Sara's Reviews > The Echo Maker

The Echo Maker by Richard Powers
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's review
Feb 20, 2008

really liked it
Read in February, 2008

** spoiler alert ** The other people I know who have read this book didn't like it, which brought me to think harder and more immediately about why I do like it, or think I like it. Which is good.

I do think I like this book but I don't think I can articulate why yet because it requires at least another read--or at least it requires me to re-read it. Its themes (consciousness, perception, identity, reflection, the way the passage of time affects all) are grand, delivered through its characters, the cranes, their mythology, and neuroscience and the questions the field has come to introduce. I'd say it falls into the category of books that require a bit of work in order to totally grasp.

There are events in the book I didn't care for upon the first read--Gerald Weber's behavior with Barbara, mainly because I don't understand what its purpose was--it seemed to be a strike of drama that didn't need to be there. Also, I was willing to accept Mark Schluter's miraculous comeback to his "original" self at the end because I've heard stories of something drastic setting aright brains that have turned upside-down. I didn't want a step-by-step sort of murder-mystery solution, but after all of the neuroscience that had been delivered up to that point, it seemed to me like cheating not to at least hint at how he may have recovered.

One other thing that feels lopsided to me is the presence of mythology. When I began reading this book, a friend asked me if it had anything to do with Echo of Greek myth. I looked up the myth before I started reading the book and soon noticed the book had more to do with Native American mythology than Greek, but then there was a slew of myths listed part-way through (including the Greek Echo) and I thought I might find something after all, but then there was no further mention of these myths. Not that I want to be beaten over the head with it, but when I finished the book it was like that part never happened.

Something I wondered about throughout was the neuroscience-speak. About a year ago I read 4 or 5 books in a row on various aspects of the brain--it's composition, function, disorders, philosophy, etc.--and I was working for a couple of neuroscience journals, so reading neuroscience research became normal reading. That said, I wondered throughout The Echo Maker if, had I not done all of that reading, all the neuroscientific passages might have been too heavy, might have read like excerpts of research papers sifted in and turned me off. Hard to say at this point, but it occurred to me.

Things I think are impressive about the book: the dialogue is done well, especially for the characters in Mark's crew--sounds just like the banter of people I know who seem to be a lot like them. Also, I like the way that these grand ideas (that I'm not yet able to articulate) are demonstrated through the lives of characters who, in addition to dealing with the major trauma of Mark's accident and subsequent brain damage, are also normal people with childhoods, dysfunctional parents, money problems and the like. The fragility of the brain in the physical and--the more difficult to get at--consciousness are demonstrated on multiple levels--which is something I'd really like to explore more in the book. On top of it all, the plot is compelling and unfolds well. I needed to know what happened, even though, given the fragility of the brain and the way the passage of time affects memory and identity, I thought nothing could be solved for certain.

Upon a first read I'm able to list things that disconcerted me or put me off more so than things that got my gears turning. However, all the way through I saw lines, snippets, and passages that needed underlining and piecing together when it was all through and brought along into a second read. On a bit of a schedule, I haven't done the piecing together yet. For now, though, I think I like this book but I don't think I can decide for sure to what degree until I've been able to spend more time with it and grasp it in full (or not). The plot is interesting enough and its ideas rich enough to get me to read it again, but life is busy, so I'll see about doing that. I do wonder if some of the elements that put me off might be part of the book's grander themes in action, meta-wise, which I'd be happy to accept if it all came together that way. I'm not so put off by these parts to weigh them heavier than what I think are the book's strong and compelling points.

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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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Liza I agree. I feel that I missed so much in this book. It is so dense that I would also like to reread it, but I will probably just turn to another by Powers. I also wonder if I had read it in a less frenetic place--not on the subways where the mind-brain is constantly bombarded with stimuli--would it have connnected better. I really love his blend of neuroscience and fiction. I'm glad you mentioned the mythology; that's something I wish we had discussed. I'm trying to think of siblings in myth now, but my mind-brain is not cooperating.

Alice Nicely put, and although I am one of the notorious haters, I agree with everything you say here. I think for me it was just that all the strong points you mention did not make up for its weaknesses. I definitely agree with Atwood that a second or third read might make the book stronger, but I doubt that will happen for me. Also, I agree with Liza, this novel might work better as an indulgent curl-up-at-home book rather than a commuter read.
It did make me want to read more about consciousness and neuroscience.

Sara Yes on the subway reading--I always wonder if I'm not getting all I could out of what I read by reading while balancing in a crowd of people on a moving train (the answer seems obvious). But it's either that or not sleeping. And, with that, when is there time to re-read a 400-plus-page book, with so many others out there to read...the conundrum with a book like this.

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