Capturing Capgras: The Echo Maker by Richard Powers

By Herman, Luc; Vervaeck, Bart | Style, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Capturing Capgras: The Echo Maker by Richard Powers


Herman, Luc, Vervaeck, Bart, Style


Richard Powers's novel, The Echo Maker (2006), tells the story of Mark Schluter, a young man of 27 who is nearly killed in an accident with his truck. He recovers but seems to be suffering from Capgras, a condition in which the patient believes that some of his loved ones have been replaced by doubles. Mark thinks his sister Karin has been replaced by someone who looks exactly like Karin, but he is certain she is only a robot or a stand-in. He calls her Kopy Karin and Karbon Karin. The evolution of the syndrome is far from positive. The condition seems to spread. Mark begins to believe it is not just Karin who has been replaced. His dog, his house, his old town and some of his best friends all seem to be replaced by stand ins.

Two doctors are trying to help Mark. The neurologist, Dr. Hayes, seeks the causes for Capgras in the physiological aspects of the brain. For him, treatment consists of pills. The popular "cognitive neurologist" (93), Dr. Weber, on the other hand, tries to understand the syndrome by linking it to existential problems such as "what is the self?" and "who is the other?" He starts from the idea that "you couldn't grasp any individual brain without addressing private history, circumstance, personality--the whole person, beyond the sum of mechanical modules and localized deficits" (227). Both doctors fail to get a grip on the syndrome and to help Mark. We might say they fail to capture the condition called Capgras. In what follows, we would like to see if the novel succeeds where these two fail. To organize our thoughts on the matter, we will first look at narration and focalization as they serve in The Echo Maker to grasp Mark's condition. At the end of our paper, we will test our findings on the representations of Mark's brain immediately after the accident. His limited brain capacity at this stage brings out the bare necessities of consciousness representation, which will give us crucial evidence for an analysis of the way in which brain trauma is narrativized in The Echo Maker.

1. Telling The Story of Capgras

In the view of Dr. Weber, one can only come to grips with a brain disorder by turning it into a story. His books have become nationwide bestsellers thanks to his talent for turning the strangest cases of brain disorders into the most interesting and arresting stories. When he is asked for a speech "at an international conference on "The Origins of Human Consciousness" (229), "he was simply supposed to play himself, tell some good stories, and shake lots of hands" (230). As a scientist, he is a "tale-teller" (231) driven by "the narrative impulse" (232). Put positively, he has "been telling the story of people whose stories don't get told" (225). Put negatively, Weber reduces his patients to stories and forgets about their all too real misery. Thus, there was Neil, who couldn't see the left side of things anymore. Weber liked the man, but as soon as Neil had been turned into an interesting story, Weber forgot all about him: "He had no idea what became of the man. Some other neglect wiped him out, reduced him to story" (125).

Narrative mirrors

Weber's storytelling involves a form of blindness and voyeurism at the same time. He pries into the private affairs of his patients. More than once, people ask "if Weber had any qualms about violating his subject's privacy" (186). A critical reviewer states that Weber's "stories border on privacy violation and sideshow exploitation" (221). At the same time, Weber suffers from blindness because he does not want to get involved: "He dealt in generalities with no particulars, facts with no understanding, cases with no individual feeling" (222). He refuses to feel what his patients feel, in short he refuses empathy. His stories reflect the life of his patients in an exciting but safe way. In narratological terms, we might say his stories have a high degree of tellability, but in common sense terms they have a low degree of involvement. …

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