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Awakenings

Richard Powers charts the confluence of mind, body, and spirit in his tale of an accident and its results

The Echo Maker
By Richard Powers
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 451 pp., $25

The scientific mind is not all that distant from the pure aesthete -- both have a reverence for form and for some uncontestable truth, whether beauty or proof. Richard Powers's fiction tends to roam happily in both worlds. His formidable intelligence possesses a sweetness that can still be dropped to its knees by music or a flight of birds -- he's a geek for all things exquisite. The novels, nine so far, inevitably display this passion, wandering through fields as vast as artificial intelligence or cognitive neuroscience with supple ease and curiosity. The curiosity, of course, is what makes for a tireless teacher, and the reader must be willing to sign up for the whole course: Sometimes Powers unleashed can sound like a brilliant fellow on fire at the lectern, his students, affectionate but overwhelmed, having laid down their pens long ago.

But I know of no other contemporary American novelist who demands so much attention from his readers and then gives back twofold or better. And ``The Echo Maker" is a brilliant novel, even when its technical clunkers slow it down a bit. Powers has taken a straightforward medical-suspense narrative and used it as the scaffolding for a book about perception, memory, hope, and that nebulous thing we call the soul -- the matrix of connection that seems to live beyond brain scans and empirical data. That he has managed this task with a story that begins on a highway in Nebraska is fine enough; that he has imbued the drama with a metaphor of the migratory flight of sandhill cranes -- well, therein lies the reach of this large-spirited novel.

Its hapless semi-hero is a young man named Mark Schluter who crashes his truck on a lonely Nebraska road, without explanation or witnesses; the accident leaves him with cerebral edema and an ensuing brain injury that grows weirder by the day. His older sister, Karin, has left her consumer-relations job in Sioux City to come home to Kearney to care for him, and within weeks it's clear that Mark believes the woman at his side is an impostor -- someone hired by the government or worse to impersonate Karin. His misapprehension (a real condition called Capgras syndrome) is rare enough to raise the interest of a neurologist on the East Coast, a world-famous physician-author named Gerald Weber who leaves his book tour and loving wife to come out to Nebraska and tape Mark's every paranoid word.

So: The Man Who Mistook His Sis for a Rat, with an Oliver Sacks-type translating. Karin's dismay over her brother's incapacity must do battle with Mark's fear and unbridled hostility, each of them holding memories of a shared past: a feckless, abusive father and a religious-zealot mother, as well as their individual paths of escape. Now Karin has picked up her old habits -- Marlboros and a too-earnest ex-boyfriend named Daniel, who works at the crane habitat on the nearby Platte River. Her misgivings about what she left behind in Kearney are magnified by Mark's ne'er-do-well friends, a couple of co-workers from the meat-packing plant who are suspiciously fuzzy about his accident. There's also the matter of a nurse's aide named Barbara who's too smart and caring to be believed, and the anonymous note found at Mark's hospital bedside -- a God-put-me-here, whispery scrawl that Mark is convinced contains the secrets of his entire life.

``The Echo Maker" unfolds in shifting points of view, so that Karin's perplexed despair, for instance, is illuminated in contrast to the rational apprehension of the visiting Dr. Weber. But what could be a simple realistic plot -- woman returns home to small town; brother recovers from accident; urbane interloper confronts his own demons -- is really something of a morality play about consciousness itself: about seeing and creating a reality, about the not-so-inviolate self. If Capgras is a syndrome that afflicts the creatures we love best -- Mark recognizes casual friends, but not his beloved Border collie or his sister -- then what does that mean about emotional affect and memory? ``The body was the only home we had," thinks Weber, ``and even it was more a postcard than a place," sending signals through the inner narrative of what we call sanity to tell us where we've been. With Weber as a vehicle for his authorial overview, Powers is able to raise these questions; with the gripping emotional story of a sister and brother trying to reach each other, he is able to elucidate them. ``The Echo Maker" shifts and turns in on itself, an elaborate dance between remembering and forgetting, with feints and dips to the fundamental mystery of how the human brain puts together a day -- then uses what it's learned to put together a universe of meaning.

And then there are those sandhill cranes. Powers opens with them, a half-million strong, homing in on the Platte year after year, remembering a route their ancestors traveled years and generations after the map has been burned. ``In the evenings, they glide to the surface and roost in shallow, open waters remembered from previous years. They sail in over harvested fields, feathered dinosaurs bugling, a last great reminder of life before the self." This phenomenon, this great awe, is no less a part of ``The Echo Maker" than the puzzle of Mark's near-miss and recovery, and its heart-fluttering beauty is enough to bestow the novel with a sense of ongoing grandeur -- of the huge canvas of life that we cannot, maybe should not, know or understand.

The failings in ``The Echo Maker" are technical. Like the absent-minded professor who can rouse a crowd but forget to cross a street, Powers stumbles occasionally on craft: His dialogue is sometimes too forcedly animated to sound real, and the love affair here between Weber and his wife is irritatingly smarmy (after 30 years, they meet cute every time they see each other). But the overarching viewpoint of ``The Echo Maker" -- the title refers to a Native American myth about the cranes -- is so smart and laced with splendor that its shortcomings feel forgivable. The resolution of the novel is a finely orchestrated landing after a ride through inner space, taking us, of all places, back to Willa Cather's ``My Antonia" -- to ``the precious, the incommunicable past." Leave it to Powers to melt down the ingredients of consciousness -- of God and culture and love and winged flight -- and turn them into a vision of wonder on a bleak Nebraska prairie.

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