Tag Archives: Richard Powers

The End

You can never quite be sure of how a book will hit you, but it’s been a while since I’ve felt so disconnected to a novel as The Echo Maker.  Emotional distance is a good way to put it. I never quite feel involved with the story or the characters. I feel like a scientist peering into a diorama where these characters glide around each other— moving eerily on different tracts—as disconnected with each other as I am with them.

While the ruminations of the novel are interesting, there is an inauthenticity to how the characters connect to each other. There’s something very anti-septic about it all. For a book about connections, about our relationship with ourselves, nature, and our loved ones…I felt very little connection to any of it.

But I finished the novel. After two years of trying to read the damn book, I finally finished. I bought the book a couple of weeks after I moved to California. And now on the cusp of me finding myself again, I’ve finished it.

This book will always have a symbolic meaning for me. I have not taken away that much from it’s pages….not because it didn’t have much to say, but because it wasn’t the sort of book that ever made me feel receptive to the messages within. However, the act of finishing the book is for me an end of a chapter. It’s strangely appropriate. The characters find some sort of rendemption in the end…it’s not at all what they expect, but find it they do.

The message is that no matter what happens, no matter how much our life distentegrates or loses the precious meaning that we cling onto day in and day out, there is always redemption. The only thing that is asked, is that we survive and endure.  If we are capable of that, no great tragedy can knock us down. Tragedy passes, life will always tend towards normalcy if we let ourselves accept it.


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“Cranes keep landing as night falls.”

So begins The Echo Maker, Richard Power’s book about Capgras Syndrome. And so marks the end of my attempt to read Galatea 2.2.

Maybe it’s telling that I have been unable to finish both of the novel-length books I’ve started this year. Perhaps it’s implicates that I no longer have the patience for reading material that I don’t enjoy.  But I fear that my tastes and tolerance have narrowed as I’ve gotten older. I’ve stop dabbling and started honing in my preferences becoming less maleable and more certain of what I do and do not like.

I’ve always been proud of my electic and unconventional taste in reading material. But now I wonder if I give up on books because I’ve lost the broad-minded, willing-to-explore attitude of my youth. In my defense, I found  Galatea 2.2 clinical and lacking in emotional impact.  It is not Power’s best work (whatever best work may mean). And it’s time to read something that I am motivated to pick up and finish.

The Echo Maker, another Richard Power novel, is about a man who has a near fatal accident on a lonely stretch of road deep in the heartland of Nebraska. While he survives, he is no longer able to recognize the closest person in his life believing her to be an imposter. Capgras syndrome as Wikipedia defines it, “is a disorder in which a person holds a delusion that a friend, spouse, parent, or other close family member has been replaced by an identical-looking impostor.”

The Echo Maker gives a better explanation.  The brain recognizes the loved one but can no longer emotionally connect to them. Because of recognition but lack of connection, the brain convinces itself  that the loved one is an impostor.

I’ve always been fascinated by disorders of the brain, especially those dealing with disorders of memory. Memory has been the obsession of my adulthood. It’s the reason I’m snap-happy with the camera.  Why any book about memory or forgetting has an immediate hold over me.

When and how did it start? Ever since watching Memento, I’ve developed a low-level curiosity for memory disorders. The Radio Lab program on Memory and Forgetting made me realize just exactly how shaky a structure our memory is. My brief encounters with Philosophy over the years has taught me about the subjective nature of perception and memory. My own personal beliefs about life, reality, and the ability for one’s perceptions to shape one’s life has solidified the importance and inaccuracies of memory in my life.

In the case of Capgras Syndrome, the memory is still there, but the emotions behind those memories are removed. This is so disturbing to the patient that his brain conjures and accepts the explanation of an imposter. He sacrifices logic when the connection of his memories to his emotions are in question. It pinpoints to the importance of memory to human beings.

Memory serves as the vehicle for our emotional connection to places, things, people. Without memory, we lose our connection to the world.

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Your best work

I always wonder if it’s a good idea to research the author of the book I’m reading.

When the author names his protagonist after himself…the question is even more relevant. Many authors write fragments of themselves into characters in their books. Good fiction observes some kernel of truth.  You have to write what you know for there to be truth.

Galatea 2.2’s fictional Richard Powers is in many ways similar to the author Richard Powers. The real Powers like his fictional counterpart gave up a career in science to pursue the arts. He moved to the Netherlands to avoid the attention and maybe the pressure of the success of his first novel. Galatea seems like a deeply personal rumination on the fear of failing and the fear that your best, most brilliant work is behind you. Many authors must live in terror of this. Writing like most art is a constantly changing process. If you challenge yourself as all great authors must, your art changes from book to book.  But what happens after you’ve written what may be your best work? What happens when everything you produce afterwards is just a shadow in compairson?

I’m struggling through Galatea 2.2.  Even though the writing can be beautiful…most of it strains my patience. The writing is erudite, sometimes overly technical…I worry that by the time I finish the book, I will no longer want to read The Echo Maker.

But I trudge on. While it isn’t especially pleasurable, I find that the book sparks of new ideas and thought paths. I also have to go slow, because it’s so challenging to read. The slowness of the reading allows me to get more out of the reading material. It is a new way of reading, one that tests my fleeting patience but will ultimately make me a better reader.

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Galatea 2.2: Grasping for things lost in memory and first lines

Galatea 2.2 is a retelling of the greek myth of Pygamalion.

Pygmalion was a great sculptor. In order to prove his skill, Pygmalion decides to carve a statue so life-like that it would rival the beauty of any real woman. When he is finished, his work is so spectacular, so beautiful, that he promptly falls in love. It is a tragedy to fall in love with your own creation.

George Bernard Shaw wrote a play based on this myth. In the play, two linguist make a bet to turn a flower woman into an elegant duchess. You probably recognize the plot since it was made into a movie called My Fair Lady.

Galatea 2.2 retells this story in the modern age. A group of scientists and an author make a wager to create a machine that can interpret great works of literature in such a way as to fool everyone into thinking it was human.

The story centers around the protagonist, Richard Powers.  In the story, Powers, adrift in a mid-life crisis, believes he is at the end of his writing career. He knows only the first sentence of his next novel.

“Picture a train heading south.”

But this sentence leads him nowhere. He wonders if he has read it before somewhere. He searches in the catacombs of his memory for it’s genesis.

It reminds me of plots that still haunt me; books that I must’ve read as a child but can no remember the titles of no matter how long I search.  Even as I try to access that memory of those books, they slip further into the recesses of my memory, until I’m not sure how much of the plot I’m making up.

One book from my childhood haunts me particularly. It’s ghost-like in quality. I remember yellow paper, some odd drawings. It was about magic…some sort of transformation took place…something haunting or terrible happened…I think. When I try to access memories of this particular plot, I end up pulling in other storylines, plot points, objects from other books I read as a kid. I will have to be resigned to this unsolved mystery.

But Galatea 2.2 has given me an idea, it would be nice to document the first lines of every book I read when I start them. It’d be an interesting exercise.

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