Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Richard Powers: The Echo Maker

Richard Powers is one of those authors, like Don Delillo, who get a lot of praise, their share of rewards... and readers and reviewers who just don't get it. A review on Incurable Logophilia goes a long way toward explaining why I find this writer one the best of our generation.

Do check out the review.

I responded in the comment quoted below (hopefully, edited to eliminate the typos and lost words I've inflicted on the good readers of Incurable Logophilia.

A couple of years ago a friend–I think of her as a friend now–a cyborspace acquaintance: refugees, exiles and escapees from web sites as they evolved and expelled us–or at least, me: Salon–the old not-for-pay Salon, Atlantic Forum before Atlantic Monthly delegated fiction to the Terminal Care Single Issue Nursing Home, Readerville… one more place I’ve been booted from… (I've been expelled from a whole State. 1965… declared PNG by Mississippi). Too many other changes, disasters, reincarnations to keep track of. Very few acquaintances last through these transitions, some voluntary, some forced–so I have special regard for the few who hang on for more than one or two expulsions… ah yes, the point at hand: Richard Powers. This fellow Expat recommended Plowing the Dark.

Reading that book was enough to convince me–this was someone whose career I wanted to follow.

He hasn’t disappointed me yet, and your review does a pretty good job of zeroing in on what I respect about Powers' work. The fragility of his central characters-–of their self-identity--can make them difficult to “identify with” (how the middle-brow reviewers love to thump on this one), but that is the edge, the precipice he makes them walk, the heart of the question at the heart of each of his novels… this thing about “identity.”

In each novel, the question of personal identity is matched with a set of roughly (or more than roughly) complimentary questions from fields we assume are less contingent, less contaminated with our subverting needs and wishes–-fields that suggest we might explore them with more disinterested minds: programming virtual reality, photographic imagery and history, mathematics, music, the structure of DNA and its discovery… and in each case, the science, the complimentary representation of the human question, is no less problematic and elusive than that one about “personal identity.”
So yes, his characters seem stiff-–hidden behind their projected, fragile and unstable self-images, expressing themselves in a odd sort of Powers-esque dialog, all feint and dodge, evasion and deflection… the sort of more than semi-conscious lie… or, if not lie, refusal… refusal to take the business of settled identity seriously… so the dialog comes across as ironic evasion…evasion that reveals the “lack” the Lacanic “Real.”


  1. Thanks for your insightful comment. The Echo Maker was a first for me and I'm definitely going to seek out the rest of Powers' novels. I like what you have to say about this theme of identity running through all of his work and the equally difficult task set to science and humans to explore it - it was skillfully handled in The Echo Maker and I'm curious to see it come up again.

  2. I'd forgotten that PatD was the one who originally recommended Powers--when she loves a book I pay close attention. I don't know that I'd've continued with Suttree until it clicked for me if it hadn't been for her enthusiasm for the book.

    The Echo Maker was one of my favorites last year. I need to read more Powers.