The Echo Maker marks both a further departure in promising directions and the return of old problems. Powers's characters are newly individualized, complex and flawed, their stories closer than before to the emotional bone. But the science is back, and the textbookery with it. The novel is set in Kearney, Nebraska, by the vast, shallow Platte, in the midst of the soul-crushing emptiness of the Great Plains. Mark Schluter, 27-year-old slaughterhouse mechanic, screw-up and fun-loving good old boy, flips his pickup on a desolate road one frozen night, putting himself into a coma and bringing his older sister Karin back from Sioux City, which, despite longer flights to bigger places, is as far as she's managed to land from Kearney's slow collapse and the get-rich-quick futility and save-me-Jesus fanaticism of, respectively, their father and mother (both now dead). Mark has a couple of drinking buddies and a girlfriend of convenience. Karin has two old flames: Robert, now a developer, and Daniel, now an environmental activist. But when Mark starts to wake up, it becomes clear that he's suffering from Capgras' syndrome, a rare neurological disorder in which one recognizes loved ones but feels nothing for them, becoming convinced that they're impostors. Mark's "doubling" begins with a distraught Karin but eventually spreads to his dog, his buddies and even the town itself. Enter, at Karin's desperate request, Gerald Weber, celebrated neurologist and author and a dead ringer for Oliver Sacks; a stranger mistakes him, at one point, for the author of The Man Who Mistook His Life for a.... Weber's books are actually called Wider Than the Sky, The Three-Pound Infinity and, just coming out as the novel opens, The Country of Surprise. But the unexpectedly harsh reception that greets this last one, together with Weber's unaccountable attraction for Mark's unaccountably sophisticated and eerily familiar health aide, sends Weber into a downward spiral that turns Nebraska into a true country of surprise and ends up making him wonder what indeed he has mistaken his life for.
There is much here that's quite good. Powers's characters tend to be paragons, intellectual or ethical, but Mark, in particular, is convincingly imagined, with a fine ear for his verbal and mental rhythms: "But no, the university chick tells him, with a mouth like two little bait worms doing it. Useful little mouth, probably, in a pinch." This is a vividly interesting sound, and it gives us Mark in all his moral grossness and keen if untutored wit. Earlier, as Mark's brain struggles to reassemble itself into full consciousness, Powers improvises some striking wordplay: "He says nothing. Some things say him. What's on his mind hops off"; "Words click through his head, an endless freight. Sometimes he runs alongside, peering in. Sometimes these words peer out, finding him." In its free-associative sense of discovery, this is well above the self-conscious groan-making of Powers's usual wordplay (e.g., Goldberg/Gold Bug). And Powers's eye for social detail remains as sharp as ever, whether we're in a motel--"He went up to a room that pretended it had never been inhabited by anyone"--or a rehabilitation center--"Two papery women with walkers slid past her, a foot race in suspended animation."
The range and magnitude of Powers's talents are not in question. What's in question is the kind of work he uses them to produce. I probably don't need to tell you at this point that Weber enters the story smuggling a large load of neurological learning that takes much of the rest of the novel to unpack: the mind's profound strangeness, which it is the mind's own duty to conceal; the fragility, even fictitiousness, of the self; the distributed nature of consciousness among a plethora of neurocognitive modules. Powers's deepest interests recur in new forms: signals and symbols, and the capacity to make them; the way organisms, and especially their brains, are shaped by--are, in a sense, solutions to--the world in which they live. Neuroscience passes here into environmentalism, another longstanding object of Powers's ethical fervor. The story is set against the annual migrations of the sandhill crane through the Platte valley (the cranes are the "Echo Makers" of the title, in Anishinaabe lore, though of course the phrase develops an extremely wide resonance). Powers's descriptions of the spectacle are sublime, as is his vision, woven into the novel's metaphorical texture, of the human species as but another evanescent episode in life's vast flow. The cycling of time, the interconnectedness of all living things, the mind-blowing--indeed, mind-creating--magnificence of nature, the obligation to live humbly and responsibly: All of Powers's great themes return here.
And once again, they bury the story that's meant to bear them. However individual Mark sounds, other characters, especially Karin, often sound like Powers's mouthpiece: "The brain is a mind-boggling redesign," a doctor says with his creator's folksy pedantry, and, with a whiff of Powers's glutinous sentimentality, "a record of the long way here." "We pushed through the paper recycling plant," Robert boasts in self-defense, "I call it Mea Pulpa." Powers also tries to keep too many balls in the air. Neuroscience and environmentalism may be braided together thematically, but not on the level of the plot, which finally frays altogether. Weber's identity crisis, meant to parallel Mark's and Karin's, is unconvincing. (I'm honor bound to note that it's precipitated by a bad review, one that Weber rationalizes by telling himself, "In the field of public reviewing, one scored zero for appreciating an already appreciated figure. With a target as large as Gerald Weber, one earned points only for a kill." However uncomfortable the irony here, I see no reason for a mea pulpa.) And the resolutions of the novel's tensions and mysteries--will Mark recover? what happened the night of the accident? just who is that health aide?--feel perfunctory or contrived, failed frissons and muffed epiphanies.
The problem, of course, is that Powers's mind is elsewhere, with the wonders of the brain and the interconnectedness of all living things. Instead of letting the story speak, he is the only one who speaks. Instead of locating meaning in experience, he locates it in ideas. But novels should test ideas, not surrender to them. The same is true of beliefs. Powers's pious self-righteousness is expressed here through Daniel, the Christ-like environmentalist who lives on couscous and currants, turns his heat off at night and finally flees the all-too-human world. Powers is as ethically coercive as he is intellectually pedantic. One is no more inclined to argue with his environmentalism here than with his condemnation of racial injustice in The Time of Our Singing. But the novelist who refuses to grant his readers imaginative and moral freedom--the two are the same, and connected to the characters' own autonomy--is serving neither the cause of art nor of justice.