Altered States

The Echo Maker

Richard Powers

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25, 464 pp.

In the fifteenth chapter of his first epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul writes of how believers will inherit the Kingdom of God on the last day, which he considered imminent: “But this I tell you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God.... We shall not all die but we shall all be changed, in an instant, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will blow, and the dead will waken uncorrupted, and we shall be changed.”

Paul’s words seem to suggest both apparent continuity (“we shall not die”) and radical discontinuity (“flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God”; “we shall be changed”): everything is the same, and yet everything is different. In his novel The Echo Maker, which won the 2006 National Book Award, Richard Powers presents a sort of inversion of the change Paul seems to have envisioned.

A young man suffers severe head trauma in a truck accident. His entire world changes, and yet everything remains in place, like the table setting after the magician has yanked the tablecloth. It is the table underneath that seems completely different-the young man’s consciousness is nothing like what it was before. Others try to help him restore his old consciousness, but the best medical evidence seems to suggest that this consciousness-his former self in effect-was ultimately no more than an electrical process of the brain, no more tied to objective...

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About the Author

Daniel M. Murtaugh is associate professor of English at Florida Atlantic University.