Consciousness: the ultimate story

By Gesse Stark-Smith

In trying to review this week’s novel I ran into some problems. Basically, the book is long and complicated and hard to explain within the confines of a short review. So, I have decided to make the form of my piece fit the novel’s content. Therefore, I give you: disparate facts relating to, or revealed by, Richard Powers’ “The Echo Maker” which, in his words, you must put together in the same way that your consciousness makes “sure that all of the distributed modules of the brain seem integrated.” Go for it.

1. Kearny, Neb. is small, sad and cold in the winter but I want to go there so I can see the cranes that migrate through the area every year. Powers’ description of one such crane: “And for the first of a thousand times in his life, he dances. In the falling dark, other species might mistake it for ecstasy.”
2. Complicated neuroscience can be well combined with the story of a novel, such that “information dumps” are hardly necessary.

3. When interviewed in “The Believer,” Powers said, “The brain is the ultimate storytelling machine, and consciousness is the ultimate story. Our neurons tell our selves into being.” “The Echo Maker” gets at issues of self, which are hard to explore. Neuroscience jabs at them but generally veers clear of their unscientific components. Philosophy gives them a decent go but often finds itself mired in intellectual arguments, which feel disconnected from everyday experience. One of the best ways to explore concerns of self is through fiction. That’s right, fiction. What is a character but an exploration of the concept of self? What is a story but a mirror to the continued strivings of our consciousness to explain the world?
4. We are changing minute by minute, creating ourselves with each new action. I feel like a unified person but I am also different than I was ten years ago, three hours ago, five minutes ago. Mark Schluter, the novel’s protagonist, cannot ignore these sorts of changes. He has Capgras syndrome as the result of a near-fatal truck accident. This rare neurological disorder makes him incapable of recognizing those closest to him—his sister and his dog—while still able to interact with strangers and acquaintances normally. Parts of his brain primarily responsible for emotional recognition have been impaired. He picks up on inconsistencies in the behavior and appearance of his loved ones—for example, his sister has lost weight or is more anxious than he remembers—and since he doesn’t have the gut feeling of recognition he cites them as evidence that these people are imposters.

5. The phrase “maximally adorable” describes itself.

6. It is very difficult to connect with other people, to really know them. You may find yourself feeling like Mark’s bewildered sister Karin. “Pointlessness flooded her, the futility of all exchange. Nobody really cared how the world looked to anyone else.” Still we do affect each other and there is something beautiful in our struggles for connection. We are all like Dr. Webber, the neurological specialist who goes through life “shedding himself on everything he touches.” Whatever constitutes that self exactly.

7. Letting a character’s thoughts set the tone of narration in third person story telling can be really effective. This is, perhaps, especially true when these characters have atypical neurological functioning. Searing example from Mark’s head: “First he’s nowhere, then he’s not.”

8. Novels that teach you about neuroscience, the perils and poignancy of human interaction, the instability of identity, water rights on the Platte river and the craft of writing in roughly equal amounts are rare. Such a novel should be read, discussed, thought about and treasured. Especially when you can find it on the second floor of your library (as soon as I return it).