Sunday, October 28, 2007

Richard Power's The Echo Maker

Cranes keep landing as night falls. Ribbons of them roll down, slack against the sky. They float in from all compass points, in kettles of a dozen, dropping with the dusk. Scores of Grus canadensis settle on the thawing river. They gather on the island flats, grazing, beating their wings, trumpeting: the advance wave of a mass evacuation. More birds land by the minute, the air red with calls.
So opens The Echo Maker. The sandhill cranes who congregate along the Platte River near Kearney, Nebraska on their way to Alaska play an integral role in this novel about Mark Schluter whose car lands upside down in the middle of the cranes one night and who comes out of his coma with Capgras Syndrome - a cognitive dysfunction in which he believes that his sister is an imposter.

The way the birds remember the long journey to Alaska and back each year, is a metaphor for Powers' examination of the physiological basis of memory and the tricks this physiology plays with human perception.

What does a bird remember? Nothing that anything else might say. Its body is a map of where it has been, in this life and before. Arriving at these shallows once, the crane colt knows how to return. This time next year it will come back through pairing off for life. The year after next here again, feeding the map to its own new colt. Then one more bird will recall just what birds remember.

Mark's brain concludes from the signals it receives from the sensory impressions of Karin Schluter, that this lady looks, acts, and sounds like his sister, but isn't. Karin, the sister, begins to wonder if she is the same person who was Mark's sister. Gerald Weber, the famous cognitive neurologist's brain raises doubts about his whole career and marriage from his contact with Mark and Karin.

The birds also place everything into the context of time.

The yearling crane's past flows into the now of all living things. Something in its brain learns this river, a word sixty million years older than speech, older even than this flat water.

Karin moves in with an old boyfriend while she cares for her brother after the accident. Daniel, the saintly idealist who lives to save the habitat of the cranes from developers, is the man she admires for his goodness, but who also makes her feel inadequate. Sexually, she can't resist Robert Karsh, another former boyfriend, the moral opposite of Daniel, who is now a wealthy developer planning the condos in the birds' sanctuary.

There is also the mystery of the note left in Mark's hospital room:

I am No One
but Tonight on North Line Road
GOD led me to you
so You could Live
and bring back someone else.
Throughout, the book examines the mysteries of the human brain, its evolutionary functions, and the quirky ways its dysfunctions affect people. Professor Gerald Weber is fictional, yet his famous book, Wider than the Sky, is a real book about the physiology of consciousness, written by Nobel Prize winner Gerald M. Edelman, MD, PhD, some of which can be read online.

Overall, this is a stunning book, that has taken me off into Nebraska, into Mark and Karin's world, into Dr. Weber's questions about academic publishing and the value of his life, into the mystery of how the brain works, and into the lives of the magnificent, prehistoric cranes who we are sometimes lucky to see as they pass through Anchorage on their way further north.


  1. I have never herad of this book but it sounds like a must read book for me. Cranes and the brain. Dianne

  2. Cranes and Brains - that would have made a great title for the post. Why didn't I think of that? Yes, Dianne, this is one you should read.

  3. Do you even remember what you had
    for lunch on Oct 28, 2007 ?
    How much has cyber space altered your
    brain waves, with artifical reality. ?

  4. What's artificial reality? How is that different from reality. I probably skipped lunch that day.


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