Altered States

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 reality than the consciousness that replaced it. It was, like Paul’s Kingdom of God, a state of grace, now gratuitously withdrawn.

The young man is a good-hearted but aimless twenty-six-year-old named Mark Schluter. He lives in Kearney, Nebraska, a depressed town on the Platte River, famous as a midwinter migratory way-station for four-fifths of the world’s sandhill cranes. His mental derangement is called Capgras Syndrome, a condition that makes him refuse to acknowledge the identity of the person closest to him, his older sister Karin. He is convinced that she is an agent ingeniously disguised as his sister for reasons unknown. Her dogged persistence in trying to get through to Mark is a constantly renewed act of faith. She certainly doesn’t have to persist: since her brother refuses to accept her, she could just accept the new state of things, escape her hated hometown, and resume the life she has invented for herself elsewhere. Her refusal to do so is essentially mysterious.

Grasping at straws, Karin gets in touch with Gerald Weber, a famous cognitive neurologist on Long Island. For Gerald, Mark’s injury represents a once-in-a-lifetime chance to settle the boundaries between the physiological and psychological accounts of the mind-the former entirely materialistic and mechanical, the latter insisting on a mind whose meanings are deeper than the stuff and structure of the brain. “The facts,” he writes, “are only a small part of any case history. What counted was the telling.” Weber’s third book, newly released, continues his method of telling case histories with changed names and sometimes composite identities. This time the scientific community has had enough, and he receives scornfully dismissive reviews and even a New Yorker parody. Weber’s unraveling career gives a tragic intensity to the philosophic debate on mind that is the novel’s intellectual spine.

The Echo Maker is also, in its way, a detective story. What happened that night near the Platte River when Mark, a skilled driver who loved his truck, flipped off the road? There are multiple tire tracks at the scene of the accident, and their intertwining pattern could tell any one of several stories. There is the slightly mysterious nurse’s aide who seems over-qualified for her job and oddly familiar. There is what Alfred Hitchcock called a “McGuffin,” a note written in a spidery script and left by an unknown person at Mark’s hospital bedside. It reads: “I am No One but Tonight on North Line Road GOD led me to you so You could Live and bring back someone else.” There is, of course, the obvious question of who wrote the note. But a second look at what it says leads us back to the deeper mystery of connection and obligation that holds Karin in place as a lifeline to her brother.

Powers divides the note into five nearly equal phrases that serve as headings for the five sections of the novel. Four of the sections are long, between 80 and a 160 pages, and the last is quite short, less than 10. Each section begins with meditative descriptions of the sandhill cranes, in migration and in myth, beginning and ending with their convergence on the Platte River as the story rounds out a year. The cranes represent a kind of baseline of mental activity. They achieve a miracle of memory in their annual migration. They mate for life and sacrifice their lives for their young. But they also stop recognizing their young as soon as they mature. “Ask any scientist,” Karin says. “Birds can’t love. Birds don’t even have a self! Nothing like us. No relation.” They represent, I think, a kind of temptation to slough off the burden of identity.

A well-meaning spokesman for this temptation is Karin’s lover, Daniel Riegel, an ardent environmentalist who tells her that the extraordinary convergence of cranes on the Platte is simply a sign that humans are gradually choking off other sources of the water the birds need to survive. His practice of transcendental meditation regularly drives Karin out- of-doors. He tells her that it makes him “more an object to [himself]. Disidentified...more fluid.” But with her brother already too fluid in his derangement, what Karin needs is dry land.

The story proceeds to a surprise ending, but the surprise is no gimmick: it really pulls together the complicated philosophical issues that the story has raised. I won’t spoil the reader’s discovery of this feat with any more plot summary. Instead, let me mention one more achievement of this remarkable novel: its masterful variations of style as the viewpoint shifts between Mark and Karin Schluter and Gerald Weber. The narrative is third-person throughout, but it adapts itself to each of its protagonists with the sympathetic recognition that is Powers’s central theme.

Published in the 2007-03-23 issue: 

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

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