Review: The Echo Maker by Richard Powers

25 Sep

I enjoyed this book. If the goal was to bring me back to reading, and to feed my writing with eloquent words, then this book succeeded.

Warning: spoilers below

I thought sometimes the writing was a little too eloquent. Unnecessarily flowery. This was especially distracting when the author was in the point of view of a character who wouldn’t possibly talk with the author’s grand eloquence, or know the things the author knows about neuroscience, or literature, or music.

I picked this book because of my fascination with neuroscience and the work of Oliver Sacks. The character of Gerald Weber is pretty obviously based on Sacks, but I wonder to what degree. Sacks has always struck me as being a humanistic scientist. He gives his patients a face, and a voice, he shows the human side to his field beyond the theoretical abstractions and empirical data.

Weber, on the other hand, questions the Sacks-like books he has written, wondering if he has used the people under his care just to weave another interesting neuroscientific case history for his own aggrandizement. He wonders if he has stopped caring about them as people and patients to be treated for their conditions.

This crisis comes later in the book, and the eventual resolution of it, I think, is that he stops writing his books and goes back to doctoring, and doctoring the Capgras patient, Mark Schluter, happens by giving him meds. Which sort of annoyed me. Not that there’s anything ipso facto wrong with psychoactive medications, they have in some sense revolutionized the treatment of “mental” illness, but I don’t think it’s wrong to say that medicine over-relies on them, for precisely the reasons that concerned Weber when we first meet him mid-book.

Weber initially sees himself as an iconoclast in his field, a cognitive psychologist among reductionists, a humanist among functionalists. Someone who considers the individual, their knowledge, their background and history, as well as their brain states and physiology. And I respected him for that. I suppose, in the end, he doesn’t so much reject that as embrace what it demands more completely, but by then, I was more than a little distracted by his personal disintegration.

But I’ll get back to that part. I enjoyed the middle section most, when the author explained Weber’s approach to his work. Ah, yes, I thought, this is brilliant. This is philosophy of science. This is philosophy of mind.

As Weber ticked off the isms that have, at various points, dominated the treatment of brain disease and mental illness, I traveled that path with him. I was once an experimental psychologist. Then I was a philosopher of science who supported psychology’s goal to find its place in science its own way, without having to be an imitation of physics or biology. But as one time this discipline was a ridiculous imitation of physics (behaviorism), now it seems to have become an enthusiastic sub-field of biology (functionalism).

But there is still an impassible gap between descriptions of brain states and neurophysiology and the “person”–everything that feeds into a full explanation of consciousness and behavior. The person is a product not just of genetics and environment, but personal history, knowledge, and the layers of personal and social meaning and intention that weave into those other elements. Functionalism has succeeded as well as it has because reductionism has heuristic value: it has the ability to crack open truths that get lost in all that detail. But it’s not enough. As we philosophers say, it’s not sufficient as an explanation.

Powers’ brilliance in the middle portion of the book gets lost towards the end as the philosophical questions the book explores get lost in Weber’s personal crisis. He goes from wondering what he is doing as a scientist and a doctor to playing the hokey-pokey with a woman (leave Kearney. Run back to Kearney! Leave Kearny. Run back to Kearney!) I suppose this is supposed to be a sign of the character’s disintegration, but the way the character disintegrates (a tiresome infidelity subplot) still feels tacked on to me. It didn’t feel earned, foreshadowed. Sure, his marriage seemed a little uninterestingly “nice” in the early portions of the book, but only in that way where it’s backdrop and not the point of the story, and so not likely to engender any subplots. Until suddenly, it did.

One last point: the Note. The Note is supposed to be the final mystery of the book, part of a climactic Reveal. I spent most of the book worrying the author would betray me in the end, and introduce some mystical whats-it, like a “walk-in.” Not that I have anything against mysticism. But The Echo Maker isn’t a fantasy novel. If anything, it’s “Lab Lit“” it’s about a scientist doing science, and the people who are impacted by what he does, particularly the Schluters.

The author doesn’t do that, nevertheless, in the end, I don’t think I “got” the note. Mark wrote it to the woman in the road (Barbara) before his brain damage event, but what’s it supposed to mean in that context? I got the feeling that moment was supposed to shake the reader to his/her foundations, but it mostly left me scratching my head.

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