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Until I reach you: a search for self

The Echo Maker by Richard Powers

Henry Joy McCracken 6 April 2008

Deep thought: what does it mean to be conscious?

I am reminded that the quest of particle physicists
to understand the universe
is like trying to understand how cars work by looking at the wreckage of traffic accidents

Richard Powers has chosen as the subject of his newest novel that most mysterious and profound mystery of all: the nature of consciousness and self-awareness. His book, The Echo Maker, centres around a young man, Mark Schluter, who suffers a traumatic head injury as a result of a terrible accident which almost kills him. Slowly he returns to consciousness and to thought. But not everything is as before; some part of his brain is broken and will not re-integrate with the rest.

For Mark, the sister who has cared for him since his accident is not actually his sister but an impostor, a cleverly trained actor, part of a vast conspiracy. His real sister must have been kidnapped, must be held somewhere against her will; the absent sister becomes someone idealised and perfect, beyond reproach. This improbable malady has a name, we are told: Capgras Syndrome. In comparison to the paranoid conspiracy theories with which the fabric of the internet teems, Mark's ideas do not seem so unusual.

Mark's home is a nondescript town deep in the ‘Great American Desert’ – Nebraska. Average America, far from the one-hundred-sigma blips of the coast. Powers captures very well, as a plainsman himself, life under an enormous sky in a town whose most important claim to distinction is that it is on the way to somewhere else. And here is the book's other story: the millennia-old migration of cranes which spend a few days in this remote outpost before continuing north to Alaska, and their doomed competition for resources with town's human residents.

Even if Mark's condition has a name, human consciousness, we realise, is really a continuum of states. Deeper and deeper into the book it becomes clear that Mark may actually be the story's most lucid and aware person, the one least in need of treatment. He sees connections and links that others do not. His mind ranges much further than the narrow universe circumscribed by his job at the meat-packing factory and his after-hours shooting, drinking and "truck-modding" with friends. In comparison to his possessive and unstable sister, he is grounded and sane.

In another of the book's threads, respected neuroscientist Gerard Weber visits Mark. Weber becomes fascinated by Mark but his own life gradually disintegrates as he realises that the popular science books that have made him famous are at their core exploitative and, even worse for a professional scientist, anecdotal. Weber sees that when he returns from his visit with Mark, he must eventually come to terms with him as a real person and not merely an experimental subject.

Powers tells many of the stories that Gerard Weber might tell and they contain at their core fascinating hints on how the mind might work. Survivors from accidents or ill-advised experiments whose minds have been perturbed in impossible ways; a bit of brain tissue damaged just here and short-term memory disappears; a lesion there and depth perception becomes impossible. Incredibly, many functions inside the brain seem to be localised, at least in our current model of how the mind works. With each of these stories our picture of the mind becomes more complicated, more abstruse, as layer adds to layer, creating an edifice of dizzying complexity. But I am reminded of the notion that the quest of particle physicists to understand the universe by smashing particles together in accelerators is like trying to understand how cars work by looking at the wreckage of traffic accidents. Newer methods that Weber's competitors more fully understand can see for the first time the functioning brain at work, see which parts light up and which parts go dark. Powers describes with pitiless accuracy a scientist left behind by rapid changes in his field and slowly becoming irrelevant.

Under the weight of Mark's continual questioning, and his doubting of what seems to be objective reality, the sense of self of all the characters in the book begins to fray. His sister starts referring to her other absent self as if it is a real person. Weber becomes unsure of himself and what motivates his life. Approaching the end of the book we catch a terrifying glimpse of just how tenuous reality actually is, a mere "working draft of a working draft". Mark's sister is ultimately faced with a painful dilemma: Weber discovers that it might be possible to "cure" Mark by prescription medication, to return him to his old insensate self. What should she do?

In his earlier novel Galatea 2.2, Powers imagined the creation of a conscious entity (an electronic neural network) which, after having fully perceived the world, could no longer live in it. But in his new book, he seems to be saying that reality itself is actually something completely arbitrary and constructed. The only really solid line between the past and present and between people are ancient patterns buried in the prehistoric brain. The real and truer self that each of the characters in Powers' book searches for does not exist. We should accept that, and live with reality as we perceive it. And remain forever open, of course, to the possibility that our own perception of reality is completely false.

Related information

You can purchase The Echo Maker from Amazon.