Don’t you care?

Michael Wood

  • The Echo Maker by Richard Powers
    Heinemann, 451 pp, £17.99, January 2007, ISBN 978 0 434 01633 4

At one moment in Thomas Pynchon’s novel named after them, Mason and Dixon pause to wonder what history’s verdict on their most famous work is likely to be, its ‘assessment of the Good resulting from this Line, vis-à-vis the not-so-good’. A voice, apparently coming from nowhere, says: ‘You wonder? That’s all? What about “care”? Don’t you care?’ The surveyors explain to the voice that surveying is what they do. They have clients, they meet their clients’ requests. Just doing their job. There aren’t too many significant resemblances between Pynchon and Richard Powers – Powers’s imagination is deeply invested in the local and in Pynchon the local is always about to become something else – but the passage about the Line and the Good finds an interesting and no doubt unintended commentary in The Echo Maker. A woman reads a series of books about strange mental conditions by a fictional writer not entirely without resemblance to Oliver Sacks. She greatly admires the books but is even more amazed by the selfless devotion of the friend who drew her attention to them. ‘She was in Daniel’s debt again . . . And she, once again, had given him nothing . . . Of all the alien, damaged brain states this writing doctor described, none was as strange as care.’

What’s really strange, of course, is that care should come to seem so strange, or should drop so easily out of the picture. Isn’t caring what humans do, as distinct from machines? Perhaps it’s what they don’t do. The question acquires a particular edge in this context because the voice interrupting Mason and Dixon’s conversation is that of an automaton, Vaucanson’s mechanical duck. The machine is surprised at the lack of moral concern among humans. Something very similar happens in Powers’s best-known novel, Galatea 2.2, where a machine is tested against a human in an English literature graduate examination. The method is the ‘standard Turing Test’, as one of the characters in the novel says. The machine doesn’t have to be human or think like a human, just perform in such a way that an independent observer will not know which is the human and which is the machine. The machine fails the test. Its human competitor is easily identified as human, because she writes like, and is, a graduate student at an American university. The text for discussion was two lines from The Tempest, a play much preoccupied with the relations of humans to other forms of life:

Be not afeard: the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not.

The student offers ‘a more or less brilliant New Historicist reading . . . a take on colonial wars, constructed Otherness, the violent reduction society works on itself’. The machine writes:

You are the ones who can hear airs. Who can be frightened or encouraged. You can hold things and break them and fix them. I never felt at home here. This is an awful place to be dropped down halfway.

On one level the whole set-up is a cruel academic joke. The human knows the programme, and the machine, which is not supposed to have nerves, has a nervous breakdown. The reversal of expectations is like Pynchon’s: it finds our alienated humanity in the wrong place, though it does find it. But there is more going on in both cases. In Galatea 2.2 the instigator of the test is a cognitive scientist whose wife is suffering from severe brain damage. He has a more than professional interest in believing the brain is nothing more than a superior machine – and perhaps also that working, ordinary brains are inferior to a really good machine. And the narrator of the novel, a version of Richard Powers himself, has a desperate desire to find humanity in the machine, perhaps because the failure of his last human relationship arose from an excess of care, or an inability to provide more than care. Vaucanson’s duck is asking not whether humans care or why they don’t, but what has happened to a whole register of life we used to take for granted.

In each instance the machine makes the point but the point is not about machines. And in each instance humanity is not just found in the wrong place; it is apparently found, and then shuffled and scattered and lost again. This is Richard Powers’s continuing subject, and he has been working at it throughout his career: nine novels now, beginning in 1985 with Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, and including, apart from Galatea 2.2 (1995), Prisoner’s Dilemma (1988), The Gold Bug Variations (1991), Operation Wandering Soul (1993), Gain (1998), Plowing the Dark (2000) and The Time of Our Singing (2003). All of these books are fiercely intelligent, and often rather grim, because the damaging losses keep recurring. None of the earlier works, I think, quite manages the extraordinary patience and tough compassion of The Echo Maker. One unsentimental way of caring about one’s characters is to give them the right sort of hard time, and this project, possibly present in all these novels, is clearer now than it was.

Oliver Sacks doesn’t appear in the new work but his shadow does flicker belatedly, a page or so from the end, in a momentary erroneous identification. ‘The brain guy’, a man on the plane says, thinking he recognises the doctor. ‘Sure. The Man Who Mistook His Life for a . . .’ Or the reader who mistook a wife for a life, and one writer for another. Such mistakes are easily made, and the novel is all about such mistakes. What makes us think a person is the same person he or she was, or makes us think we are the same as we were? And what makes us think we or others are different from former selves? What is the standard Turing Test for these decisions? And would passing the test be enough? Wouldn’t an impostor pass it just as well, or even better?

No condition poses these questions more acutely than Capgras syndrome, which literally or figuratively is at the heart of all the human relationships in The Echo Maker. Capgras sufferers identify particular individuals correctly in every respect except one: they can’t believe they are the real thing. I know that this person is an actual material person and that she looks like my wife and behaves like my wife in every respect. She even knows things only my wife could know. But she isn’t my wife: she’s a fake, a simulation. Don’t ask me how they pull off such a trick, or why. I just know this isn’t my wife and I wish my real wife would come back.

The sufferer in the novel is Mark Schluter, a 27-year-old truck driver who has had a near fatal accident on a lonely road in Nebraska. The person he can’t recognise as real is his older sister, Karin, his only surviving relative. Karin haunts the hospital, desperate to do things for Mark. He wonders where his real sister is. In time the two develop a relationship of habit. She’s not his sister, he thinks, but she’s not doing him any harm, and she’s devoted in her way. She has moments of panic and despair, but at other times wonders if she knows who the old Mark was and whether she wants him back. And of course, because Capgras syndrome is metaphorically if not literally contagious, she does fear that his suspicions are a kind of deep diagnosis. She is not his sister; or not the sister she wanted to be, not the sister he needs. And yet she is no one else. Since their parents died, their crackpot father and their religious, Rapture-awaiting mother, being Mark’s protective sister has been her only identity. Mark’s condition is so brilliantly, patiently evoked that several times in my reading I found myself wondering whether he wasn’t right, whether the book wouldn’t turn out to be a thriller in which the sister was a double agent of some kind. There are elements of the thriller here, and the mystery of the accident is solved in the last pages. But Mark’s syndrome is real enough, in its insight and in its error. We can’t quarrel with his sense of the past, for example: ‘It never comes back, does it? Shit’s never what it was. Probably wasn’t what it was, even back when it was it.’

The book takes us through a year of Mark’s slow road to recovery, if that is what it is. Other players enter: Mark’s dippy and amiable girlfriend, who works as a guide in a historical reconstruction of the old Midwest for tourists; his two mates from work, who may have had more to do with his accident than they are saying; an extraordinarily patient and sympathetic nursing aide who seems to have had another life of some kind; and the writing doctor, intrigued by this rare instance of Capgras syndrome induced by an accident. There are two other stories running in the book, with vastly different, carefully contrasted time frames. One is the struggle to conserve the Platte River and its environs and a whole ecology from the eager and usually victorious developers; the other is the annual stopover of half a million cranes as they migrate from points south to points north. A few years in the first story could end thousands of years of identical movement in the other.

The novel starts with the cranes, and with double time, in an astonishing tour de force.

Late February on the Platte, and the night’s chill haze hangs over this river, frosting the stubble from last fall that still fills the bordering fields. The nervous birds . . . converge on the river at winter’s end as they have for aeons, carpeting the wetlands. In this light, something saurian still clings to them: the oldest flying things on earth, one stutter-step away from pterodactyls.

Then there’s a ‘squeal of brakes, the crunch of metal on asphalt’. This is Mark’s truck diving off the road. The birds rise into the air, settle again.

By morning, that sound never happened. Again there is only here, now, the river’s braid, a feast of waste grain that will carry these flocks north, beyond the Arctic Circle. As first light breaks, the fossils return to life, testing their legs, tasting the frozen air, leaping free, bills skyward and throats open.

The cranes appear at the beginning of each of the novel’s five sections, heading north at the beginning, heading south at the end, and there is one strategically placed passage about the mythology of the crane, including the details that ‘Apollo came and went in crane form,’ that ‘Palamedes invented the letters of the alphabet by watching noisy cranes in flight,’ and that one of the clans of the Anishinaabe was ‘named the Cranes . . . the Echo Makers’.

The birds have survival problems they don’t know about, but they don’t have identity problems. All the humans in the novel have either lost their identity or are on the run from one. Well, we could argue there are exceptions – the writing doctor’s wife, his daughter, relatively secure in their selves and, respectively, their social work and their astrophysics – and it may be that the exceptions don’t prove the rule so much as invite us to think the rule is crazy. But still the tempting rule is there. Normality itself is an ‘idealised fiction’, as Freud said, and fictions are fragile by definition. Precisely because, as Freud also said, a sentence later, the abnormal is not a fiction.

The writing doctor, in particular, comes unstuck through his encounter with Mark, or more precisely through this encounter combined with the sense, provoked by a hostile review of his new book, that his fame and career are a fraud, that what he (and his many readers) thought was the literature of science may only have been a fiction of care, a plausible mask for true indifference. ‘Public approval meant nothing, until he had it. Now the thought of losing his audience shamed him.’ Without the audience he is like Karin and Mark: the person who used to be someone, and the person who can see only deceit around him. Yet the new book didn’t at first seem different from others – and perhaps wasn’t. Could that be the problem? The work is a recreation of a series of case studies of what he ‘studiously refused to call brain damage’.

Each of his twelve subjects had been changed so profoundly by illness or accident that each called into question the solidity of the self. 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 unrecognisable new countries. Who could take issue with that?

No one, at that level of blandness. What the doctor has previously failed to register is the difference between sophisticated scepticism about the self and the actual, dizzying unravelling of the self you used to have, and when he does register it he goes too far, can’t find his way back to the provisionality his own theory proclaimed.

The difficult thought here, the one Powers himself doesn’t shirk, is that such a plight may not be an accident and may not need an accident (or a bad review) for its discovery. It may have to do not with too easy or too popular writing or with lapses of care, but with any kind of writing, and the failure of even full-time, devoted, perfectly placed care. The point, I think, is not the seepage of fiction into what used to be real life, but the difficulty of finding fictions that engage with what isn’t fiction; and of knowing when the fictions (and even the truths) of affection are going to help us or delude us. At the end of Galatea 2.2 the Richard Powers figure decides he has stumbled into ‘any number of public inventions’: ‘That we could fit time into a continuous story. That we could teach a machine to speak. That we might care what it would say . . . That someone else’s prison-bar picture might spring you. That we could love more than once. That we could know what once means.’ We might read these propositions as a list of failures, and they could well be nothing but that. But Powers doesn't see them that way. For him they are faint chances, fictions that someone, maybe, could turn into truth.

Underpinning The Echo Maker and quite a bit of Powers’s early work is a vast amount of thinking and learning about the brain, meticulously researched and skilfully integrated into the story. One of the doctor’s books is called Wider than the Sky, a quotation from an Emily Dickinson poem which Powers takes in full as his epigraph to Galatea 2.2. ‘The brain is wider than the sky,’ it begins,

For, put them side by side,
The one the other will contain
With ease, and you beside.

Surely she means mind, or is deliberately using brain as a synonym for mind. A brain is only as wide as the head it’s in, and humans have bigger brains than birds, for all their much better relation to the sky. Not so, Powers and his sources argue. The brain is the undiscovered country, a world of ancient and only partially mapped circuitry, the invisible author of the novel we think we are making of our lives. The mind is just the hapless narrator, telling ‘a story to link the shifting self back to the senseless facts’, as Powers’s doctor puts it. We may have bigger brains than birds but, the novel suggests, we don’t have better brains, and in one sense we may have the same brains, plugged into patterns older than anyone can imagine. Those birds know what they are doing, even if they don’t have a story about it. Our problem is that we can scarcely imagine a form of knowing that doesn’t have a story attached to it, and there is no story that couldn’t be false. And there is still the question of who cares.