Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Winged avatars of memory and return

New York Times / Brian Michael Weaver

It was the illustration of an overturned truck surrounded by sandhill cranes in the middle of the night that first caught my eye. It accompanied the Colson Whitehead review of a new book by one of my favorite novelists, Richard Powers, but it was the cranes that quickened my pulse.

Sometimes I'll be driving to work through the southern Wisconsin countryside and a pair of cranes will sweep low across the road, on a glide path from one feeding ground to another.

I'm always in danger of driving right off the road, because I keep my eyes fixed on their descent as long as I can. There's a supernatural grace to these magnificent creatures that has haunted human legend for thousands of years. Watching them coast back to earth is like watching a jetliner come in for a landing, their wings -- broader than a man is tall -- making minute adjustment to the local air currents to keep their flight level, canting their wings downward like a 737 extending its flaps to kill airspeed, and then touching down, not with landing gear, but with spindly legs that, with a few nimble, dancing steps bring them to a complete halt.

A much more dramatic version of the same experience led novelist and MacArthur Fellow Richard Powers to make sandhill cranes, their annual migration and their spring migratory staging area on the Platte River, the thematic center of his new novel, The Echo Maker, which takes its name from an Anishinaabe word for the birds. Powers reminisced with Stephen J. Lyons in the Chicago Reader.
Richard Powers calls it highway hypnosis—the hallucinatory state of mind that descends upon a weary traveler at the end of a long day on the road. In the late 1990s, the novelist was driving alone from Illinois to Arizona when in Nebraska he came upon what he thought was a mirage: thousands of three-foot-tall birds falling from the heavens. Powers was so shocked that he almost drove off the highway. The next day he learned that what he’d seen were sandhill cranes on their annual migration to the Platte River.

“I got a hotel room and woke up early the next morning and saw the massed departure of the birds from the fields at dawn,” he says. “I had this awed sense of what these creatures do every single year, traveling thousands of miles to converge on this spot, teaching their offspring how to follow and time this migration. I glimpsed how these solitary creatures, for a brief moment out of the year, become incredibly social and form this enormous city of birds. And I was so taken by the richness of these processes that I knew I would have to write about this.”
The resulting novel begins with the birds and their migration, a round-trip they have made for millions of years, long before there were human beings on this earth, and long before there even was a Platte River. And unlike many other migrating species, they find their way not by magnetic fields, not by celestial navigation, but by memorizing landmarks -- a memory so accurate that it guides a pair back to exactly the same nest in the arctic tundra where they hatch their young, year after year, and within months begin teaching them the same route.
They converge on the river at winter's end as they have for eons, carpeting the wetlands. In this light, something saurian still clings to them: the oldest flying things on earth, one stutter step away from pterodactyls. As darkness falls for real, it's a beginner's world again, the same evening as that day sixty million years ago when this migration began.
A speeding truck careens off the road and rolls over near the cranes.
A squeal of brakes, the crunch of metal on asphalt, one broken scream and then another rouse the flock. The truck arcs through the air, corkscrewing into the field. A plume shoots through the birds. They lurch off the ground, wings beating. The panicked carpet lifts, circles, and falls again. Calls that seem to come from creatures twice their size carry miles before fading.

By morning, that sound never happened. Again there is only here, now, the river's braid, a feast of waste grain that will carry these flocks north, beyond the Arctic Circle.
The driver of the truck, 27-year-old Mark Schluter, an underachieving mechanic at a meatpacking plant, goes into a 14-day coma and comes out of suffering from Capgras syndrome, a rare brain disorder. The memories of Capgras sufferers are intact in every way except that they come to think that those closest to them are not who they claim to be. The transcribing component of memory has become completely severed from its emotional roots.

One thread of the story is Mark's attempt to recover with the help of his older sister, Karin, his only living relative, and who seems to him to be an imposter. (When he returns home, he also sees the dog he loves as having been replaced by a poor copy for unknown, nefarious reasons.) It's intertwined with the midlife crisis of a famous neurologist and best-selling author named Gerald Weber, who has been called in to try to help Mark, and whose character is loosely modeled on Oliver Sacks. Another subplot involves efforts to keep real estate developers from encroaching on the diminishing crane habitat south of Kearney, Neb., where the novel is set and where every spring half a million of the birds -- four-fifths of all the sandhill cranes in the world -- gather before their long flight north. Binding the narrative strands together is a page-turning plot regarding the mystery of what happened to cause Mark to roll his truck, and who was the mysterious "guardian" who saved his life and left a mysterious note at his hospital bedside.

If you're looking for more about the book Colson Whitehead's review in the NYT is a good place to start and also brings out some of the book's post-9/11 resonance. James Gibbons provides an insightful look at both the book and the author in Bookforum. Ed Champion's blog Return of the Reluctant has a marvelous five-part roundtable discussion of The Echo Maker by a number of writers, and part five consists of Richard Powers commenting on his commenters.

It's hard to summarize all the complex resonances in the book without making it seem reductionist and contrived, but I found it a haunting meditation on consciousness, mind and memory -- illuminated by real characters struggling to create meaning in their own lives. Capgras becomes a metaphor for our failure to recognize each other, and our broader failure to recognize the fellow beings on this planet as our kin. At the same time, the novel offers a sort of provisional hope that healing is possible.

UPDATE: More thoughts about Richard Powers here and here after it was announced he won the 2006 National Book Award for fiction. Think Mary Anne Evans and William Gibson.

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