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Authors, readers, critics, media — and booksellers.


Richard Powers’s Narrative Impulse

With every new novel, Richard Powers's intelligence is acclaimed with ever greater superlatives. For his latest, The Echo Maker, the Los Angeles Times says "Powers may well be one of the smartest novelists now writing." Powers lives up to the praise by writing, in dazzling, poetic language, about subjects ranging from virtual reality to classical music, corporate capitalism to the genetic code. His novels explore sweeping, global concerns, but their essential questions often come down to what it means to be human, to live in concert with each other in our larger world.

The Echo Maker is the story of Mark Schluter, a 27-year-old man who has a mysterious accident in his hometown in Nebraska, the site of the magnificent Sandhill Crane migration along the river. When he comes to, he has developed Capgras syndrome, a condition in which loved ones — and only loved ones — are seen as imposters played by look-alike actors, or perhaps robots. In Mark's case, this "imposter" is his only surviving family member, his sister Karin, who has left her provisional life behind to help him recover. In a plea for help, Karin contacts a Gerald Weber, a famous neurologist reminiscent of Oliver Sacks, to join the family and examine Mark's bizarre case.

It's a fascinating set-up, and the novel delivers completely, weaving an engrossing, enlightening, and tender mystery out of strands of ecology, neurology, and the very nature of identity. Powers's prose is a marvel, lyrical and lucid. If you haven't yet read this extraordinary author, which Kirkus calls "one of our best novelists," The Echo Maker is the ideal place to begin.

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Jill Owens: How did you become interested in neuroscience writing?

Richard Powers: I had flirted a little bit with it about a decade ago — a little bit more than that now, I guess — in researching Galatea, which had a cognitive science component to it. I knew that I wanted to come back to it again someday from a biological side rather than a cybernetic approach. I'd been reading steadily in it for a long time. In fact, it was a recovery of material that had interested me way back when I was still considering very scientific careers, and reading a lot of the old classics — A. R. Luria and that sort of neuropsychological literature. Then a little bit later, Michael Gazzaniga and folks like that.

So the idea that the self is this ad hoc, continuous improvisation had been in my mind for a long timethe idea that the self is this ad hoc, continuous improvisation had been in my mind for a long time, and in a strange way, the theme really grew out of Time of Our Singing. Because that book is so concerned with identity as an improvisation, as a work in progress that's perpetually changing over the course of time, it drove me back to the more foundational scientific ways of asking that same question: Who are we? Who do we recognize? Who do we fail to recognize? How do we construct a self that seems solid and continuous and whole to us, even when it's not?

Jill: I hadn't thought about the thematic connection with Time of Our Singing, but it's definitely there. Was that the trigger for The Echo Maker, or was there anything more specific?

Powers: I think that's the general priming. While working for two or three or four years on a book, and turning the story around and around, as an exploration of certain networked concerns I begin to realize that there are many other different ways of coming at those same anxieties, those same hopes and those same fears. I keep this running notebook throughout the composition process. Half of the notebook is usable in terms of the present project and the other half is just spillover, other ways of thinking about those concerns in different domains.

I think as the book was spilling outwards, back towards these earlier concerns of cognition, I had that prime going, and then it was really my stumbling across the cranes — the Sandhill migration in Nebraska — that made me start thinking about very deep-seated and primal processes of memory and familiarity and migration. It was the discovery of this alien kind of intelligence, this bird intelligence, that looks like us but it isn't us at all — that kinship and de-familiarity all at the same time. It made me think, I've got to get back to reading more intensely on recognition as a neurological phenomenon. The discovery of Capgras was the perfect relief for this: looks like a loved one, looks like nearest of kin, but must be an imposter.

Jill: How did you first hear about Capgras syndrome?

Powers: I honestly can't tell you the first time that I ran across it. I guess the first time that it probably stuck was reading V. S. Ramachandran. Once I came across it there, it was one of those phenomena that seems to surround you once you recognize it.

Jill: That happened to me with the word "semaphore," which I didn't know before reading The Gold Bug Variations, and then it was everywhere — there's a Semaphore Restaurant in Portland, for example.

I described the plot of The Echo Maker to several friends, and no one seemed to have heard of Capgras previously.

Powers: That's terrific; that's hilarious. Yes, it's a very rare condition, and it's certainly not among the publicly known neural deficits. I'm not sure it's all that well understood, as the book itself suggests, because it can have these different etiologies, so it may not even be a single condition. It may be separate kinds of conditions that produce the same symptom.

Jill: In Portland, there's a school — actually not far from our offices — which is one of the largest known roosts for Vaux's swifts in the world.

Powers: Oh, really?

Jill: They swoop down the chimney at sundown every night for a few weeks; I've never seen it, but it's supposed to be beautiful. I was thinking about that in connection with the cranes, and the fact that they're now roosting in a school, rather than hollow trees, the way they used to, points to how much damage we've done to migratory paths.

Powers: But it also points in an interesting way to the suggestion that nature is very happy to use us. We are just another environmental pressure, that, in the long lens, will produce response.

Jill: The Echo Maker drives home again and again the point that we are primarily animals, through the juxtaposition with the cranes to our reptilian brains. Mark's thoughts, while he's still unconscious after the accident, almost suggest evolution, that before language returns to him, he's still in some sort of pre-human state.

Powers: The prose is an attempt to recreate that return from a complete loss of conscious mental functioning, or any sense of anchored self. Yes, and there is a way in which it's a recapitulation of the original process of self-assembly. There's a lot of suggestion on the part of the different stories of the characters in the books that baseline consciousness is always just a step away from other, stranger, earlier, lower processes that are part of us, but that we have to do a whole lot of footwork in order to hide, to keep invisible.

Jill: Do you think language, and, further, story, narrative, is one of the major factors that makes us human?

Powers: Yes, but I also think that there are analogies to language in the non-human world. So I would be reluctant to say that it's exclusively a divider. It's also a connector in some ways. We've gotten better in recent years in figuring out exactly how language-like certain aspects of animal communication really are. Will the construction of the self always rely on story and consequently on language? Yes, that has to be true. But if we listen hard enough, then we can hear those language processes outside of ourselves as well.

Jill: I was in Germany and the Czech Republic recently, and I'd never been to a country before where I didn't speak the dominant language. It was fascinating to be thrust back completely onto visual cues and body language.

Powers: Oh, how interesting. Were you out there long enough to feel some odd sense of estrangement when you heard English again, as the common language?

Jill: Yes. And by the end of the time that I was in Berlin, you start to pick up pieces of words that you know, and hearing them in other parts of words — by the end I was thinking, I could do this. Three months, I'd be fine.

Powers: Of course! [Laughs]

Jill: But the experience really emphasized for me how much our identity is tied to language.

Powers: Oh, yes. You should try going out there for a year, or even six months, and just feeling like you've been stripped back to grade school. It's extremely disorienting and upsetting, but extremely revealing, too, about how we hold ourselves together.

Jill: In The Echo Maker, one of the questions Dr. Weber was asked at the neurological conference was this: Is there any evidence that narrative impulse preceded language? I was curious about his answer.

Powers: I think there is, yes. I'm no expert, but I think there is a kind of growing consensus that there can be thought, and even shaped thought — narratively shaped thought — without actual conversion, without actual transformation in language. In other words, we can already feel beginning, middle, and end, logical chain, causality, consequence, those kinds of things, even without putting them into words.

Jill: What is, ultimately, so seductive about story, so primal about narrative?

Powers: It's explanatory. It's a shaping device that orders the world. For instance, they've determined that cranes and other migratory birds make these huge migrations of thousands of miles, but they do it by navigating via local landmarks. So somehow, they're able to communicate, to teach their young, on the basis of a kind of symbol-space — first this, then this, then this, how to make these necessary movements across the entire globe. And there's a lot of suggestion that syntax grows out of the machinery for spatial orientation. Left, right, above, beyond, behind — these kind of spatial orientations underpin the deep structure of language.

When you think about the function of language to create a syntactical, meaningful sentence, to order elements in such a way as to suggest some kind of whole coherent thing, coherent in time or coherent in logic or coherent in some other kind of arrangement of data, to think that it's spatial is very revealing, isn't it? That narrative is somehow a spatial arrangement of all our observations about the world. There's a great book by Frank Kermode, I don't know if you've ever come across it — The Sense of an Ending?

Jill: I haven't, though I like him.

Powers: He's got a wonderful formulation there. He says basically, We are born in the middle of things, we live in the middle of things, and we die in the middle of things.

Jill: Constantly in medias res.

Powers: Yes. And that's an extremely unsatisfying reality for us, because we know that our life has a finite envelope. If it doesn't correspond somehow to things out there, there's a loss of meaning. So we shape our sense of the envelope of our life and the envelope of our days to somehow correspond with each otherwe shape our sense of the envelope of our life and the envelope of our days to somehow correspond with each other. We create a migratory path, and we project it outward into the world as our source of explanation and our source of orientation. The amazing thing about the story of the self is that it's perfectly capable of continuously revising that beginning and that middle and that end, the reason why the middle looks like it does, and the prediction of what the next step is going to be, or what the previous step meant. It's capable of continuously revising that, and still creating an edifice that seems continuous and coherent.

Jill: It's a wonderful ability, when you think about it.

Powers: And terrifying when you lose it. One of the things I hope for in the story is that the portrayal of this pathological condition, this rare and really bizarre condition, will still nevertheless somehow feel familiar.

Jill: I think that worked; it's unsettling how familiar it can feel.

Powers: Good!

Jill: Bookforum called the characters in this book "almost ostentatiously average" for you, which I would agree with. Was that a conscious decision for this novel?

Powers: [Laughs] Well, between you and me, the narrative envelope for the Powers character — I don't see it as much as some people do. I have from time to time explored gifted people, and they've perhaps been the most prominent characters, the characters that most people think of more immediately when they think of the books, but over the course of the previous eight books, there have been a lot of average people. People trapped in one way or another, trapped in the confines of their own limits and their own flaws. So the idea that a Powers book is always going to have a genius protagonist has been a little bit overstated.

But Mark does feel different to me than anybody else that I've created, with the possible exception of Laura Brodey's kids in Gain. Obviously, because of the impairment, it's an attempt to create a double-voiced prose that doesn't operate according to the rules of normal, conscious logic, the normal chaining that we would consider to be recognizable. There are also questions of his socioeconomic standing: he works in a slaughterhouse, he's dropped out of school, he couldn't make it through college. These are things that I haven't explored consciously in other books with a major protagonist. Using him as a central intelligence for this book felt very liberating for me.

Jill: Each character's private life and interior dialogue, though, is just as rich, whether they're working in a slaughterhouse or in neuroscience.

Powers: That's great to hear. I've said this in other contexts: any human being who does learn language, who does create a self, and who does successfully — or only partially successfully — navigate a society is unspeakably complicated, inconceivably networked to everything. In that sense, there is a genius in all of us, and explored sufficiently deeply, we're all going to be stunned at the complexity of the network that any self creates to link itself into the world.

Jill: One reason I've always liked your writing — and it was particularly interesting because of the direct subject matter of identity, in this book — is that it feels like thinking. At some point the reader begins to pick up the shortcuts, the fragments, the connections, that your characters are making in their own minds.

Powers: I'm delighted to hear that that's engaged you. The technique basically resembles a close limited third-person focalization. Whether it's Mark, or whether it's Karin, or whether it's Gerald, there's a central intelligence through whom the given scene is focalized and organized. But the prose itself, rather than being narrated by an external narrator, is this hybridized inside/outside voice. It's a real double-voicing, so that a sentence that narrates even a simple action — somebody walking across the room, or shaking hands with somebody — is an attempt to partially participate in consciousness of the protagonist. Not stream-of-consciousness, but also not the traditional kind of external third-person narration.

So that's tricky, because it's living in this halfway state. The ideal for me is the kind of reader who attunes to those rhythms and realizes, rather than getting simple depictions about the world, they're getting a reflected depiction of the sensibility that's organizing the world.

It's interesting to see the way that double voice gets read in different contexts by different people, but the risk is that somehow author position and character position get conflated. Somehow that sensibility, unless it's really quarantined from the other narrations in the book, is going to seem as if it's being declared, from the outside. So for me, every construction of a narrative voice is a new experiment, a new challenge to tweak those variables and see what can be produced and what risks are involved.

Jill: There's a beautiful long passage in The Echo Maker about the mythical and symbolic roles that cranes have played, across cultures and times. What, if anything, do you think plays that role for us in contemporary America? What is our folklore, or magic, or practical religion?

Powers: What a great question. In some ways, in some subsets of America, it's the technological sublime. The idea that we're creating machinery that's going to allow us this huge prosthetic extension that will allow us to become finally who we think we are. The whole Transhumanist movement, for example. In an interesting way, that movement can look very religious; it can look like old styles of religious transcendentalism. But both of them seem alienated from nature to me. The most religious formulation and most technological formulation really begins and ends with the human. It's about us being separate from and unique and removed from the rest of creation. The dangers of that kind of privilege or that separation — you know, pulling us, pulling our node out of the network —

Jill: Right: either above or below.

Powers: Yes, exactly — creates weird kinds of fundamentalisms, creates weird senses of destiny that are a little deranged. Meaning always depends on our feeling connected to something larger than us. But if our fundamental sense of what it means to be human is predicated on the belief that it's something qualitatively different than anything else that exists, it's hard to know what that bigger thing is supposed to be.

Jill: I'd read that you think of this novel as a post-9/11 novel. The war, security, conspiracies of all sorts, float under the surface of the other major plotlines.

Powers: The familiarity and estrangement that we talked about earlier are played out against this period immediately following 9/11 up to and including the invasion of Iraq, when, I think, we were all suffering from a kind of pathological estrangement. We didn't feel like ourselves. The things that were happening in the country and in the world were familiar and yet profoundly disorienting and unrecognizable. It was unavoidable for me not to enter into these back door questions of, Are we still recognizable to ourselves as a political entity? Do stories that we have about America still make sense and still apply? The focalizing of all these events by the different characters in the story in this crucial time period when the entire sense of American narrative is changing reflects that kind of unbridgeable gap between the local and the global. That fourth of July celebration, in the novel, where there's a momentary glance between brother and sister that says, You don't recognize this place either. I think we're still living with that.

Jill: The question almost becomes, What is an appropriate mental state to have in America right now?

Powers: That is the question.

Jill: We tend to think more locally, and we don't generally take into consideration our connection with the larger culture, what's happening on a national stage.

Powers: And we have to. They're absolutely reciprocal processes.

Jill: In a profile of Bill Clinton that was in last week's New Yorker, someone made the observation that if Monica Lewinsky hadn't been working in the White House, our world would probably look completely different than it does today — which stopped me cold. That one event so small had that profound an effect on the larger picture — and that every action does, really.

Powers: That's the John Muir idea. I can't remember the exact quote, but the gist of it is, The more I try to understand anything in isolation, the more I realize it's connected to everything else there is. That sense that, in all the science fiction time travel stories, if you step off the path, you're going to come back to a world that's completely unrecognizable.

Did you see the story this morning about Clinton and Chris Wallace having a showdown on Fox?

Jill: No, I haven't seen it yet.

Powers: It's so interesting; again, it's part of this trying to narrate the non-narratable, the inconceivable story of where we are. I guess in this interview that they taped on Friday, Wallace brought up the hot-button issue of whether it was the Clinton White House's fault that Al Quaeda wasn't stopped before 9/11. It grew very heated. Clinton was absolutely adamant that this is an after-the-fact narration meant as a hit job, a blame-passing hit job. It'll be really interesting to see the interview once it's aired.

Jill: It highlights the war over accuracy, reality, narrative, in our country over the past few years — and I suppose always, really, but it's seemed much more obvious over the past few years than ever before. Maybe I just hadn't been paying as much attention until now.

Powers: It's an awfully interesting question, and I feel that, too. I don't know whether it is a function of age, but I think it's also a function of technology. There are ways and speeds at which the past gets laid down and integrated and narrated and analyzed and partitioned and reconnected and revised that didn't exist before. Numbers of people weighing in in public fora that didn't exist before. You could almost say that the rising levels of stridency and partisanship, not just domestically but internationally, probably at every level of social life, may result from this sense that the volume is going up, that things are happening faster and louder. So you end up having to narrate faster and more stridently, and more rigidly and more oppositionally, just to keep afloatyou end up having to narrate faster and more stridently, and more rigidly and more oppositionally, just to keep afloat.

Jill: When Karin's showing Dr. Weber the cranes, she speaks of a lack of need, at the majesty of the spectacle — What could one possibly need, with this in the world? The book ends with Weber's actual, very specific need for his wife.

Powers: Yes; for his wife to recognize him, to assert him as still being who he is.

Jill: By the end of the book, most of the characters have essentially had to break down, to break through what their own concepts of themselves were, in order to find some kind of livable truth.

Powers: Yes. To find some degree of recognition of the tenuousness of the process of self-narrating, and some degree of acceptance of the improvisatory nature of the self. It's that vulnerability, that giving up, of narrative, that allows you to be more fluidly part of narratives that go beyond you. That's what the birds are doing to Karin at that point. What difference does it make who I say I am if I am part of this?

Jill: I ran across a fascinating dialogue between you and Bradford Morrow, in which he described reading Lolita when he was younger, and then re-reading it when he was older. It seemed to me a perfect illustration of the power of words — static as they are — to show us how much we diverge from ourselves, recreate ourselves over time. Is there a book like that for you?

Powers: As you were talking about that, the one that jumped into mind as really being a lot different on the second read was Proust. I read the whole Remembrance of Things Past twice, and the first time was floored by the music and the movement of the thought. Then the second time, the whole level of comedy and social satire was so much more pronounced to me.

Jill: What are you reading these days?

Powers: I've been reading some manuscripts for writers who have sent me their work, so I've been pretty actively working on giving some feedback to folks' work-in-progress. Beyond that, I'm reading a terrific book by David Treuer, called The Translation of Dr. Apelles. The prose is exquisite. There's a richness and a sophistication to it quite unlike anything I've seen.

Jill: Have you read This Is Your Brain on Music?

Powers: No; I just got a copy of it, but I haven't started it yet.

Jill: It's quite good. I just picked it back up last night, after putting it down for awhile, and realized that it combined two subjects you've written about extensively — neuroscience and music.

Powers: Sounds perfect! [Laughs] Actually, when it came in, I thought, oh, too bad it didn't come out eight months earlier; I could have profited from it. I'll definitely have a look; it sounds really great. Most of his examples are taken from popular music?

Jill: Yes. There are some classical examples, too, but mainly pop.

On a final, more personal note — you're often compared to Don DeLillo because of similarities in theme and range, but you're linked in my mind because you're two of the only fiction writers who, when I'm reading your books, I'm torn between continuing to read and putting down the book to start writing.

Powers: That's great. That's about the nicest compliment I could imagine. That's a wonderful thing to hear.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Galatea 2.2
    Used Trade Paper $5.50
  2. The Time of Our Singing
    Used Trade Paper $3.50
  3. Gold Bug Variations Used Trade Paper $6.50
  4. The Sense of an Ending: Studies in... Used Trade Paper $15.50
  5. Gain
    Used Trade Paper $8.00
  6. Lolita
    Used Trade Paper $10.95
  7. The Translation of Dr Apelles: A... Used Hardcover $9.95
  8. This Is Your Brain on Music: The...
    Used Hardcover $11.95
  9. The Echo Maker
    Used Trade Paper $5.95
  10. Gold Bug Variations Used Trade Paper $6.50
  11. The Time of Our Singing
    Used Trade Paper $3.50
  12. Galatea 2.2
    Used Trade Paper $5.50
  13. The Sense of an Ending: Studies in... Used Trade Paper $15.50

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