NBA Q&A: Richard Powers

By Carmen Comment

Powers.jpgRichard Powers is an easy man to spot. He had told me to look for “a tall man with a bewildered look” and as soon as I stepped out of the elevator on the 7th floor of the New School building, thinking I was early for last night’s reception, there he was — taller than promised, but less bewildered than intent on acclimating himself to new surroundings, subsequent National Book Awards commitments, and the prospect of chatting briefly with a newly minted admirer of his work.

It took a bit longer than expected to find a quiet place for conversation – the Orozco Room filled up quickly in what seemed to be a matter of seconds – but once Powers started talking, I understood more clearly why his works connect so well with readers: the level of excitement and passion about the subjects he tackles and the ideas he wants to explore run so deep that it’s almost infectious, so that you, too, have this need to return the excitement in kind. It’s one thing to be smart, but Powers is actively smart, so curious about the world around him that horizons seem to flip open and propagate at the mention of a single idea or a phrase or two.

Perhaps the almost unconscious challenge for readers and critics to up their intellectual ante is why Powers has too often been tagged a cerebral writer – a tag he has never understood. “It’s based on understanding literary convention, how ideas and emotions are portrayed in contemporary fiction and what we understand as adequate and engaging reconstructions of human points of view,” he explains. “Ideas are among the most passionate things that individuals generate, because they are a part of their belief systems and part of their self-invention, their world view. Sets of beliefs may be articulated as rational arguments, but in fact, they wouldn’t be holding them if they didn’t have some emotional investment attached. Reason follows emotion and not vice versa. All neuroscience researchers (most notably Damasio) are showing that reason & emotion are not inimitable; they are complimentary, a collaboration of the senses.”

The interplay between reason and emotion figures prominently in THE ECHO MAKER in its exploration of Capgras syndrome, a rare – but very well-documented – neurological disorder where the sufferer is unable to accept recognition of loved ones. “It’s selected lack of recognition,” Powers says about the book’s protagonist, Mark Schluter, and his failure to recognize his older sister Karin, who comes home to care for him after a closed-head trauma due to a truck accident. “[Mark] comes to believe that his sister, his nearest-kin, is an impostor. Eventually he comes to accept that everyone else in his life – his coworkers, his girlfriend, the nurse who looks after him every day – is genuine, but the person he should have the most intense emotional and visceral connection and recognition that he cannot accept.

“There are multiple parts of brain involved in making identification, accepting sense of familiarity. Literal, geometrical recognition – ‘she looks and sounds like my sister, the features are the same’ – that part is intact. The part that produces associative memory is also intact, so Mark has problem remembering who [Karin] is and what she believes. But the problem lies in the third component, the one involved in match identifications, the low-level limbic system involved in processing pre-concepts & emotions – open level fears & emotions. It’s telling and revealing that in its functional absence, all rational acceptance goes out the window. There is irrefutable inference – everything matches up, and the odds against the loved one being an impostor or not matching up is astronomical. ‘Everything matches up but I don’t feel it’s my sister,’ Mark thinks. What happens is that feeling overrides conscious rationality. Something so resonant – detachment between high-level conscious process and low-level emotional process, so that the strange seems familiar and the familiar seems strange.”

I’m quick to point out at least a surface comparison with cognitive neuroscience’s most famous case, H.M., but Powers stresses the differences between the two conditions. “What intrigued me about Capgras cases studied and investigated is that they are not amnesia, though they can be accompanied by limited retrograde amnesia. If anything, what happens is that they suffer from an emotional amnesia. The affect is all there but the sense of personal connection is missing. The reliability of memory becomes suspect. We often get bogged down in memory in context of reliable fact, but the real issue may be as ‘self-narrators’ is not whether we can go back and verify data to memory, but whether our emotional interpretation of data is reliable and in any way recoverable.”

Despite Capgras’s rarity in the population, it’s a powerful metaphor for how individuals are able to fool themselves about what is true and what is not – and when I bring up its applicability not only to current celebrity culture where anyone can be famous globally but unknown locally, or to the sea change in politics, Powers sees the connections. “There is almost no way you can point out persuasively to sufferer of Capgras his or her complete irrationality of conclusions. They don’t feel any disconnect, but feel the same continuity and familiarity as they did prior to the accident causing the brain trauma. Because consciousness, the familiar, self-narrative process, is still intact. It’s much easier for a person to say “I will trust that what I say is still reliable but nothing else is.” As a result, Capgras becomes an extremely powerful indictment about reliability of self-narration. Again that becomes an open-ended way of exploring self-estrangement that is so possible in this world, decoupling of reason & emotion.”

One of the major plot points hinges on a note found with Mark at the accident site, and his obsession with its contents – especially the last lines “GOD led me to you/so You could Live/and bring back someone else” – permeates the narrative. So where, if at all, is the presence of God in the context of a frayed neurological framework? “One of the story’s suggestions is that one of the characters, who is a believer, is heading towards an enormous crisis of faith on the discovery that evolutionary biology may have a very plausible description over the survival value of religious faith. If that’s the case, evolution may account for our needs to conceive the world and the desire to believe is selected for. The idea that faith is within us, that it’s justification is within us is a deeply disturbing statement for believers. Because if it is indeed within us, then it’s the same as saying that the capacity for intellect is within us; we may well reach this weird place that perhaps the literalization of God is not tenable, but spirituality is a non-eradicable part of way the brain puts things together. Maybe this increasing suggestion on parts of neuroscience that there are “god parts” of the brain means we have to take things seriously, amalgam in creating a stable, believable narrative about who are.”

Powers spent roughly four years working on THE ECHO MAKER, and in a recent round-table discussion about the book, I brought up a strange experience resulting from reading the novel on a flight home to New York. Upon my return, I walked into my apartment and for a brief, hallucinatory moment, didn’t recognize it as my own. Did such incidents occur to him as he was writing the book? Very much so, as it turns out. “Over course of several years that I composed the book, I increasingly doubted the most tenacious & ironclad beliefs of who I was,” he explains.

“Everything becomes very tenuous & contingent when you read about how our narrative maps are put together on the slightest evidence, and refutes huge counter-failing evidence when it threatens sense of wholeness we enjoy. It’s a fiction, a real fiction, which we can say on an intellectual level. But full immersion of cross-estrangement can be extremely disorienting as a reader and a writer, to move from intellectual understanding to a deep-seated visceral one. I would write for 4-6 hours a day and then go to parties at night. Someone would ask who I am and I’d have to stop and think.” Did Powers want to give another name, another story? He laughs. “The temptation was very strong.”