I read parts of this book beneath the gentle shade of a tree, with sunlight winking above, and a gentle cow chewing cud one storey below. Our cafe was in the middle of a rice field, and it was the ideal place for a Richard Powers book. Written 12 years before THE OVERSTORY and 15 years before BEWILDERMENT, THE ECHO MAKER seemed to be an earlier echo of Powers' themes: how we are all connected, and how humans forget the threads that bind us to Nature at our peril.
Parts of this book were read during a long trip out of town, ironically so because it begins with a car accident. A young man, in the prime of health, is mowed down and suffers extensive brain damage in the horrific form of Capgras Syndrome. Unable to recognize those dearest to him, the young man's sister and friends do all they can to bring him back to "himself." And therein lies the problem. If selfhood is merely storytelling built up over a lifetime, what kinds of stories can reconstruct a man, instead of destroying him?
The novel is a mystery/drama with sustained nerve wracking tension, but slowly, over the course of 400 pages. This is Powers, writer extraordinaire, who manages to connect seemingly disparate elements, and it will take a re-read to fully appreciate how every little event is foreshadowing of some sort... echoes through time. Powers is powerful, this earlier work showing glimpses of the full bloom of his genius that emerged in his two more recent novels.
All the details of the human brain, its glory and its frailty, make one question "the solidity of the self." When neuroscience makes us question free will and self-hood, we come to realize that our hubris is just a defense mechanism against the reality of the puny human pitted against Nature.
How small we truly are.
I felt this instinctively, as I sat sipping lemonade, gazing at the distant mountains, its cloud-kissed peaks and below, the rice that gives life. How I wish I could go back there soon.