In his review of Richard Powers's The Echo Maker, William Deresiewicz exclaims that Powers "has been called an experimental novelist for some reason, but aside from a predilection for double plots, his approach to narrative is quite conventional, even naïve."
On the other hand, "The Echo Maker will tell you a great deal about neuroscience, environmental degradation and the migratory patterns of the sandhill crane, but like Powers's other novels, it won't tell you much about what its laboriously accumulated information and elaborately constructed concepts have to do with what it means to be alive at a particular time and place, or what it feels like," which, pronounces Deresiewicz, "is what novels are for."
Thus Deresiewicz the narrative theorist finds Powers insufficiently attuned to the possibilities of formal experiment, while Deresiewicz the "naive" thematic critic, preoccupied with "content," faults him for not focusing on "what it means to be alive at a particular time and place." It's a pretty good critical trick, to censure a novelist both for overemphasizing his "elaborately constructed concepts" and not emphasizing them enough. Powers excessively stresses "head" and "heart," all at the same time!
Always beware of literary critics who come to inform us what novels really "are for." It's the act of someone who usually doesn't much care about the artistic possibilities of literary forms at all but has decided that some works pass muster according to the critic's own selective criteria. More often than not, we're told that fiction ought to perform the function Deresiewicz appears to favor (we'll assume he's really more a partisan of the heart), that it reveal something about what it means "to be human," but whether the mold to which novels should conform is formal or thematic, a conventionalizing of manner or matter, the effect is to reinforce the notion that "the novel" is a single entity, a fixed form, something that can produce either genuine copies of itself or else some aberrational version, a mere literary pretender in prose.
The processes of self-replication are, of course, at the heart of what I think is still Powers's best novel, The Gold Bug Variations, embedded in its very formal/narrative arrangement as it tells, in part, the story of the uncovering of the double helix structure of the DNA molecule. But what the novel suggests, in the intertwining of this story with the present-day story of the uncovering of a now-forgotten scientist's role in the earlier uncovering, etc. is that the meeting-up of a few basic, fairly simple parts (the DNA proteins) can result in continually new, potentially infinite combinations, resulting in both varied human organisms and, as applied analogically and metaphorically to the writing of fiction, fresh and surprising formal compositions. ("Composition" being further implicated in the aesthetic design of The Gold Bug Variations through the associations the scientist, Stuart Ressler, himself makes between the DNA strand and the musicals scores of J.S. Bach.) For the most part, Powers's subsequent books have attempted to explore the possibilities of this alernative view of "storytelling," through which stories are linked to other stories, all such stories themselves composed of the additional, previous stories making them what they are.
I actually agree with Deresiewicz that The Time of Our Singing, Powers's last novel, "represented something of a departure" from his established practice (and he surely ought not to be criticized simply for attempting something different, at least in the context of his own developing career). I also agree that it suffers from didacticism and sentimentality, although one would think that Deresiewicz would acknowledge that these flaws mostly originate from the effort to fill the prescription he himself is issuing, to depict "what it feels like" to "be alive at a particular time and place," but he instead only affirms what we long-term Powers readers already know: that his talent does not lend itself to the conventional tasks of "fleshing out" his characters in a manner acceptable to the critic looking for "real people" in fiction rather than formal ingenuity or stylistic brilliance. Since Deresiewicz concludes that the moralizing of The Time of Our Singing "make[s] you feel as if you were being jabbed in the chest by someone on the verge of bursting into tears," it would seem only logical to allow that Powers might perhaps better serve his talent by sticking to those "elaborately constructed concepts" featured in his other novels.
How surprising, then, that after correctly pointing out the weaknesses of The Time of Our Singing, Deresiewicz tells us that "The Echo Maker marks. . .a further departure in promising directions," even if it does ultimately signal "the return of old problems." Ultimately, Deresiewicz's principal criticism of Powers's work is the same criticism that has periodically been made since the publication of his first book, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance. It's too cerebral, too interested in "ideas" at the expense of characters and plots, too "cold." That Powers has now chosen to tell stories that hew "closer than before to the emotional bone" would seem to take care of most of these problems, but no, the ideas still "bury the story that's meant to bear them." As it happens, I share the view that The Echo Maker continues the "departure" begun by The Time of Our Singing, but I think it's a lamentable development and that, far from weighing down "the story" in The Echo Maker, the ideas are borne much too lightly, are too facilely incorporated into a story that otherwise doesn't really convey much interest.
Part of the problem with The Echo Maker flows from the narrative technique Powers employs, quite consciously, as it turns out: ". . .my technique was what some scholars of narrative have called double voicing. Every section of the book (until a few passages at the end) is so closely focalized through Mark, Karin, or Weber that even the narration of material event is voiced entirely through their cognitive process: the world is nothing more than what these sensibilities assemble, without any appeal to outside authority." In other words, Powers has chosen a more or less conventional version of "psychological realism." Everything that happens is filtered through the consciousness and understanding of one of the three characters; their world is presented to us as they perceive it through their ongoing experiences.
To the extent that the novel is focused thematically on the way in which "reality" is affected if not determined by our own brain states, this strategy makes perfect sense, but it does make it necessary that the ideas of neuroscience, which Powers certainly does seem interested in explicating, are offered up in a version of the "infodump," scattered around as lumps of Gerald Weber's "cognitive process." To me, the conceit of "misrecognition," or other potential tropes derived from neuroanalysis, are never really integrated into the novel's narrative scheme, made into a complementary formal device in the way The Gold Bug Variation or Gain uses the double helix. The ideas are talked about, reflected upon, but never really transformed into aesthetic effects that make the novel interesting as something other than a forum for discussion of the fragility of neural networks.
A secondary consequence of this is that The Echo Maker abandons Powers's previous strategy of transposing events in time and space, hitching together seemingly unrelated stories (as in Plowing the Dark, say), to produce unanticipated correspondences. Paradoxically, The Echo Maker lacks this "echoing" effect. I could only read it as a disappointingly orthodox psychological study of three characters confronting crisis and emerging changed but more or less intact. The characters themselves are not really interesting enough to carry the weight of a 450-page narrative, and the occasional lyric interludes (some of which are nevertheless very impressive, especially those devoted to the sandhill cranes and their own environmental crisis) cannot make up for the novel's overall aesthetic lassitude. I found myself struggling to get through some of this book, which has never before happened in my reading of Richard Powers.
In his conclusion, Deresiewicz asserts that "Instead of letting the story speak, [Powers] is the only one who speaks. Instead of locating meaning in experience, he locates it in ideas. But novels should test ideas, not surrender to them." On the one hand, this only demonstrates that Deresiewicz is unable to make even the most basic kind of distinction between author and character, between characters who "speak" and authors who merely allow them to do so. He is unable to appreciate the aesthetic choice Powers has made to evoke a world that is "nothing more than what these sensibilities assemble, without any appeal to outside authority." If the characters in a novel discuss "ideas," by Deresiewicz's reckoning those ideas are perforce the author's ideas. On the other hand, he apparently doesn't recognize that in The Echo Maker Powers is precisely "testing ideas," and that this is the reason it ultimately fails to satisfy. Powers is engaged in "locating meaning in experience," it's just that the experiences being rendered are litterred with unprocessed ideas, leaving both the experiences and the ideas inadequately shaped into a compelling aesthetic whole.
It seems to me that in both of his last two books Powers shows signs of listening to the criticisms of his work that have been made by the likes of William Deresiewicz, that he is too enthralled with scientific ideas and his characters are insufficiently "human." He has tried to write novels more obviously rooted in character and emotion, but if Deresiewicz's response is any indication, trying to satisfy his critics is a losing propostion. He'll never be accepted as a writer who tells us "what it feels like." Although I fear that, having been rewarded for this latest effort with a National Book Award, Powers will conclude that his "departure" toward more conventional literary terrain has been rewarded, and he will stay for a while on this misguided path.
Note: I had originally intended that my response to The Echo Maker be included in Ed Champion's "Roundtable" discussion. However, I decided that I did not want my less enthusiastic reaction to interfere with Ed's intended appreciation of Powers's work, which Powers otherwise manifestly deserves.