am up to here now. Scattered thoughts, numbered as is my custom...

1. Barbara, the girlfriend whose name I don't remember, Karin. All three seem a little thin to me. Barbara is the most intriguing to me -- if the next section gives her a real personality it will be worth it.

2. I don't think that Karin's past is necessarily traumatic. I could identify with her desire to leave a place and finding the place keeps calling you back, and the setup -- you drop everything for your family and the family doesn't recognize you as the martyr you believe yourself to be.

3. This is going to be a tough book for me. Not because of any direct personal experience, but because it plays into a number of themes that feed my sundry anxieties. Getting swallowed up by places you left. Someone you love needing you. Not being recognized. Ugh.

4. Here's a line that made me laugh (p. 65)"He's got a thief character online whose stats he builds up when nothing else is happening. He does not say the obvious: that they are treating him like an online character himself." I think I'll begin thinking of "august" as a thief character whose stats I'm building up.

Keifus said...

He comes down a little harsh on chronic internet users and our collective fantasies, eh? This from a guy who writes stuff (or dictates stuff) for his day job.

But don't worry august, we're all brilliant and literate here, not like those world of whatever dweebs. (Right?) When we invest in our stats, our meat brains are doing something useful too...or at least something not much less useful than what Richard Powers is doing.

K (less lucrative, but he had to practice too)

JohnMcG said...

I know that I considered going for a star similar to a game, and even posted my thoughts on it, but then things changed.

I think an interesting problem that the Wikipedia article I bookmarked highlighted is how to incent people to remain engaged in voluntary online communities. I think Wikipedia is hitting a similar problem to what the Fray has hit.


Interesting that Powers would choose as his subject someone for whom the novel doesn't seem to care for. Is it a great loss to society if Mark never recovers? Is Mark really missed, other than by Karin, whose motivations are cloudy?

JohnMcG said...

One more modern tic I noticed from Powers is what I would call Crichtonism -- that is, "I did painstaking research on the domain of this novel, and damnit, I'm going to make sure the readers know what an expert I've become on it." In this case, the topics are brain disorders and the cranes.

Obviously, it's nice to learn something as you go through a story, and the author should bone up on the subject matter to be an authoritative narrator. But there's a line between that and showing off, which Michael Crichton makes a habit of crossing, and I think Powers steps over a couple times in this novel.

Ted Burke said...

Interesting comments all, and glad to see it involving a Richard Powers' novel. The Echo Maker might be called a "post 911 novel", but that's too pat a description, and it cheats against Power's on going themes of characters trying to reintegrate themselves into what they view as
an ideal past they've either been torn from, had ignored until they were older and hobbled with responsibility and ailments, or were denied outright. There's some things in common with Don DeLillo,
as in how a constructed reality and the narratives we create to give them to give them weight, but DeLillo, despite his frequent beauty, hasn't Powers' heart.

The previous Power's novel, The Time of Their Singing was a saga involving a family of mixed race, white German and African American where he watch the struggles of three mixed-ethnic children struggle to find niches for themselves in a racially divided America of the Fifties and Sixties; politics, art, music are areas the two sons and daughter respectively seek their places within, and all are shunned and shunted off. The consequence is hard bitterness , with the power of the novel being that being an outsider in a culture that brags of its inclusionist brilliance is a lonely crock to find yourself stuck in.

Powers , additionally, gets the heartache and the delirious joy right; there is alway something seething under the character's surface, passions and obsessions lighting or dimming their view of the day.

The Echo Maker makes me think of a comedy routine where the comedian posits "I went to bed last night and when I woke up everything around me had been replaced with exact replicas".

The comedy routine was funny, the novel is tragic, but they share the same premise, finding yourself stuck in a skin where nothing around appears false, a world of impostured objects. Family crisis time, of course, as neither Karin nor Mark
having especially heroic lives to begin with, suddenly tossed by circumstance into a medical dilemma where the desired , dreamed of outcome would be a return to the banal life that existed prior to the accident. Powers shares with DeLillo the ability to wax lyric on the familiar world and make it appear strange, foreboding, erotic, fancying a sweet semiological turn as the associations with the objects and places fade and the remains of memory become a forlorn poetry. But again, Powers has the younger, bigger heart than DeLillo's magisterial detachment, and we appreciate quietly conveyed message; pay attention to the moment you're in, make note of what's important, do something with what you have. Not to do so invites regret and final years of wondering what happened during the time in the middle of life.

august said...


I'm agreeing with you more and more about the brain stuff -- it comes off more like star trek, seems there to adorn. There's not enough to actually tell you how the brain works. I imagine him posting certain passages on BOTF and getting called a fucking idiot.

Keifus said...

John and august: I didn't see it at page 50, but by page 100, I'm agreeing with both of you. He's doing too much of the showing off what he knows, and too little of the using the condition to explore anything. Presume that there will be more of the latter.

Star Trek isn't a bad offhand description. You could read this as a science fiction story almost, excepting that the Capgras delusion is real (it's too awful a name to not be real). What frequently separates good sf from the Star Trek variety is to what ends the funky pieces are used. Do they let the author access character and interesting themes...or are they adornment?