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Published: Saturday, 12/9/2006

Identity vs. the modern world

BY BOB HOOVER
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE

THE ECHO MAKER. By Richard Powers. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 464 pages. $25.

"All the humans revered Crane, the great orator. Where cranes gathered, their speech carried miles. The Aztecs called themselves the Crane People. One of the Anishinaabe clans was named the cranes - Ajijak or Busineasee - the Echo Makers. The cranes were leaders, voices that called all people together."

- Richard Powers

The image of the crane - an ancient, migratory bird of great size and strength - charges Richard Powers' new novel with the universal force that links all living things.

For him, it's the complex, delicate nature of the brain, the magical organ that has guided the sandhill cranes back to the same spot on Platte River every year for eons and led humans astray for almost as long.

The cranes arrive by the thousands in winter near Kearney, Neb., on their road south from the Arctic. The sight of the red-headed birds dancing their age-old steps in the stripped farm fields inspires wonder.

The humans who have found their way to Kearney in Powers' story aren't so certain about their existence, however. Their identities shift, change, and disappear as self-doubt and confusion break down their hold on them.

Set in 2002, this novel is one of the first truly literary responses to life after Sept. 11 in America, a country stunned into paranoia and distrust.

Similarly, a devastating brain injury has wrecked Mark Schluter, a 27-year-old mechanic at the local meat packing plant. He rolled his pickup on a dark February night.

He will physically recover, but the spidery wiring of his mind has short-circuited, leaving him full of conspiracy theories and denial that his dedicated sister Karin is really who she says she is.

The rare condition, called Capgras syndrome, is usually a psychiatric state, but Mark's behavior is connected to his "closed head trauma. " He recognizes his buddies, his girlfriend, and the medical staff, but not the person who has been closest to him throughout a miserable childhood.

As a novelist drawn to medicine, science, and cyberspace, Powers hunts for the human element in the modern world. Using the growing research on the brain in this, his ninth book, he focuses on how emotion has been reduced to chemistry, how scientists chalk up behavior and feelings to enzymes and electrical bursts.

He does this by introducing Dr. Gerald Weber, a neurologist who's become a popular author like Oliver Sacks or E.O. Wilson. His new book does what his previous efforts did so well - turns serious and troubling brain disorders into entertaining anecdotes.

But he's intrigued by Mark's condition and accepts Karin's suggestion that he study her brother and find a cure.

He, too, comes to Kearney, where Karin has moved into Mark's home, quit her job, and devoted her life to caring for her brother.

One more stray alights near the Platte: Barbara Gillespie, an aide at Mark's rehabilitation center, a middle-aged woman with a bit too much polish and knowledge.

Deftly juggling the worlds of his characters - Mark's paranoia, Karin's grief, Weber's growing self-doubt, and Barbara's suspicious unselfishness - with the cranes' marvelous predictability, Powers leads us to question our perceptions about ourselves and our surroundings.

By challenging his sister's identity, Mark sets in motion a row of falling dominoes that knocks down the characters' sense of self, their ability to recognize themselves, and finally, their own trust to be the people they believed they were.

It's much like the country's reaction to 9/11 - the loss of our sense of security, the questioning our neighbors' loyalty, the curbing of our constitutional freedoms, and the acceptance of false pictures of reality fed us by the government.

All around us, says Powers, is proof of our true identity and our connection to the world, but we have lost our ability to see it.

"It hit her: the whole race suffered from Capgras. Those birds danced like our next of kin, looked like our next of kin, called and willed and parented and taught and navigated all just like our blood relations. Half their parts were still ours. Yet humans waved them off: imposters."

On the surface, The Echo Maker is a mystery about what happened to Mark on that road set against the backdrop of preservationists vs. developers who threaten the sandhill cranes' habitat.

Its major flaws are its rushed denouement, an untidy ending, and occasionally preachy dialogue.

But below the plot's melodrama lies a complex and demanding examination of the forces that make us human in a time of uncertainty and doubt. The Echo Maker lives up to its title; its echoes will stay with us for a while.

In My Antonia, Willa Cather, the Nebraskan, gives Powers a powerful vision of how life unfolds, drawn from the prairie and the cranes, but true anywhere. Weber discovers this passage and it brings the novel to a fitting close:

"This had been the road of Destiny; had taken us to those early accidents of fortune which predetermined for us all that we can ever be. Now I understood that the same road was to bring us together again. Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past."

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bob Hoover is book editor of the Post-Gazette.

Contact him at: bhoover@post-gazette.com.



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