Tuesday, June 26, 2018

THE ECHO MAKER – Richard Powers

I doubt I'd have been able to discuss The Echo Maker if I hadn't found something I thought was wrong with it. It's almost too daunting. "You stagger out of Powers’s novel happy to find yourself, like Scrooge the morning after, grasping your own bedpost, saying 'There’s no place like home,'" says Margaret Atwood in The New York Review of Books, "and hoping you still have a chance to set things right."
And Patrick Ness in The Guardian: "His books seem wrought rather than written, and try as he might, he can't help but make you feel just that little bit stupid."

I feel a little bit like Homer Simpson would trying to write about Finnegan's Wake, but I’m too stubborn to shirk making an effort, if only just to stitch together some of the erudite observations by vastly more sophisticated readers who dared to step forward and put them on the record. The Echo Maker, after all, is a must read for anyone busy being born, not busy dying (to steal shamelessly from a Nobel laureate).
And for those readers perched on the edge of their seats eagerly seeking an opening to accuse me of oversimplification with my observations, I hereby address their indubitably accurate assessment right here and now: The core notion in both Richard Powers novels I've read—The Echo Maker and The Overstory—condemns the human species as having evolved too far for its own good. We've come to know too much about too little, and too little about too much. In even simpler terms, because our lizard brains continue to call the shots despite what our higher intellect knows to be true, we are doomed. Powers brings the humility to us more delicately with this quote from Loren Eiseley's The Immense Journey:

As for men, those myriad little detached ponds with their own swarming corpuscular life, what were they but a way that water has of going about beyond the reach of rivers?

Be assured, Powers is a preacher. A preacher in the mold of those 18th century Boston Unitarian pulpiteers whose eloquent oratory nudged statesmen, merchants, and the general citizenry to set their sights a tad higher than base appetite and self-servitude. Morality for the sake of a civil society was the impetus then. It was good for everyone for each to be good. Not enough anymore, Powers contends. In fact it's likely way too late for good by anyone to do most anyone any good beyond the short-term illusion. As someone in the Bible must have said or at least pondered, we've pretty much sealed our fate.


Yes, I am most grateful to have found something to carp about in this incredibly, brilliantly overwhelming novel. It has to do with neither plot, science, philosophy, conjecture, or fluidity of thought, all of which contribute to the overall disquieting effect of The Echo Maker. My quibble is with the humble element of the writer's craft, about which I will have more to say after a brief synopsis/discussion of the astonishing features alluded to in the previous sentence. I probably shouldn't have said "brief," as I doubt I can be as concise as I, and you, most certainly would prefer. But please bear with me. I shall try, we shall see.
Powers brings his scenario of doom to us in the guise of several seemingly disparate narrative rivulets, each engaging us in its own way as it meanders through crises of purpose and identity edging incrementally closer to the others with a momentum toward confluence in a larger, more portentous story. A key to Powers's power is a storytelling gift that enables him to deliver conclusions from his boundless intellect in a palatable embrace accessible to curious muddlers like me. And Powers understands the importance of story, most likely more keenly than I, who without question would stumble pitiably off the foot bridge to understanding his wizardry without the rope of story to hold onto to steady my nerves. One of the principal characters in The Echo Maker, a cognitive neurologist, emphasizes its fundamental importance:

Consciousness works by telling a story, one that is whole, continuous, and stable. When that story breaks, consciousness rewrites it. Each revised draft claims to be the original. And so, when disease or accident interrupts us, we’re often the last to know.

The novel’s plot unfolds in the minds of three individuals besides the cognitive neurologist: a young man with brain damage who believes his sister is an imposter; the sister, who tries mightily to convince him she’s real, and Powers, constantly looking over everyone’s shoulder explaining what they see and are thinking, And there’s the irritation for me: too much ‘splaining and not enough showing. His kibitzing intrudes needlessly, tediously, and, as one professional reviewer put it, the prose lacks levity. Powers’s voice here brings to mind the brightest kid in class forever displaying his superior knowledge. The kind eager to explain in minute detail, without himself laughing, why a joke is funny. Possibly the only aspect of human cognizance Powers either doesn’t get or is blind to for its narrative value is subtlety.
Yet these shortcomings are mere nit specks in the extraordinary tapestry he has woven for us to make his point that we just might yet have a miniscule chance of getting our shit together in time to avoid flushing ourselves down the toilet of extinction.

He uses as an analogy the marvelously mysterious sandhill crane, known by the very earliest Americans as “echo makers” for their unearthly cries. “All the humans revered Crane, the great orator,” Powers explains. “Where cranes gathered, their speech carried miles. The Aztecs called themselves the Crane People. One of the Anishinaabe clans was named the Cranes—Ajijak or Businassee—the Echo Makers. The Cranes were leaders, voices that called all people together. Crow and Cheyenne carved cranes’ leg bones into hollow flutes, echoing the echo maker.
Tecumseh tried to unite the scattered nations under the banner of Crane Power,’ Powers tells us, “but the Hopi mark for the crane’s foot became the world’s peace symbol. The crane’s foot—pie de grue—became that genealogist’s mark of branching descent, pedigree.”
These long-legged, graceful dancing birds land by the hundreds of thousands every year in a Nebraska marsh on their seasonal migrations. Two former lovers of the brain-damaged man’s sister are adversaries over disposition of the wetlands that host these legendary birds. One is a preservationist, the other a developer scheming to build a tourist facility to celebrate the birds in an ironic twist destroying their habitat.

One million species heading toward extinction,” says Daniel, one of the sister’s lovers. “We can’t be too choosy about our private paths.”
The sister muses, “Something in Daniel mourned more than the cranes. He needed humans to rise to their station: conscious and godlike, nature’s one shot at knowing and preserving itself. Instead, the one aware animal in creation had torched the place.”
One might think these details thicken the plot enough already. One would be wrong. It gets plenty thicker. Much of The Echo Maker has to do with the brain, of humans and others. My Homer Simpson wisdom ventures a guess that what Powers is doing with his dazzling exposition of cutting-edge neurological science is to show us how fractured we are, how amorphous and shifting is our sense of who we are and what we are, and how terribly wee we are in the cosmic scheme of it all.
Powers gives us science so mind-blitzing we can’t help but wonder at its veracity, yet we know from others who’ve done their Googling that it’s real. Anecdotes of people whose lives have been horribly deranged by injury or changes in their brain chemistry are enough to make me consider wearing a football helmet everywhere, even to bed.
Alright now here’s something that if it isn’t true Powers ought to be tarred and covered with crane feathers and made to get a better haircut. The following whacked me especially hard upside the head because I had exactly the described experience back in the day, although it wasn’t induced in the same way. No stream of electrodes was employed; mine came with the so-called illegal smile. Here’s the one with the juice (big words be damned):

Consider autoscopy and out-of-body experience. Neuroscientists in Geneva concluded that the events resulted from paroxysmal cerebral dysfunctions of the temporoparietal junction. A little electrical current to the proper spot in the right parietal cortex, and anyone could be made to float up to the ceiling and gaze back down on their abandoned body.

Wondering now if maybe that smile of mine (or its motivator) didn’t generate a certain mellow sort of buzz in my right parietal cortex. As it happened, I’d been watching Sam Ervin on TV gently interrogating White House Special Counsel John Dean.
In addition to the exhausting mystery of our brain, a more mundane question hovers over one of the narrative threads in The Echo Maker. Mark, the brain-damaged man, doesn’t remember how he came to flip his truck on a straightaway (albeit while driving some 80 m.p.h. at night) leaving him trapped under the three tons of steel in a marsh during the migrating sandhill crane layover. Author Powers gradually feeds us random clues, which, as all good mystery yarns should, merely awaken new questions and speculations as momentum builds to the solution, which, I daresay, is a lollapalooza.
Did I say there was no humor in The Echo Maker? I trust I didn’t put it quite like that. Something did give me a pretty good laugh, before a sudden lump in my throat made the verbal mirth sound a tad hollow. Here’s what caused the confusion:
This is it. Carhenge,” says the brain scientist to his female companion. (They’re on a Nebraska road trip.) The huge gray stones turn into automobiles. Three dozen spray-painted junkers stood on end or draped as lintels across one another. A perfect replica. They are out of the car, walking around the standing circle. He manages a pained imitation of mirth. Here it is: the ideal memorial for the blinding skyrocket of humans, natural selection’s brief experiment with awareness. And everywhere, thousands of sparrows nest in the rusted axles.


[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]

Wednesday, June 20, 2018


The only way I could bring myself to follow blogging buddy John Norris's persuasive review of The Weird World of Wes Beattie was to pair it with the only other mystery Canadian author John Norman Harris wrote before his untimely death: Hair of the Dog. I say untimely because Harris was only 49 when he made his final great escape, and had he lived a tad longer he surely would have given us a few if not many more mysteries starring Sidney "Gargoyle" Grant and his wonderfully unconventional wife, June née Beattie. And I would be reading every one.

Gargoyle and June team up in The Weird World of Wes Beattie to save her loopy younger brother Wes from the loony bin for allegedly killing his favorite uncle, who was about to cut him out of his will. Wes Beattie’s wealthy family has retained a member of Parliament to represent their black-sheep relative in an insanity plea to avoid the shame of a public hanging as well as to keep the wacky kid locked up, thus avoiding future family embarrassments. The kid is known as such an outrageous liar he's confused himself into unwittingly confessing to the murder.
At least I think the above is accurate. The plot is so intricately woven I can’t be sure of every stinking little detail—despite the fact that in mysteries of this type, with intricately woven plots, any one of a thousand stinking little details might lead to solving the mystery. This is why Gargoyle Grant is so good. His extra large head encloses a brain so astute it can examine the tiniest of stinking details to the extent that if one of them can point him toward a solution to a mystery he will recognize it. Perhaps this is the time to provide a glimpse of Mr. Grant:

He was a short, slender man whose enormous head was surmounted by a mop of wiry black hair. He wore outsize horn-rim specs, behind which he frowned in ferocious concentration.” The description, while vivid, omits one vital detail, to wit: Mr. Grant is a young lawyer with a practice so new most of his clients are petty thieves, drunks, miscreants, and the like. Though his brain and wits be enormous he has yet to handle an enormous case. He wriggles into the Wes Beattie imbroglio by way of a seminar with lawyers, doctors, and social workers in which a psychiatrist uses the Beattie case to illustrate “the need for greater cooperation among our various professions.” Arguing with other lawyers at the seminar, Gargoyle contends that no one gave much credence to Wes’s stories of a conspiracy to frame him, and in particular no one tried very hard to find the “missing woman,” believed to be a figment of poor Wes’s tortured imagination.
Gargoyle believes finding the “missing woman” shouldn’t be overly difficult, and, taking this as a challenge, he sets out to do just that. He’s soon joined, and hired, by the only relative of Wes’s who believes him innocent, the older sister. Electricity between June and Gargoyle is so delightfully engaging from the git-go it carried me through the maze of complications and coincidences of the mystery with nary a fret that all would not be right in the end. (I probably should try to use Canadian slang here instead of my own mix of hick and hooha, but I’ve never been very good with foreign tongues—if I failed to mention it, the characters are Canadian as are, surprise surprise, the settings. Eh? See?)
John Norman Harris
 Here’s smooth-talking Gargoyle at his first meeting with June, trying to persuade her that, among other things, the evidence against her brother is a tad shaky:
Now then—suppose you and I wanted to cuddle together for warmth at the Midtown Motel. We wouldn’t require a car. We could take a cab or walk and merely pay a deposit. So it struck me that the car was not rented for the purpose of flimflamming the motel. Why was it rented then, and driven for six or seven miles only? One possible explanation—to work the frame-up described by your brother.”
Just a taste, that. I’d give you some of June’s smart lip if we had the room, but, remember, I have Hair of the Dog to discuss a little here, too. Oh, okay, just one: “‘Stop being Delphic,’ she said. ‘What are you yattering about?’”
Alrighty then, Hair of the Dog, which was published after Harris’s death in 1964. Same kind of incredibly complex plot, also involving a wealthy, unlikable family we get to know in all its inglorious pettiness, but without a babe to tempt our gargoylean hero—June has him all to herself. In Hair’s unlikable family, the supremely unlikable matriarch is the murder victim, strangled during an apparent burglary and theft of her jewels and unimaginably expensive furs. Her death means instant millionairedom for most of her immediate relatives. Gargoyle represents the guy who allegedly set up the burglary, a former hockey star who never speaks—until the very end. I liked him if only for his name: Vince Lamberti. If that name sounds vaguely familiar, “Tobin Rote” might be a fruitful clue.
That name comes up in a conversation between Gargoyle and a member of the wealthy, unlikable family. My memory of listening to Green Bay Packer football games on the radio back before Vince Lombardi was even considered to take over as head coach is vivid. The team was pitiful then, although quarterback Tobin Rote (who finished his career with the Toronto Argonauts, see?) gave Packer fans an occasional frisson of hope with his passing wizardry. Those were the days, my friends, eh?
A couple other especially well-drawn characters. In Hair there’s the patsy, or “punk” who gets set up for the murder. They call hm Stoopid Easting:
Easting was something else again. He came from a chronically poor family. He was a third-generation welfare case. His parents were professional spongers. Students of social work had written theses about them to gain their degrees.” His luck was about as bad as Tobin Rote’s Packers.
Unidentified Packer nut
Gargoyle’s secretary grabs the supporting-actor Oscar in both novels. Clever, smart-tongued, efficient, etc. “Miss Georgina Semple, an elderly woman with incredible red hair piled high on her head.” See?
And author Harris was himself something to behold. An RAF bomber pilot during World War II, he was shot down over Germany in 1942 and spent most of the rest of the war in a POW camp known as Stalag Luft III, where, his publisher says, “he was instrumental in planning the largest prison-break in the history of WWII. The story of the breakout was eventually turned into several novels and films, including ‘The Great Escape,’ starring Steve McQueen.”

[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

THE OVERSTORY -- Richard Powers

I approached The Overstory with the kind of wavering curiosity those apes in 2001: A Space Odyssey had for the mysterious, shiny black monolith, only without the momentous "Also sprach Zarathustra" lurking in the background (no doubt it could have been, by sheer random coincidence, but I don't listen to the radio anymore).
What snagged a pause during my maiden flip-through of The Atlantic's June issue was Polish artist Dawid Planeta's spooky photo illustration with a book review by Nathaniel Rich titled "Rhapsody in Green." It was the subtitle that pulled me closer: "The dark optimism of Richard Powers's climate-themed, tree-mad novel." In retrospect, the oxymoronic sense of "dark optimism" is what led me into the review itself—that and the two pull-out quotes. The first: "The Tree of Life will fall again, collapse into a stump of invertebrates, tough ground cover, and bacteria." And on the next page: "The best way to cure man's 'suicidal appetite' for growth is to hasten the inevitable suicide."

My brain gasped. Those two quotes summoned synapse connections I’d been toying with more and more frequently of late. YES!! I wanted to shout, but suppressed the urge knowing the hair stylist next door might well have jumped and spilled a bottle of rainbow dye on some elderly client's wispy white coiffure. I read the review, and the review persuaded me to consider The Overstory as my next weekly contribution to the Friday's Forgotten Books blogging group. I had to consider that a new release hardly qualified as a "forgotten book," yet I rationalized it might be one of those books that easily could slip into neglect because of its uncomfortable subject and behemoth length—502 pages, a veritable sequoia compared to the usual elms and maples of noveldom. It probably needs to become a classic among the dedicated literati before less trendy sensibilities feel compelled to crack the cover and find out what it is all a-bout (It took me decades of false starts before finally groaning into a life jacket and rowing through the entire gauntlet of esoteria, biblicalia, symbolism, and soaring poetry in the leviathan Melville reputedly had a whale of a time finding a publisher for back in the day).

Richard Powers, whom I confess I’d not known of, was already well established in the halls of literary recognition when he gave us The Overstory. To avoid the tedium of listing his creds, I’ll simply give you a link to the bio on his website. I will say this, the guy is no one to sneeze at in so many fields I’m embarrassed at my dearth of life accomplishments by comparison. But I was ignorant of this as my finger hovered over the one-click-download button on Amazon.
I still had to reconcile the book’s oddness and newness with the Friday folks’ expectations. Our weekly assemblage is eclectic enough, offering a range of tastes that includes speculative fiction, fantasy, western, mystery, thriller, horror, noir, and the occasional nonfiction work. Again, I think the descriptions “dark optimism” and “suicidal appetite” were the deciders, and I clicked the button and watched The Overstory load onto my laptop’s Kindle app.

Soon into the reading I could see it touched several of the expected Friday categories. My biggest concern at first was to determine if the fiction was fantasy or based on factual knowledge, because if the latter then it most definitely exemplifies the adage “truth is stranger than fiction.”
Turns out it’s a blend, with the ambiguity set at the git-go as a mystical, poetic introduction to the first of the book’s four architectural divisions:

...in a park above a western city after dusk, the air is raining messages.
A woman sits on the ground, leaning against a pine. Its bark presses hard against her back, as hard as life. Its needles scent the air and a force hums in the heart of the wood. Her ears tune down to the lowest frequencies. The tree is saying things, in words before words…
All the ways you imagine us— bewitched mangroves up on stilts, a nutmeg’s inverted spade, gnarled baja elephant trunks, the straight-up missile of a sal— are always amputations. Your kind never sees us whole. You miss the half of it, and more. There’s always as much belowground as above.
That’s the trouble with people, their root problem. Life runs alongside them, unseen. Right here, right next. Creating the soil. Cycling water. Trading in nutrients. Making weather. Building atmosphere. Feeding and curing and sheltering more kinds of creatures than people know how to count.
A chorus of living wood sings to the woman: If your mind were only a slightly greener thing, we’d drown you in meaning.
The pine she leans against says: Listen. There’s something you need to hear.

Nice, but I’m not a fantasy buff. A little in a poem or a prologue like this, maybe, but not for a whole novel. My skepticism got serious when one of the characters, a scientist, speaks as if trees have an intelligence most of us have never dreamed of. “Trees know when we’re close by,” she said. “The chemistry of their roots and the perfumes their leaves pump out change when we’re near...When you feel good after a walk in the woods, it may be that certain species are bribing you. So many wonder drugs have come from trees, and we haven’t yet scratched the surface of the offerings. Trees have long been trying to reach us. But they speak on frequencies too low for people to hear.”
Needing to know more, to find out if this was just Powers carrying his misty dream from poetry into prose, I paused awhile and started Googling to see what real science might be saying about these things. I wasn’t the only one. Barbara Kinsolver writes in The New York Times, “The major players number more than a dozen, all invested with touching humanity, and they arrive with such convincing, fully formed résumés, it’s hard to resist Googling a couple of them to see if they’re real people. (They aren’t.) This is a gigantic fable of genuine truths held together by a connective tissue of tender exchange between fictional friends, lovers, parents and children.” And, one might add, “leaves, branches, trunks, and roots.”

Reading deeper into the forest primeval and its human friends, my curiosity craving more facts, I even looked up what one character, who reminded me of Jeff Bridges’s "Dude" in The Big Lebowski, describes as his experience in what I learned was the controversial Stanford Prison Experiment.
And when another character, called “Maidenhair,” lives for over a year on a platform two-hundred feet high in a giant Redwood tree to save if from loggers, my Googling found Julia“Butterfly” Hill, an American forest activist who lived on such a platform in California for nearly two years.
The Overstory was not just a fascinating read for me, friends, it was an education. And as a fledgling student in this brand new field, for me, I am in no way qualified to give anyone a traditional “review” of the book. What I’m doing instead is providing links to professional reviewers in the hope they might persuade you to read The Overstory yourself, and form your own opinions on its subject matter and merits.
Julia "Butterfly" Hill
Here’s John Dominee in The Sewanee Review:Breadth like this is a departure for Powers, though roving among different points of view is his usual MO. Still, he’s never been so Tolstoyan, plucking dreams from so many heads. A reviewer faces a steep challenge trying to show how things come together...
“Happy endings, in the ordinary sense, have no place in a text that renounces ordinary notions of human progress.
“...this is a novel founded on the notion of our lives as short stories.”

Eoin McNamee in The Irish Times: The Overstory might be a good book, and it might be a bad book. It might be a novel that reaches out for the unattainable and falls short of it, or a novel that overshoots its own good intentions. You can’t say it works as a piece of prose and you can’t say that it doesn’t work. You don’t know whether you should read it transfixed by the shadow of the fall of man, or throw it at the wall and run screaming into the forest...
“He dazzles and sandbags you with messianic end-of-time prose and then you’re ankle-deep in the corporate sleight of hand involved in the delivery of old-growth forests to logging interests, or looking at the legal structures required to grant actual rights to trees...
“Borges is there along with ambrosia beetles. Kant. You’re in the middle of a storm of thought which has been wrestled into the shape of a novel by a writer’s act of will. A neuron blast of high-mindedness. You get to the brink of whimsy then you’re hauled back: “Reefs bleach and wetlands dry. Things are going lost that have not yet been found.”
And, finally, Nathaniel Rich in The Atlantic, which sold me on the book. This from the second paragraph of his review:
“A former computer programmer and English major at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Powers has written novels about the history of photography, artificial intelligence, nuclear warfare, race and miscegenation, the Holocaust, neuroscience, virtual reality, the chemical industry, and genetic engineering. It was only a matter of time before he took on the greatest existential crisis human civilization faces: the destruction of the natural conditions necessary for our own survival.”

[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]