Posted on February 2, 2009
The enigmatic and prodigious brainiac novelist Richard Powers tries to avoid flying, so when it comes time to visit his mother in Arizona, as he does at least once a year, he sometimes drives, normally overnight, from his home in central Illinois. Making his annual trek seven years ago, Powers was driving through central Nebraska near sunset when he became captivated not by another Gas ’n Go roadside attraction, but by a carpet of sandhill cranes, three feet tall, spreading in all directions over a barren field alongside Interstate 80. “I thought I was hallucinating from highway hypnosis,” he says now, “and I almost drove off the road.”
The Echo Maker, which just won this year’s National Book Award, tells the story of Mark Schluter, a twenty-seven-year-old meatpacker whose truck careers off an “arrow-straight” Nebraskan country road into a ditch on the banks of the Platte River. Mark recovers slowly from a fourteen-day coma only to learn later that he suffers from Capgras syndrome, a rare neurological disorder that leads him to believe that the woman who visits him every day in his hospital room claiming to be his sister Karin is, in fact, an impostor. The only person Mark seems to believe, for a while at least, is the famous neurologist and best-selling author Gerald Weber, whom Karin convinces to fly to the flatland to examine her brother. As Mark (kind of) gets better, Weber begins to disintegrate. It’s highly intricate and complex, but Powers juggles his manifold narrative threads with ease—as much a philosophical meditation on the mysteries of the brain as an emotional plea about the environment. Best of all, The Echo Maker’s a page-turner that finds its forty-nine-year-old creator as comfortable in the trenches of neuroscience as he’s previously been writing about molecular biology (in The Gold Bug Variations), artificial intelligence (Galatea 2.2), and virtual reality (Plowing the Dark).
I first met Richard Powers in the summer of 1998 at a bookstore in Oak Park, Illinois, which happens to be the hometown of Ernest Hemingway and not far from where Powers was born. At the time, he was on the first book tour of his career, in support of his novel Gain. Though never a recluse in the Pynchon vein, Powers hadn’t done much press and rarely granted interviews for his first five novels. In fact, after the publication of his first novel, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, he moved to the Netherlands to write his next two books; his fourth book was written while in residence at the University of Cambridge. I don’t know what I expected, but it probably had something to do with disheveled clothing and unkempt hair—and almost certainly a stammer. The real Richard Powers, however, was a charming and amiable, smartly dressed fellow who spoke in person as he wrote in prose—in beautiful, intricate sentences, paragraphs at a time.
These days, Rick’s a professor at his alma mater, the University of Illinois. Because of his academic commitments—or maybe because he’s newly married and perfectly at home in Champaign-Urbana—Powers didn’t tour in support of The Echo Maker, so this interview was conducted almost entirely via email, one question at a time, starting in mid-July. Which, after all, seems appropriate, since Rick wrote The Echo Maker on a tablet PC using voice recognition software. “I’ve always wanted the freedom to be completely disembodied when I’m writing,” he has said, “to feel as if I’m in a pure compositional state.”
ALEC MICHOD: The first thing that struck me reading The Echo Maker was that it’s filled with a lot of high-level neuroscience, yet the sentences never feel overburdened by the science behind the story. How did you resist the urge to cram the book with all your research?
RICHARD POWERS: Since The Echo Maker is about the intuitive and emotional foundation of cognition, I’m especially pleased to hear that the book’s intellect and emotion felt fused to you. We often assume that novels of ideas and novels of character are mutually exclusive. My entire writing life, I’ve wanted to suggest that all novels are to some degree both and that some novels try to erase that artificial boundary in order to show the links between thinking and feeling. We’re all driven by hosts of urges, some chaotic and Dionysian, some formal and Apollonian. The need for knowledge is as passionate as any other human obsession. And the wildest of obsessions has its hidden structure. Our theories about the world are deeply emotional, to us. Voiced idea is character.
My books have all tried to explore different ways of connecting past and present, fact and fiction, induction and intuition, essay and narrative. Each book has tried to hybridize those disparate elements in different ways. The Gold Bug Variations, with its themes of pattern-making and pattern-breaking, was necessarily a highly structured, idea-crazy book, although hopped-up with sexual desire. The Time of Our Singing, on the other hand, with its concerns of race, cultural ownership, and individual identity, was necessarily more character- and story-driven, although underpinned by a formal, musical structure.
From the start, The Echo Maker was a departure for me, with regard to storytelling. The gist of the plot hit me long before I sensed the general theme: a twenty-seven-year-old slaughterhouse worker suffers an accident and descends into a world of doublings, imposture, and estrangement. This plot slowly broadened into a story of how the brain cobbles up a highly provisional and improvised sense of self, one that, completely makeshift, still feels solid and continuous from “inside,” even when we are completely dismantled by outside experience. One part of this story needed to dramatize a glimpse of all the new, accelerating discoveries in neuroscience about how the brain works. But even more importantly, from the viewpoint of its protagonists, the story itself had to unfold inside the maelstrom of what Antonio Damasio calls “the feeling of what happens.” Such a plunge from the empirical to the emotional felt exactly right, given the deep, tangled networks of primitive processes that consciousness floats on.
My solution was to make the book itself a tangled network, to make every theory about the self—from sophisticated neuropsychology to old folk descriptions—part of some distinct character’s arsenal for surviving the world and keeping his or her own precarious sense of self intact. So all the scientific material that I researched for a couple of years—the endlessly bizarre and frightening neuropathology that initially structures the story—became just one jumping-off point for treating the characters’ private hopes, terrors, and beliefs. Brain science launched the book’s plot events, provided material causes, and shaped the characters’ conscious understanding of their crises. But neurology is just the start of those narratives that collide against each other in the larger narrative arc. Most of the resulting story (like most of the brain) is really subterranean.
The hardest part about doing the research for this book was hitting on an appropriate way to bury it. It takes one hundred billion interconnected cells to conjure up a coherent story of the world. But if neuroscience concludes anything, it’s that sensing and feeling and thinking and perceiving and hundreds of other seemingly separate processes are all conjoined in a huge, dynamic, and continuously revised narrative network. The brain is the ultimate storytelling machine, and consciousness is the ultimate story. Our neurons tell our selves into being. So any novel on the subject clearly had to tuck that insight back into a similar, self-narrating network.
For the first year of working on this book, I read as much about neural impairment and deficit as I could find, sometimes venturing downwards into neuronal and synaptic chemistry, sometimes rising into higher speculations about integrated consciousness. A lot of the reading revolved around case histories. At the same time as I read the technical material, I began to develop a very intuitive, primal sense of my central characters. During the second year of work, I composed scenes and unfolded a plot, while continuing to read a lot of associated neurological material, although that reading was much more directed now by the specific needs of my characters and their actions. The research continued for the following eighteen months as I revised the initial drafts. Only now, I was reading the science not only to continue refining and verifying details, but also because I’d become addicted.
In this way, I stumbled toward a form that would embody all the processes at the core of the brain’s story-making. Mark Schluter suffers an accident that disastrously unhinges his cognitive processes from his emotional intelligence. At the same time, Dr. Gerald Weber, the cognitive neurologist who comes out to study Mark, begins to sense things with his emotional intelligence that his cognitive processes have previously hidden from him. Ultimately, the science gets absorbed into the stories the characters desperately tell about themselves and each other…
AM: If The Echo Maker has a guiding spirit, it’s the cranes—cranes haunt the characters in your novel, but they also are woven into the structure of the story. What about the Nebraskan cranes appealed to you? Do they figure prominently in the neuropsychological literature or something?
RP: In fact, “echo maker” is the Ojibwa-Anishinabe name for the sandhill crane. My obsession with the primitive processes that underpin cognition began when I discovered these birds. I wasn’t able to tell a sandhill from a stork until spring, seven years ago. I was making the long drive from Illinois to Arizona, where my mother lives. I’d been driving for a full day and was passing through central Nebraska near sunset, when I looked out into a barren field along the side of Interstate 80 and saw this carpet of birds, three feet tall, spreading in all directions. I thought I was hallucinating from highway hypnosis, and I almost drove off the road.
The sight was absolutely thrilling, partly because I didn’t know what I was looking at and partly because the gathering was just so primordial. They really did look like some prehistoric remnant, something absolutely indifferent to human time.
I pulled off at the next town—Kearney—and got a room at a motel along the interstate. Asking around, I discovered that half a million birds—80 percent of every migratory crane in North America—staged on this short section of the Platte every March, like clockwork, as part of a migration that could cover thousands of miles. I got up before dawn the next morning to watch the morning ritual—the city of birds dispersing for a day of foraging. The experience was as spiritual as anything I’ve ever felt: these huge bipeds dancing and singing in an enormous, weirdly intelligent, communal act.
I began reading everything I could about the birds. It’s a long and haunting literature, with lots of great prose by writers from Peter Matthiessen and Aldo Leopold all the way back to the ancient Greeks. I learned that cranes mate for life, that a crane will sacrifice itself for its young, that they learn by example how to fly across an entire continent, that they navigate the route by very particular local landmarks, and that they are largely solitary, until this annual gathering. I began traveling to see them—up to Wisconsin and over to the Jasper-Pulaski preserve in Indiana, where greater sandhills will stop in the late fall on their way south. And I began seeing representations of cranes everywhere I traveled, from Central Europe to Japan.
Cranes became eerily human to me, and at the same time, totally alien. I wasn’t surprised to discover stories in different folk literatures about cranes and people turning back and forth into each other. Later, when I first heard about Capgras syndrome, and how its sufferers fail to recognize only those people closest to them (while having no trouble at all recognizing everyone else), something clicked, some story about familiarity and strangeness, and the book started to take shape in me.
By then, I had become an amateur birder, learning basic identification and starting a life list. I began thinking completely differently about other species, and began paying attention to creatures that had been largely invisible to me. And in one of those confirming coincidences, as I read deeper into contemporary brain research, I learned just how smart birds really are. Apparently, for a long time, science has greatly underestimated the intelligence of birds, partly because the cerebral cortex of birds is relatively small. But it turns out that birds use an entirely different part of their brain as the seat of their intelligence, and the brain-to-body ratio of the most intelligent birds is comparable to higher primates. Birds have elaborate social behavior, and they display lots of discriminating intelligence about clans and pecking orders. Hunting birds can cooperate with each other. Birds can even be deliberately deceptive—in other words, they are smart enough to be able to lie. Recent work on bird calls suggests something like grammatical structure. Alex, the famous blue parrot, seems able to make simple but meaningful and appropriate sentences. There’s an astonishing short film that you can hunt down on the web of this New Caledonian crow, Betty, who actually creates a hook by bending a straight piece of wire, then uses the hook to lift a cup of food out of a hole. That’s true tool-making, something we used to think only primates did.
So here we are, sharing the planet with these creatures who are weirdly intelligent, smart in an alien way that we’re not quite smart enough to see. And yet, the core parts of their brains are still contained in ours. Our estrangement from them, then, struck me as somehow analogous to our estrangement from our own subcortical selves. Setting the story in this little town in the middle of nowhere, whose central claim to fame was this annual massing of birds, gave me a way to open up the story to all kinds of neurological and ecological traces.
AM: Landscape too plays a huge part in The Echo Maker—more, perhaps, than it has in any of your other books, with the possible exception of Gain. Yet it’s not just “this little town in the middle of nowhere” and its environs—it’s not just the Nebraskan prairie—but, more importantly, the imperfect labyrinth of consciousness against which Mark and Karin and Dr. Weber are all graphed. Can you talk about the role “place”—be it the Midwest or the medial cortex—plays in your work, particularly in this book?
RP: Place has been important to me before in other stories, but never quite like it was for this one. I think you’ve put your finger on the reason: the book is about memory and recognition, but those mental skills are themselves deeply linked to the brain’s spatial abilities. The hippocampus—that portion of the brain that orchestrates the formation of new memories—seems to have developed in large part as a way of mastering place. Animals with the greatest navigational requirements also have the most developed memory. If I can return to my bird obsession for a moment: a Clark’s nutcracker, which possesses a well-developed hippocampus, can remember more than five thousand separate places where it hid seeds the year before. Remember that the next time you can’t find your car keys.
Some neuroscientists have even proposed that the hippocampus may have originated as a processor of relations in space, a “spatial cognition machine,” as it’s been called. In some strange way, our capacity to form and retrieve memories—and with it, our ability to shape stories and construct a sense of self—may be a happy by-product of our sense of orientation. (Think of all the mnemonic systems that involve fortifying memories by placing items in an imaginary “memory walk.”) Social intelligence—our ability to calculate and analyze complex interpersonal relations—may also be related to our spatial sense. Even our social vocabulary reflects that connection, when we talk about who’s in and who’s out, who’s up and who’s down, who’s at the center and who’s marginalized. For that matter, our vocabulary for the elements of storytelling itself is also highly spatial: exposition, situation, plot, reverse, arrival…
If stories about recognition and memory rightfully begin as stories of place, my story about Capgras quickly homed in on one particular spot out of the entire possible map. Kearney, Nebraska, is close to the geographical center of the United States, although it’s probably close to the edges of terra incognita in many readers’ mental landscapes. More importantly for my story, the town sits right on the crosshairs of two intersecting migratory corridors. On one axis, it lies on or near the great historical American east-to-west routes: Oregon Trail, Mormon Trail, Pony Express, transcontinental railroad, Lincoln Highway, Interstate 80. And on the other, it lies on the choke point of the Central Flyway, that continent-size hourglass used by hundreds of millions of migratory birds, with its narrow waist lying along a sixty-mile stretch of the Platte.
So all of these creatures who are navigating north and south through the changing seasons cross paths with humans—the animal perpendicular to everything—in this town of thirty thousand people. This town has completely shaped the mental imagination of Mark Schluter as well as his sister Karin, who has spent her entire life trying to escape it. Kearney is also the complete antithesis of the New York of Dr. Gerald Weber, the cognitive neurologist who comes out to examine Mark, only to discover, in this colossal emptiness—the Great American Desert—a foil for his own geographical estrangement, post-9/11.
I worked much more visually for this book than I ordinarily do, and I had great pleasure visiting the landscape of central Nebraska, and inhabiting it again later, in memory. I even took to sketching scenes and situations, mapping out their locales—trying to come closer to a spatial sense of the story’s secret, internal logic. In fact, the mystery elements of the plot—what actually happens to Mark on the night of his accident—depend on a working out of very local, specific events in time and space, and that kind of physical triangulation and cartography was something entirely new for me.
Geography may be destiny, but Kearney and the Platte, like every place else on earth, have been virtualized—completely transformed by broadband and its networked bits. The book explores that derangement, too: the total defamiliarization of place in the digital age. Beyond that, the story also circles around the underpinning ecological question of who owns this long river that flows through three separate arid states. What happens when faraway, upstream water use forever changes life downstream? Who gets to drink from the limited flow? Do other creatures merit a share?
For me, the prairie-crossroads setting of the book ultimately became a material emblem for the provisional, distributed, improvised, even fictive nature of the self. If space is the field for memory, and if memory is the basis of our narrative self-invention, then we must live in some seam between inside and outside, some corridor between the place we make and the place that makes us. That’s why I went to this crossroads, the empty, remote center of the Great American Desert.
AM: I want to ask about the place of the novelist in today’s “Great American Desert”—where does this “seam between inside and outside” exist with respect to the novelist, post-9/11? I’m thinking particularly about the loosely Oliver Sacks–ian character of Dr. Gerald Weber, who undergoes profound transformations once he starts “treating” Mark. There’s a huge mystery here—maybe even the mystery of the entire book—and I’m wondering if it has more to do with what it means to be a writer than it might at first seem.
RP: If Weber is like Sacks (or Ramachandran, Feinberg, Damasio, Broks, Gazzaniga, or any of the other outstanding writers of narrative neuropsychology), it’s only in his attempt to locate, inside empirical clinical description, the same kind of empathetic leap that lies at the heart of fiction. Story is the mind’s way of molding a seeming whole from out of the messiness of the distributed, modular brain. At the same time, shared stories are the only way anyone has for escaping the straightjacket of self. Good medicine has always depended on listening to histories. So any attempt to comprehend the injured mind naturally inclines toward all the devices of classic storytelling. Neurological case histories exist in a hybrid place between descriptive science and reflective art, a halfway place much like the narrated self’s.
Many brain-injured people suffer from anosognosia—the total lack of awareness of any symptoms. When Weber comes to examine Mark, that’s just what he finds: a man completely unable to see how his accident has changed him, who insists, rather, that something has changed in everyone around him, something that no one will tell him about. But Weber’s examination occurs just at the moment in his own career when readers of his work have begun to accuse him of exploitation. The public has begun to claim that Weber has failed in precisely the kind of compassion that he has always prided himself on and that his work has always professed. And in his scrupulous attempt to understand Mark without turning the man into a self-serving story, Weber makes a frightening empathetic leap: if Mark still feels familiar to himself inside, despite all outward evidence to the contrary, how reliable is Gerald Weber’s own sense of internal consistency and decency, in the face of the chorus of outside reappraisal?
Once you lose the bias that exempts you from the shortfalls you can see so easily in others, you also lose any internal authority for restoring your sense of solidity. After years of trying to see others from the inside, Weber at last commits to seeing himself from the outside. The effect on the neuroscientist is as totally estranging as Mark’s brain damage. Emotional kinship—true empathy—is a bottomless well.
But weirdly, that act of bottomless, estranging kinship is probably the main goal of reading and writing novels. We read to escape ourselves and become someone else, at least for a little while. Fiction is one long, sensuous derangement of familiarity through altered point of view. How would you recognize your world if it wasn’t yours? What might you look and feel like if you weren’t you? We can survive the disorientation; we even love immersing ourselves in it, so long as the trip is controllable and we can return to our own lives when the book ends. Fiction plays on that overlap between self-composure and total, alien bewilderment, and it navigates by estrangement. As the pioneer neuropsychologist A. R. Luria once wrote, “To find the soul it is necessary to lose it.” To read another’s story, you have to lose yours.
The prevailing explanation for Capgras posits some kind of disconnect between high-level, cognitive recognition and low-level, emotional ratification: She looks and acts and talks and behaves like my sister, but I’m just not getting that sister feel from her. (Perhaps that explains why sufferers fail to affirm only those from whom they expect a deep sense of connection.) And simply by caring for Mark, Weber suffers that same estranging disconnection. In effect, you could say he contracts contagious Capgras.
Estrangement seems to have become the baseline condition for life in terrorized America. After November 2000, after September 2001, after the Patriot Act and the detainee bill, after Gitmo and Abu Ghraib, our stories—public and private—keep scrambling to keep America whole, continuous, and coherent, to place it. The basic outline of life here still looks familiar. But for a lot of people, the place no longer feels recognizable.
It seems to me that evil—the word of the hour, again—might be the willful destruction of empathy. Evil is the refusal to see oneself in others.
I truly don’t know what role the novelist can play in a time of rising self-righteousness and escalating evil. Any story novelists create to reflect life accurately will now have to be improvised, provisional, and bewildered. But I do know that when I read a particularly moving and achieved work of fiction, I feel myself succumbing to all kinds of contagious rearrangement. Only inhabiting another’s story can deliver us from certainty.
AM: The stories you inhabit have been packaged as novels, yet many novelists of your generation also publish essay collections or memoirs. I find that interesting. Is there a reason you haven’t published a nonfiction book? What does fiction do that other kinds of writing can’t?
RP: I’ve published a handful of nonfiction shorter pieces over the years, not to mention a trilogy of Borges-like fictitious essays (factitious stories?) that are neither fish nor fowl. I suppose I have a small volume’s worth of short pieces by now, but these days, when existing print and digital versions of everything circulate so freely, collating and publishing these pieces as a separate volume (a form they weren’t really conceived for) seems superfluous. I do have a topic for a contribution to Norton’s terrific Great Discoveries series that I’d love to get to before I die. I have several ideas for volume-length meditations (for instance, an aesthetic and narratological look at computer coding), but the impulse to write fiction has never abated long enough for me to consider any of these nonfiction projects seriously. Memoir? That would require way too much imagination for me!
Neuroscience has recently turned up evidence for these extraordinary circuits in the brain populated with “mirror neurons.” These things fire both when we perform an action and when we merely see someone else perform the same action. Other experiments suggest astonishing evidence that doing and imagining share the same circuitry. The primary visual cortex requires more blood when we merely imagine a scene than when we actually see it. Heart rates rise in subjects told to imagine running. Subjects who merely visualize physical exercise over an extended period can gain two thirds as much muscle strength as those who actually perform the same exercises. So fiction may be a far more potent thing than we think. Natural selection must have favored a love for fiction. Clearly, it has some survival value! Life is a complex and dangerous enterprise. Of course we’re going to love taking the thing out for a spin on a completely safe practice track where we can try out any threatening or thrilling maneuver whatsoever, without any consequence except experience.
But our need for fiction also betrays a desire for kinds of knowing that nonfiction can’t easily reach. Nonfiction can assert; fiction can show asserters, and show what happens when assertions crash. Fiction can focalize and situate worldviews, pitching different perspectives and agendas against each other, linking beliefs to their believers, reflecting facts through their interpreters and interpreters through their facts. Fiction is a spreading, polysemous, relational network that captures the way that we and our worlds create each other. Whenever the best nonfiction really needs to persuade or clarify, it resorts to story.
A chemist can say how atoms bond. A molecular biologist can say how a mutagen disrupts a chemical bond and causes a mutation. A geneticist can identify a mutation and develop a working screen for it. Clergy and ethicists can debate the social consequences of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis. A journalist can interview two parents in a Chicago suburb who are wrestling with their faith while seeking to bear a child free of inheritable disease. But only a novelist can put all these actors and dozens more into the shared story they all tell, and make that story rearrange some readers’ viscera.
Something truly interesting is happening in many basic sciences, a real revolution in human knowing. For a long time—centuries—empiricism has tried to understand the whole in terms of its isolated parts, and then to write out precise and simple rules about the controlled behavior of those parts in isolation. In recent decades, with the explosion of the life sciences and with a new appreciation in physics and chemistry of emergent and complex systems, a new kind of holism has emerged. Researchers, coming up against the limits of old-style reductionism while studying large, dynamic systems, have found that the whole can sometimes best be understood in terms of the whole. New attempts to describe richly interacting real-world phenomena have turned increasingly to complex models and simulations as valid scientific tools.
But that’s the way that fiction has known things for a long time: through complex, connected models. Through massive simulation.
AM: Since the beginning of your career, you’ve garnered a lot of critical praise, and you have a passionate, possibly even cultish fan base, to be sure. Then The Echo Maker, deservedly so, received the National Book Award this past year. I’m wondering, for someone who has always blazed his own literary trail, so to speak, how such a mainstream accolade—and the increased attention it will place on you—might change your writing, if at all.
RP: Since the award was announced only two weeks ago, I’m not really sure what effect it will have on the reception of my books. I’m grateful for whatever increased reader interest such a prize might generate, and delighted that a somewhat offbeat book has been brought into a broader public conversation. As for my own writing life and process, I have always treated prizes less as certifications of the past than as licenses for the future. To paraphrase Larry Bird: scoring earns you the right to miss from anywhere on the court. All in all, the award is just a wonderful encouragement to forget about winning and, in Beckett’s words, to “fail better.”
AM: So what happens now? What’s your next simulation?
RP: I’m embarked on a novel about whether the human race can have a happy ending.