Sunday, November 25, 2007

On Finishing Echo Maker

I'd been taking notes. Picking at the edge of the plate. Textual details on his prose style (fascinated by his quirky similes and figurative comparisons... how they work in unexpected ways on the level of the text--speculations on why he loves the word "ambush" so much. That sort of thing.


Ambushed might well describes what the last 50 pages did to my plans. No way my still somewhat feverish brain can deal with this book without some serious cogitation time.

Though it's old news, Mararete Atwood's
Review in the NYTRB is worth more than one read, and offers convincing reason why Power's books do to.

Of interest, LINK to a video of the Sandhill cranes--from a review on DEWEYMONSTER. The visual is not so impressive, though you see those threads of cranes appearing, one after another, and descending over the river and fields. But the audio! No words for what it must be like to hear that...

Two in a row... Tree of Smoke, now The Echo Maker.

A decidedly humbling experience...

I mean, you read King Lear, Anna Karenina... you say, okay, this is Shakespeare! This is Tolstoy! Nobody's asking you to be Shakespeare, Tolstoy... but these are young dudes! Barely wet around the ears?

Was it Reb Bunum, in Buber's version of the Hasidic Tales? .... When time for judgement comes: you will not be asked why you were not Tolstoy, why you were not Shakespeare... but why you were not a little more like Reb Bunum?

This is a very hard lesson to make one's own.

The Echo Maker... of course, that's what Reb Richard was getting at, wasn't it?

Shut up and listen to the fucking cranes, man...

... and dance your dance


  1. I recently read The Echo Maker, too. And how funny! I posted a link to the Atwood review, too. I loved his prose style, especially the segments when Mark is still thinking in completely abstract ways.

  2. I'm having a hard time assimilating this book, the experience of reading it.

    The sort of thing that happens to you when you're in your 20's. When first read The Brothers K, Grapes of Wrath... or younger: The Trial. Life altering.

    This isn't supposed to happen when you get on public transit with a Geezer card.

    In time, another reading and I'll have something to write, but for now...

    This one got to me like no book I've read in very long time.

    Maybe I should get sick more often?

    BTW: I added to my post after you left this comment, which would help make sense of my response...

  3. We already talked about it but The Echo Maker also sent me spinning. I can't wait to immerse myself in some other Powers.

    And your post made me laugh - this sort of thing should definitely still happen when you get on public transit with a Geezer card. Otherwise, why continue the ride?

    Just finished one of the Nabokov chapters in Lectures on Literature. He describes great literature as "a delightful explosion admirably controlled". I think that works for Powers.

  4. I've read all of Powers but Gain and Prisoner's Dilemma.

    Loved Goldbug Variations. Not as tightly plotted as Echo Maker, so not quite the page turner, but no one is better at writing about music, and when you get Bach and the discovery of the double helix into one book--you know you're a country Powers has claimed as all his own.

    I think one of the things that makes this book so moving--is that it's working through a deep aesthetic and personal crisis, one not unlike he argument and resolution of the Romantic crisis poem (think: Ode to the West Wind... and many others). Story telling belongs to the world of appearance, echoing perceived reality, but there is no "is" to perceived reality. Science shows us that nothing is what it seems--what then is left to the story teller?

    "I'm no writer," Weber says to his wife, but of course, he is--and Weber, for all that been written about his being a stand-in for Oliver Sacks, he's as much an echo of Powers himself as the "Richard Powers" of Galatea 2.2.

    You have this tremendous tension built up through the course of the novel, variations on a theme for each character--a wish for truth beyond seeming--but there can be no such thing, and the resolution is not going to be some impossible triumph over nature, or imagined transcendence. It comes, rather, through an ironic acceptance of the world of appearance, of story telling--for what it is. The source of the crisis, is that the truth science shows is not a place where we can live, not a humanly habitable world. The question, then at the center of, not only The Echo Maker, but every one of Powers' books, is how to hold the tension between these two incommensurate realities. To not permit wishful thinking to subvert our quest for an understanding of nature-beyond- appearance, and still not lose what we need to claim as our own to live meaningful lives in this world--to be able make our lives into stories. How can we believe in the stories, without forgetting, that we can't let ourselves believe in them?

  5. "The source of the crisis, is that the truth science shows is not a place where we can live, not a humanly habitable world. The question, then at the center of, not only The Echo Maker, but every one of Powers' books, is how to hold the tension between these two incommensurate realities."

    I hope you will put a post together with these thoughts, I would love to read more

  6. I've been meaning to try Powers and have both Goldbug and Echo Maker; I plan to read the former first, though.

    There was a problem with the Sunday Salon RSS feed yesterday, I think. Should be working today since I got dumped with 76 "new reads".

  7. Goldbug Variations is not a fast read. One you should give yourself time for. Echo Maker is likely more than 150,000 words, but the wonderfully tight and skillful plotting and the detective mystery thing keep you moving. Goldbug is a third longer, and while just as tightly structured, and has its own sort of mystery to dangle out for you, but it's more a workout than a ride. A workout well worth the effort, for sure, but more emotionally diffuse.

    I think Powers leaned a lot with Year of Our Singing... all music, not science (almost, anyway... the father is a physicist who naively believes the informed mind can rise above human tribalism--that music (his wife) and science (himself) can give birth to children able to live above the terrible realities of the world.

    Another Powers test: can music/imagination/science save us from ourselves? With the usual Powers conundrum... what is music? Imagination? Science... if not ourselves, woven out of the very material we would use them to soar beyond?

    In Year of our Singing--what will become the Sandhill Cranes in Echo Maker--is music. You won't ever read anything to match Powers when he cuts the ties and lets himself go in writing about music. He achieves a lyricism that would not be possible to a writer without a deep understanding of musical form, composition and performance. In Goldbug Variations, where I thought you couldn't do better, he's just warming up for Year of Our Singing...

    I'm digressing all over the map... my earlier point about Year of our Singing: I think he learned much in writing this book about how to explore character and personal conflict, and put this to wonderful account in Echo Maker.

    ... the last page/chapter in Goldbug:

    Da Capo e Fine
    . What could be simpler? In rough translation: Once more with feeling.

    It must be a little scary to be Richard Powers... where does he go from here?

  8. Actually I'm just here to say I do hope you feel better soon. Toothache is just utterly ghastly and must be just horrific on top of the flu. And I can see I need to read The Echo Maker.

  9. Thanks. I appreciate you good thoughts.

  10. I agree that the visual isn't impressive, but it does give a good idea of the amazing number of birds in one place.

    I know what you mean, and I think the last book that affected me that way was March, by Geraldine Brooks, which I read when it first came out and no one was talking about it yet, so I felt isolated with these huge feelings I had about and through the book. So I immediately started to read it again, and research the historical characters in the book. Did you end up researching Capgras syndrome and the birds? Or is that just my own weird approach?

  11. I lived in the Central Midwest from the the age of to 24--Kansas City, Missouri and Wichita, Kansas. I love the Flint Hills, and one of my most extraordinary memories of Central Kansas is filled with birds. Meadowlarks, not cranes.

    There's a WPA project some 50 miles west of Wichita, if I remember right. Abandoned now. A tower, like a medieval castle. There is nothing else there. Surrounded horizon to horizon by fields, some fallow, some cultivated, mostly grassland. I drove out there one afternoon with a few friends. Late afternoon, not that long before sunset. It was quiet, the way it's quiet in that part of Kansas... or Nebraska, or Oklahoma. Wind in the grass. A dog barking 20 miles away. We climbed to the top of the tower and gazed out over this once-prairie land. Could almost imagine 10,000 bison--how they would be now more dots moving across the expanse of prairie where the horizon was 30 miles distant, looking out from the center of a circle of 60 miles. When, just as the sun touched the western rim of the circle, from everywhere and nowhere, the sound of meadowlarks. There must have been thousands of them, and because you could hear the slightest sounds from miles away, it rose over the fields in waves, seemed to pour from the sky, rise from the earth itself. Caught by surprise, we were frozen speechless.

    Powers book--and the sound of cranes in that video, made me want to go back and find that tower, to climb to the top on a summer evening at sunset.