Mark Schluter, a 27 year old beef-processing plant worker, becomes involved in a car crash outside Kearney, Nebraska, the locus of this novel. The car crash---on February 2, 2002, a date that the author wishes to impress the reader as one that seems too numerically mystical (02/02/02) to be co-incidental--clearly has mysterious elements about it since it occurred far outside town on desolate flat country roads and amidst the tire tracks of another car. Too, just after Mark is hospitalized, there appears an undecipherable note of anonymous provenance:

I am No One
but Tonight on North Line Road
GOD led me to you
so You could Live
and bring back someone else.

Mark has an initially troublesome route to recovery, including a temporary ventriculostomy to relieve the pressure in his head. Meanwhile his only sibling, Karin, 31, rushes to his side from Sioux City, a move that becomes permanent and costs her her job. Mark eventually awakens but with an unusual mis-identification syndrome, called the Capgras syndrome (more commonly encountered in patients with psychiatric condition), in which the patient fails to recognize those closest to him as such. For a Capgras patient, there is a disconnect between the visual ability to recognize their faces and emotional response to them as close relatives or friends. He recognizes the visual similarity but considers the significant other an impostor.

This rupture in the usual see-sister's-face-acknowledge-as-sister apparently occurs, in the Capgras syndrome, in connections between one's "primitive" or "reptilian" brain, including the amygdala, and the cortex. Much is made of this failure of neuronal circuits to connect, and reminds one of the parable in His Brother's Keeper (see database) about the Chinese Emperor and the failure of the transmission of a message to explain the pathophysiology of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. As Karin remembers the neurologic explanation, " 'His amygdala, she remembered. His amygdala can't talk with his cortex" [original italics] (80). This amygdala-cortex dichotomy becomes, in behavioral terms, feeling versus reason. As discussed by the two neurologists involved in Mark's case, "But no emotional ratification. Getting all the associations for a face without that gut feeling of familiarity. Pushed to a choice, cortex has to defer to amygdala"; "So it's not what you think you feel that wins out, it's what you feel you think" (131).

Out of desperation, Karin emails a request to Gerald Weber, a famous cognitive neurologist-author modeled primarily after Oliver Sacks but with a little A. R. Luria, whose "To find the soul it is necessary to lose it" is the epigraph of the novel. From the time Weber meets Mark and Karin, the book becomes an intricately entangled design of various metaphysical threads all of which, directly or indirectly, revolve around Mark's syndrome and identity--in fact the identity of all the characters. Karin becomes involved-- re-involved-- with two men from her earlier days in Kearney, Robert Karsh, a developer, and Daniel Riegel, a conservationist. Later the two men become ideologically more opposed than ever when Karsh tries to develop the annual nesting grounds of the cranes, Grus canadensis, who return to Kearney, thousands of them, every February. Barbara Gillespie, a guardian angel to Mark at the extended care rehab center, and Gerald Weber, until then a man happily married to a prototypically liberal intellectual woman, Sylvie Bolan, become romantically drawn to each other. Weber's own doubts about his work and his public image after unprecedentedly critical reviews of his latest book torment him and lead to concerns about his own identity as a physician who may be using, rather than trying to understand, his patients.


To provide a commentary and analysis of Echo Maker reminds me of the comment Richard Freedman made in his book review of Tim O'Brien's Going after Cacciato (NY Times, 2/12/1978): "To call 'Going After Cacciato' a novel about war is like calling 'Moby Dick' a novel about whales." To read Echo Maker is to stand for a long time looking closely at one of the tapestries of Rheims. To comment or analyze it in the space allotted here is to walk around from the obverse to the back of the same tapestry and try to describe the picture from the millions of tufts and threads on its reverse side.

Echo Maker is a novel about identity and selfhood--themes on every page and related to every character and event. It is about how one views one's own identity; how others, especially your closest others, view your identity; and the false sense of stability we generally ascribe to such views. It relates Mark's Capgras, an uncommon medical condition (as of the time of this writing a Medline search yielded only 467 references, and only half of these strictly pertained to this syndrome) to the age-old question of identity, beginning with Plotinus, Epicurus and Lucretius and continuing with debates about the contribution of rationality and psychology, à la Derek Parfit, to selfhood independent of a distinct personal entity who was, is and will always be "me". Powers gives us, through Weber's eyes, a brief synopsis of some of the different schools on pages 381-2.

Weber approaches the analysis of identity by observation and listening to the patient's story ["His job description: watch and report. For twenty years, he'd built a reputation on exposing the inadequacy of all neural theory in the face of the great humbler, observation" (145).] Early in his analysis of Mark, Weber "was just getting a rough sense of this shattered man, of Mark's attempts to tell himself back into a continuous story" (143). Weber reads from his recent book: "Consciousness works by telling a story, one that is whole, continuous, and stable. When that story breaks, consciousness rewrites it. Each revised draft claims to be the original. And so, when disease or accident interrupts us, we're often the last to know" (185). The self as narrative will, in this novel, offer those who study narrative in medicine a rich mother lode of material.

One comes to appreciate Powers' view of the self as fluid, an aggregate, a cast of characters who play themselves--their different selves--reminding one of Virginia Woolf's Orlando. As Karin realizes, "Mark had become fluid" (74). When Weber asks Mark," 'Tell me a little bit more about her. [Karin] Her character.' How did a Capgras patient see character? Could logic [read "cortex"], stripped of feeling [read "amygdala"], see past the performance of personality? Could anyone?" (119). While hearing about a new, unfavorable review of his last book Weber reflects, "We were not one, continuous indivisible whole, but instead, hundreds of separate subsystems, with changes in any one sufficient to disperse the provisional confederation into unrecognizable new countries" (171).

This leads, inevitably to the questions of what is personality, what part of it is stable, and whether it finally matters, when it comes to recognizing and accepting others' identities over time. Karin, torn between her brother's intransigent refusal to accept her as sister, and Daniel's insistence on ideologic purity, and Karsh's desire for a lover in the here and now, ponders, "A great curiosity came over her, an impatience to learn what she might yet become, in staying here. Who she might still be, if she could no longer be the other" (291). On the penultimate page of the novel, Weber realizes that, "Nothing anyone can do for anyone, except to recall: we are every second being born" (450) which closes the circle, after a fashion, by echoing the opening epigraph of Luria and the cyclical and recurrent nature, within a lifetime, of self-discovery.

Powers cleverly intertwines the themes of doubles, aliens, echos, loops, and repetition to emphasize the almost wave-particle duality of quantum physics when it comes to identity as decoded by the heart versus the brain. Although he does not use doppelgänger or avatar (so skillfully employed by Iris Murdoch in her novel of identity and longing, The Sea, The Sea), the author ensures that the reader will finish the book with a multiplicity of definitions of the self. There is also the brilliant referential use of Homer's nostos, a returning home. When Mark is taken to his house and Blackie, his dog, recognizes him immediately, as Argos did Odysseus, Mark, has no idea whose dog this is and later says, "Look at this pathetic thing! It doesn't even know who it isn't"--an irony appreciated by everyone but Mark (198).

At some point, the discerning reader will ask, Why Kearney? Why cranes? Why the title, The Echo Maker? For this reviewer, it was Powers's insistence on the elemental, the primitive, the still evolving homo sapiens' dependence on instinct, early memory and the re-inforcement of these circuits by playing and replaying (as in echoing) them. The cranes' ancient and annual migration to Kearney is the strongest metaphor for the need to re-enact one's self in the book.

In one of his extended lyrical passages about the cranes, a migratory bird that nests on the Platte River near Kearney, Powers explains that "The Aztecs called themselves the Crane People. One of the Anishinaabe clans was named the Cranes--Ajijak or Businassee [original italics]--the Echo Makers" (181). Not for nothing do Weber and Barbara Gillespie, implicitly already in love with each other, visit the cranes and, amidst the cranes' ancient nesting grounds, "flood each other, waves of oxytocin and a savage bonding" (430). Mark is an echo maker in that he can not communicate with his loved ones, like the Echo of Greek mythology. He becomes a solitary voice that hears his most significant others but echoes their replies, unable to communicate fully.

For Weber, and for the reader by novel's end, selfhood, self-recognition, one's identity for self and others, are continual translations from amygdala to cortex and back, a dichotomous inter-relationship between affectual and cognitive knowledge. It reminds one of a line in Woody Allen's movie, "Husbands and Wives" ("Plot of New Woody Allen Film Seems to Mimic His Life", in the New York Times review by James Barron, August 21, 1992): "At one point, people who attended the screening said, an off-screen interviewer is questioning each of the principal characters. The character Mr. Allen plays is asked whether he has a self-destructive streak. 'Woody's character answers, "My heart does not know from logic." Which echoed a quotation Allen had made to the press concerning his marriage to his step-daughter Soon-Yi Previn: "The heart wants what it wants." (quoted in "Chaplin Blazed the Trail. Woody Allen Follows" in the New York Times review of the same movie by Neal Gabler, September 27, 1992.) For this reader, Weber is saying much the same when he says, "His [Mark's] sister matches everything he remembers about her, but he's ready to discard memory in favor of gut reaction. All the remembered evidence in the world can't hold a candle to low-level hunch" [original italics] (171).


Echo Maker won the 2006 National Book Award. For biography of Powers and other reference materials compiled by librarian David Gold, see


Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Place Published

New York



Page Count