Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Book Review: The Echo Maker

I was drawn to Richard Powers' The Echo Maker not because it was a National Book Award Winner or a Pulitzer Prize finalist but because it is about a man who sustains a traumatic brain injury (TBI). I didn't read the novel for its prose or plot but, truly, to read about fictional character with a TBI.

I found Mark Schluter, the injured man, familiar in many ways. Six years ago my oldest brother sustained a TBI as a result of a bicycle accident. The days that followed were touch-and-go, and then the long process of rehabilitation began. My brother has lived on his own for at least 4 years now and seems remarkably well. Like Mark in the novel, my brother was quirky before the TBI; the injury exaggerated some qualities that were already there.

Powers certainly did his research. Here is something that I wrote on my other blog a couple of years ago about my brother:
"It's hard to describe what James is like now. Someone who doesn't know him well might not notice anything terribly odd. He may just seem a bit clumsy or distracted. You could even get used to him the way he is now. But truthfully, there is a whole person who was lost in the three short seconds it took for him to lurch off his bike and hit his head on the pavement. There was this brilliant, arrogant, selfish, generous, irritating, gentle, sharp-witted man who was my oldest brother--and now there is this brother who is like a broken statue glued back together."

I was startled, and strangely comforted, to read this echoing paragraph in The Echo Maker:
"Mark still limped and contusions still lined his face, but otherwise he seemed almost healed. Two months after the accident, strangers who talked to him might have found him a little slow and inclined toward strange theories, but nothing outside the local norm. … His days were laced with flashes of paranoia, outbursts of pleasure and rage, and increasingly elaborate explanations."

And so I came to this novel with an agenda. I read with a thirst for shared experience and illumination, and for that, the novel was satisfying. A short glance at the amazon.com reviews tells me that this novel is about the search for self, the destruction of an ecosystem coupled with a broken mind, etc. I was, frankly, distracted by myriad subplots. Woven throughout the book is a fight between wildlife preservation and urban development, and also a doctor's midlife crisis and fleeting fame. I love sandhill cranes, but this whole subplot seemed to have a forced and tenuous connection to the theme of memory and self. (Yes, I get that the migratory birds have long memories, but still.) Brain specialist Dr. Weber got so irritating toward the middle of the book, when his story kicks in, that I skimmed lots of parts that had to do with him.

In the essay writing class I teach we have a mantra, especially useful when we get distracted: "Stay on the topic! No tangents!" Powers' writing is beautiful, his prose poetic. The whole story of Mark was interesting enough, I think even to a reader who has no vested interested in brain injuries; however, the subplots were overbearing and tedious. Still I'm glad I read it.

(Reviewed by CaribousMom here. If you've reviewed this book, leave me a comment and I'll post the link!)


Anonymous said...

I have this one coming up in the next couple months for the Book Awards Challenge. I've never known much about it, so I'm very glad to read this great review. Thanks for sharing!

Mindy Withrow said...

I am so glad to have discovered a reviewer with personal experience with TBI. When I reviewed this a year or two ago, one of the things I wondered was how accurate it was to the experience -- I suspected it was pretty accurate, since Powers is a careful researcher, but I had no way of knowing -- so your reaction is enlightening. Thanks! You'll find my review at http://mindywithrow.com/?p=241.