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Something close to human

INTERVIEW BY JOHN FREEMAN

In November, Richard Powers' ninth novel, The Echo Maker, bested four other finalists to take home the coveted National Book Award.

Powers, 49, has been a MacArthur Fellow and teaches creative writing at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The Echo Maker tells the story of a 27-year-old man who emerges from a car crash with a rare disorder called Capgras syndrome. Loved ones are familiar to him, but he doesn't believe they are who they claim to be.

The book follows the victim through his rehabilitation, in which he is aided by his anguished sister and a neuroscientist, who is nearly unraveled by the spectacle of the half-million sandhill cranes that migrate to the Nebraska plain where the book takes place.

Before the awards ceremony, Powers talked about his novel.

What started you on The Echo Maker?

A couple of things. Many years ago my two nephews were in a horrible car accident, and the person who found them left a note much like the note that propels the plot in this book. That's always haunted me - that note.

Some years later I was driving across country to see my mother, who lives in Tucson, Ariz. I'd been on the road for many hours, and it was getting on toward sunset. I was in the middle of Nebraska. I looked out off the interstate, and I saw this 3-foot-high biped, then another. Then as far as I could see it was this continuous carpet of birds.

That must have been strange.

I almost drove off the road, it was such a hypnotic and fascinating sight. But that image was in the back of my mind when I began reading neuroscience: these creatures that dance and sing and gather together in this big city of birds and how they seemed vaguely familiar but really, really alien. Simultaneously something like humans, but really, really far away from humans.

How are the two related in the book?

I came across the documentation about Capgras syndrome, whose fundamental feature is the inability to recognize your loved ones - and only your loved ones. It got me thinking about the animal intelligence that brings these hundreds of thousands of birds to this place like clockwork, and also that weird feeling that I felt that they were familiar and yet the most foreign thing I'd ever seen.

The hospital scenes are both vivid and terribly sad. Did you hang out at a hospital much during the research?

My brother is a surgeon, and I spent a long time with him during his residency and later on in his private practice, so there is a fascination with medicine. The relationship between medicine and storytelling has surfaced in my books a few times. The stories we tell ourselves - we, the healthy, when someone near us is in danger, undergoing treatment - can be profoundly moving.

There's a lot of humor in this book that is both a relief and a surprise. How did that come about?

We have almost no other response to this stuff but to laugh sometimes, but it's an anxious laughter.

Does what we know about the brain make it harder to operate as a novelist now? After all, what we once thought of as our inner lives - often the focus of fiction - is now seen as basically a mixture of the reptilian and the chemical.

That's exactly what I wanted to do in this book. I wanted to tell a story that quite clearly showed that you cannot make a separation between knowing the world intellectually and knowing the world emotionally.

In previous books, you have written about RNA, music, doctoring, the rise of capitalism, technology, singing, computers. Is part of the fun of writing assigning yourself a new discipline?

Without question. That to me, the discipline, is what opens up all the passions people have about the world. We, in real life, articulate our hopes and our fears about the world through the work we do. To get to the real heart of who a person is, you have to find out what they do all day.

It seems you could have gone into any of these fields professionally. Why did you choose writing?

I didn't have to choose. Novel writing is the only place where someone who would have liked to do anything can still do that vicariously. If not in fact, at least in imagination.

John Freeman is president of the National Book Critics Circle.

THE BOOK

The Echo Maker

By Richard Powers Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 464 pages, $25

An excerpt from the first chapter:

Cranes keep landing as night falls. Ribbons of them roll down, slack against the sky. They float in from all compass points, in kettles of a dozen, dropping with the dusk. Scores of Grus canadensis settle on the thawing river. They gather on the island flats, grazing, beating their wings, trumpeting: the advance wave of a mass evacuation. More birds land by the minute, the air red with calls. ...

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.

Half a million birds — four-fifths of all the sandhill cranes on earth — home in on this river. They trace the Central Flyway, an hourglass laid over the continent. They push up from New Mexico, Texas and Mexico, hundreds of miles each day, with thousands more before they reach their remembered nests. For a few weeks, this stretch of river shelters the miles-long flock. Then, by the spring, they'll rise and head away, feeling their way up to Saskatchewan, Alaska, or beyond.

This year's flight has always been. Something in the birds retraces a route laid down centuries before their parents taught it to them. And each crane recalls the route still to come.

Tonight's cranes mill again on the braided water. For another hour, their massed calls carry on the emptying air. The birds flap and fidget, edgy with migration. Some tear up frosty twigs and toss them in the air. Their jitters spill over into combat. At last the sandhills settle down into wary, stilt-legged sleep, most standing in the water, a few farther up in the stubbled fields.

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.

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