American Views Abroad

Wednesday, March 21, 2007
Only few books manage to absorb a reader entirely, almost like a punch in the stomach. The Echo Maker by Richard Powers envelopes a reader with its first sentences: 'Cranes kept 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.' The ancient beauty of nature on one hand, yet the single words leave images of other things that fly and leave one in shock and awe.

The human element starts off on a remote Nebraskan road where a young man suffers a severe head injury in a near-fatal car accident and wakes up from a coma unable to recognize his sister as such, though the woman he considers an impostor looks, sounds and acts just like his sister. She, in turn, is devastated by his inability to accept her and manages to get a prominent neurologist to examine him. He diagnoses an extreme case of Capgras Syndrome, but is unable to help the patient because his own sense of self starts to unravel. In short a novel about identity and memory, family, love and loss.

One of the best reviews of The Echo Maker is Margaret Atwood's In the Heart of the Heartland at Atwood points out how 'The Echo Maker may be read on yet another level: What is wrong with the 'self' of America? Has the true America been taken away, has a fake America replaced it? ......What are the essential ingredients that give a place or a country its identity, and that make a person a true version of him- or herself?' She then speculates brilliantly on the possible connection between The Wizard of Oz and The Echo Maker.

The environmental element is a third, equally important one. Part Five starts out with What does a bird remember? .....'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. This word will carry when the river is gone. When the surface of the earth is parched and spoiled, when life is pressed down to near-nothing, this word will start its slow return. Extinction is short; migration is long. Nature and its maps will use the worst that man can throw at it. The outcome of owls will orchestrate the night, millions of years after people work their own end. Nothing will miss us. Hawks' offspring will circle above the overgrown fields. Skimmer and plovers and sandpipers will nest in the thousand girdered islands of Manhattan. Cranes or something like them will trace rivers again. When all else goes, birds will find water.'

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