DATE December 7, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Richard Powers talks about his book "The Echo Maker,"
identity, the enforced continuity of consciousness, and using
voice recognition software instead of typing his book
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, TV critic for tvworthwatching.com,
sitting in for Terry Gross. Our guest Richard Powers won the National Book
Award for fiction last year for his novel "The Echo Maker." It's now out in
paperback. Powers is a former MacArthur fellow. Before he started writing
books, he studied science. And his knowledge of science, medicine and
computers is apparent in his novels like "The Gold Bug Variations," "Operation
Wandering Soul" and "Galatea 2.2."
"The Echo Maker" is about the mysteries of consciousness and identity and
draws on the discoveries of neuroscience. As the book opens, a 27-year-old
man is lying in a coma after surviving a car accident, and his sister is on
her way to see him in the hospital. She watches over him as he emerges from
the coma and slowly seems to become more like his old self. But something has
gone wrong in his brain. He thinks his sister really is an imposter.
Terry spoke with Richard Powers last December.
TERRY GROSS, host:
I'd like you to start with a reading from your new book "The Echo Maker."
Would you just set it up for us?
Mr. RICHARD POWERS: In this passage Karin Schluter, who has returned to the
hometown that she spent her life trying to escape, is nursing her brother back
from a very severe car accident, and he has come back a great part of the way
from a full coma, but as she discovers in this passage, and continues to
discover, he's not coming back quite as the brother that he was before the
accident. So this passage is vocalized through Karin.
"He talked more than he had before the accident. He swung from bouts of rage
into a sweetness he'd lost at the age of eight. She told him the doctors
wanted to move him out of the hospital. Mark glowed. He thought he was going
home. `Can you tell my sister I've got the green light'? Tell her Mark
Schluter's out of here. Whatever's been holding her up, she'll know where to
find me.' She bit her lip and refused even to nod.
She'd read in one of Daniel's neurology books never to humor delusions.
`She'll be worried about me. Man, you have to promise me. Wherever she's
gone, she needs to know what's happening. She was, like, always looking after
me. That's her big thing. Personal claim to fame. Saved my life once. My
father came this close to snapping my neck like a pencil. I'll tell you about
it someday. Personal stuff. Trust me, I'd be dead without my sister.'
It tore her up to look on and say nothing, and yet she felt a sick fascination
at the chance to learn what Mark really said about her when talking to someone
else. She could survive this for however long it took him to come back to
reason. And his reason was solidifying daily.
`Maybe they're keeping her away from me. Why won't they let me talk to her?
Am I somebody's science project? They want to see if I'll mistake you for
her?' He saw her distress but mistook it for indignation. `Hey, OK, you've
helped me, too, in your own way. You're here every day, walking, reading,
whatever. I don't know what you want, but I'm the grateful recipe.'
`Recipient,' she said.
He stared at her, baffled. `You said "recipe." You mean recipient.' He
`I was using the singular. You look a lot like her, you know. Maybe not
quite as pretty, but damn close.'"
GROSS: That's Richard Powers reading an excerpt of his novel "The Echo
Richard, tell us a little bit about the neurological disorder that's
responsible for the character--you know, for the brother not being able to
recognize his sister and thinking that she's impersonating his sister.
Mr. POWERS: The disorder is called "Capgras syndrome." It's one of a family
of misidentification syndromes, and in Capgras the sufferer looks upon people
close to him as somehow substitutions. And the disorder's remarkable because
it's very selective. The sufferer has no problems with neighbors or
colleagues or even friends. But those people who he's most intimate with
emotionally, those people he loves, he refuses to accept. He says, `They look
like my family, they sound like my family, they act like my family, but
they're imposters. They've been substituted. They're government agents or
GROSS: Is there any neurological explanation for why the syndrome only
affects people who you're very close to?
Mr. POWERS: The prevailing suggestion is that when we make a recognition,
there are at least three regions of the brain that are involved. And one does
the actual pattern matching, you know, color of hair, width of eyes, length of
face. And this is extremely precise. We have very specialized circuits in
place for recognizing faces. Of course, there's the portion of the brain
that's responsible for memory association. So once you make a face
recognition, there's a whole slew of memory traces and associations that are
released by that face.
And in a Capgras sufferer, both of those are intact and they're both still
speaking to each other, both of those regions. What's missing is what the
rest of us still have, namely a very low level area of the brain called the
amygdala, which is responsible for deep-seated emotions, you know, very primal
hope and fear. And in the Capgras sufferer, this simply isn't somehow
triggered, or in communication with these other two areas when a facial
recognition is made. So in a sense the sufferer looks at someone and says,
`This looks like my sister, dresses like my sister, sounds like my sister,
acts like my sister, but just doesn't feel like my sister.'
GROSS: You know, in reading your book and in reading about this rare
neurological disorder in which you believe that your loved ones are really
imposters, it made me think about movies like "Invasion of the Body Snatchers"
and "Invaders from Mars."
Mr. POWERS: Mm.
GROSS: Now, in those movies, the people really are imposters.
Mr. POWERS: Right. Right.
GROSS: They're science fiction films with, like, elaborate metaphors within
them. But I was wondering if you were thinking about that, too. This seems
to be an almost like archetypal fear.
Mr. POWERS: In fact, the neurologists and neuroscientists who write about
Capgras often mention those kinds of narratives, those films. And I guess it
is a deep-seated fear. And I think it's because even those of us who haven't
experienced full-fledged Capgras, either, you know, as a sufferer or, you
know, as a witness to one, must somehow sense that that capacity, that
decoupling of intellectual recognition and emotional recognition, is in us.
And, in fact, Capgras may just be an extreme case of the kinds of things that
any one of us could experience in a temporary or attenuated way.
I mean, the most obvious example is, you know, who of us hasn't sworn undying
love for someone and incredibly intimate and profound self-shaking connection
to a loved one, and then after, you know, some passage of time, change in
events, say, `No, I actually, I was wrong. I don't feel connected to that
person at all.' We're all completely capable of renarrating ourselves and...
GROSS: No, no, and what you say in that situation is, `You're not the person
I once knew. You're not the person I fell in love with.'
Mr. POWERS: Yeah.
GROSS: `You're not my real mother.' Yeah, whatever. Yeah. Yeah.
Mr. POWERS: Something happened--right. Something happened to you.
GROSS: Something happened to you, yeah.
Mr. POWERS: Yeah, yeah.
Mr. POWERS: And we change our story. You know, the self is an incredibly
ingenious novelist and is constantly revising its sense of continuity and
GROSS: What you just said about the self being a novelist, I imagine this is
one of the reasons why, as a novelist, you're interested in exploring this
neurological disorder, because it changes the sense of self and your idea of
the people around you. And, of course, as a novelist, you're creating selves,
lots of them.
Mr. POWERS: That's right. That's right. It was almost inevitable, I think,
that I would want to write about these disorders and the deep neurology of
narrative at some point. This book is, in some ways, I conceived of it as a
neurological mystery story which, in some ways, might almost be a redundancy,
right? That the brain itself is a kind of mystery story.
But the link, of course, is that the processes in the brain are held together
by narrative. We report to ourselves, you know, when we think about our
identity, who we are, we present ourselves to ourselves as continuous and
stable and whole and, you know, the same person we were 10 years ago, and
completely understandable in a kind of Aristotlean, you know, sense of
wholeness and, you know, that our lives have a comprehensible beginning,
middle and end and it's all very clean.
And in fact, the self is just a kind of late-day addition to this incredibly
noisy parliament of hundreds of parts in the brain, and it's only by very
fancy footwork and an insistence on narrative logic that we can hold together
these, you know, two or 300 parts and present it to the world as a solid and a
GROSS: Now, there's a neurologist in your book who investigates this case and
examines the character, the character of Mark. And this is a doctor who seems
to be inspired by Dr. Oliver Sacks, the famous neurologist who has written
many books of case studies, the case studies of his own patients. It sounds
like you want to interrupt me here.
Mr. POWERS: Well, I was just going to say, for purposes of legal protection,
I should probably say...
GROSS: I knew you were going to say that. Right.
Mr. POWERS: ...that Dr. Weber's work in the book probably very closely
resembles the kind of work that Sacks does, but as a human being, of course,
he draws nothing on the life of Sacks. In fact, the work of the neurologist
Gerald Weber in the book is a real composite of 10 or 11 different
neurologists, all of whom have done amazing and incredibly fascinating work in
documenting neuropsychology over the last 20, 30 years. All the ways that the
brain can go wrong. And, of course, for somebody who's devoted his life to
really looking under the hood and seeing what can happen down there in this
noisy kind of seething network of parts, the self can become very unstable
just by virtue of the intellectual knowledge of how unreliable the self is.
GROSS: Yeah, he says--I like this phrase a lot--you have him say that this
case is a chance to see just how "treacherous the logic of consciousness" was.
Mr. POWERS: Mm. Yeah. The old unreliable first-person narrator again.
What happens, I guess, in the story is that because, you know, Mark has been
so radically transformed but can't see that it's he that's different and not
the world, his sister has to come and take care of him and be near him and
attempt to fulfill her sense of self, which is as the good sister to the bad
But the problem for Karin, of course, is that her sense of self depends upon
being ratified by her brother in this role that she's given herself: the
protector, the caretaker. So when Mark comes out of his disastrous close head
trauma and says, `You're not my sister,' Karin has to ask herself the
question, `Well, then who am I?'
GROSS: Now, I've read that you've been using computers since the 1970s, like
the mid-`70s. Is that about right? Earlier than that?
Mr. POWERS: That's right. Maybe a little earlier. I got my first personal
computer in `77, so that was about the time they were really first appearing
as commercially available products.
GROSS: And you've written computer-related themes in your fiction.
Mr. POWERS: Yeah.
GROSS: But on the other hand, like this new book, apparently, instead of
sitting at a computer and typing the words onto the page, you used voice
recognition software so you could speak the words into the computer.
Mr. POWERS: Mm. That's right.
GROSS: I found that kind of interesting. I don't know, speaking for
myself--not that I'm a writer, but I do have to write things--but I find like
it almost uses a different part of my brain to write than to speak, and I'm
not sure that that's a bad thing, because there's a certain carefulness you
want in your writing that is impossible to get in your speaking, and you feel
like if somebody's reading you that you owe them. You know what I mean?
Mr. POWERS: Mm.
GROSS: You owe them a more careful and considered and perfected language.
That is, I think, probably easier to get in a writing kind of mode. And I
really wanted to hear your thoughts about that.
Mr. POWERS: Yeah. Well, you've put your finger on it. Typing and speaking
are two completely different neurological activities. Both are very
complicated, both are going to invoke--each one's going to invoke very
different combinations of regions of the brain. And we put tremendous amount
of effort into learning how to type and learning how to compose and type at
the same time. It's, however, a highly artificial interface and extremely
unnatural. You know, it's a little bit like a dog walking on its hind legs.
And there are many things that you can't do when composing and typing at the
same time. If you've ever tried to talk to somebody who's typing, you can see
just how fully engaging the act of pressing out one letter at a time on a
For me, the great advantage of speaking over typing is it puts me in touch
with longer phrases. It allows me to think in terms of the music of the
prose. I'm not constantly interrupting my memory to change from inventing a
clause and then keying it in letter by letter, which is the exact opposite of
sense and sound. Rather, I can hear my characters speak; I can hear the
rhythm and the meaning of the passage that I'm working on. I can flow more
smoothly directly from memory to composition. And, of course, I can always go
back and edit and do the kind of careful massaging that you're talking about.
The first spoken draft is just the beginning.
GROSS: You know, in your novel you're using this neurological disorder to
help you explore the question `What give us our sense of self and what are
some of the ways that that can go wrong?' When you were 11, your family moved
to Bangkok, Thailand...
Mr. POWERS: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...because your father became the principal of the international
school of Bangkok. How did it change your sense of self when, as an
11-year-old, when your sense of self is still being formed, you were suddenly
in a, you know, in a country in a very different part of the world?
Mr. POWERS: Mm. Yeah. I think on that, and I think that really was the
transforming event in my life. At 11, you know, the brain is so plastic still
before puberty. We moved to Bangkok and within six months I was speaking Thai
just from being out on the street, you know, without any formal study. You
know, when you have a new immersive experience when you're young, you're
completely capable, you know, chameleon-like, of just changing and taking on
this alter ego. The real culture shock, for me, happened when I came back to
the United States at 16. You know, I thought I knew this place and I thought
it was my country and my culture. And in fact those years away, of being in
another country, you know, speaking another language, and living a very
different kind of life, made it a weirdly estranging experience, you know.
Talk about misidentification syndromes, you know? Here I was back in the
Midwest, back in suburban Chicago, and simultaneously recognizing my native
country and feeling very much estranged and outside it.
And I think that's the kind of prototype experience that creates the narrative
imagination, when you're both in your life and sitting on your own shoulder
looking at it as if you were an outsider. That kind of double existence, I
think, really was instrumental in me in setting up a kind of sensibility that
was invaluable later on in telling stories.
GROSS: You know, that sense that you were describing of, like, of living life
but also kind of sitting on your shoulder watching yourself live your life.
Mr. POWERS: Mm. Yeah.
GROSS: It's kind of like the writer's position, in some ways, because you're
doing it and then you're standing back and observing and reporting to yourself
what it is...
Mr. POWERS: Yeah, no. Absolutely the writer's position.
GROSS: ...you've done. Yeah, so, OK, it's the writer's position. But it's
not a very comfortable position when you're not writing, I don't think. I
mean, how do...
Mr. POWERS: Oh.
GROSS: How do you like that feeling of standing outside yourself and watching
Mr. POWERS: Well, you know, it's interesting because, in a way, that's the
condition that I tried to create in Dr. Weber in the book. He
GROSS: This is the neurologist.
Mr. POWERS: That's right, the neurologist who's been called in to study
Mark. His wife, for instance, teases him he has become well known as a
popularizer of neuropsychology and she refers to the role that he plays in
public as "famous Gerald." And so Weber is simultaneously, you know, doing his
science and doing his writing, but aware of the degree to which he is
performing this other person.
And you're absolutely right. When you can't do that, when you can't somehow
move back and forth from the world of experience to the world of imagination
and a world of representation, a sense of vertigo and disorientation does
result, which is why, I think, you scratch a writer and you're going to find a
compulsive inventor. You know, someone who, if he or she isn't writing for a
couple of days, is bound to descend pretty quickly into erratic behavior.
GROSS: Well, Richard Powers, thanks so much for talking with us.
Mr. POWERS: Thank you so much, Terry.
BIANCULLI: Richard Powers, speaking to Terry Gross last December. His novel
"The Echo Maker," which won the National Book Award for Fiction, is now out in
paperback. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
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Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript
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Review: Film critic David Edelstein on "Juno"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
The title character of the new comedy "Juno" is a high school student who gets
pregnant after deciding to seduce her somewhat shy boyfriend. The film has
gotten a lot of buzz, both for its controversial subject matter and the widely
hailed performance by Ellen Page as Juno. Film critic David Edelstein has a
Mr. DAVID EDELSTEIN: The best things in the new teen pregnancy comedy "Juno"
are the animated credit sequence and the final shot of a girl and boy
strumming guitars on the steps of a suburban house. There are grace notes in
between, a lot of them, but sometimes the movie is so obnoxiously false from
moment to moment that, whatever its charms, it's hard to surrender to it.
Those opening credits feature Juno, the heroine, transformed into a wiggly
cartoon, the kind that uses real performers as a sort of baseline. The
actress is Ellen Page, a magnetic young Canadian. And the filmmakers do an
amazing job driving home the idea that this headstrong girl is her own
But in the next scene, she buys a pregnancy test from a snarky pharmacist,
dips it in her urine in the store bathroom, and emerges ranting about the
little plus sign that means it's positive. I know Juno doesn't care what
people think; I know she's a poster girl for the MySpace generation, in which
there's zero sphere of privacy, but her exhibitionism feels forced, even for
her. It's a way for the writer, who goes by the name of Diablo Cody, and the
director, Jason Reitman, to push the boundaries. They're nakedly eager to
make the film a chick flick "Rushmore" or "Garden State." They want teens to
buy the soundtrack and seek out the videos and books and vintage Japanese
comics the movie relentlessly references. They want to make them feel so in
So what's so bad about that? Nothing, if you don't mind the way the movie
comes at you with a soundtrack that rarely shuts up, and banter like bad Neil
Simon with up-to-the-minute slang. In one memorably grisly scene, the pierced
receptionist at an abortion clinic robotically goes through her supposedly
empathetic spiel, and then holds forth on the aroma of her boyfriend's penis.
That makes Juno decide not to have that abortion, even though the boy who
knocked her up, played by "Superbad"'s Michael Cera, is a noncommital cipher.
Instead, she'll give the baby up for adoption. Her father, played by J.K.
Simmons, accompanies her to the "McMansion" of a well-to-do couple, played by
Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman. And what a little pop tart Juno is.
(Soundbite from "Juno")
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. JENNIFER GARNER: (As Vanessa Loring) Hi. I'm Vanessa. You must be
Mr. McGuff, hi. Vanessa Loring.
Ms. ELLEN PAGE: (As Juno) It's Vanessa, right? Is that...
Mr. J.K. SIMMONS: (As Mac) Thanks for having me and my irresponsible child
over to your house.
Ms. GARNER: (As Vanessa Loring) Oh, no, thank you. Thank you. Come on in.
Can I take your coat or your hat?
Mr. SIMMONS: (As Mac) Sure.
Ms. PAGE: (As Juno) Oh, yeah, sure, thanks. A wicked pic in the PennySaver,
by the way, super classy. Not like those people with fake woods in the
background. Honestly, who do they think they're fooling?
Ms. GARNER: (As Vanessa Loring) You found us in the PennySaver?
Mr. JASON BATEMAN: (As Mark Loring) Hi. Mark Loring. I'm the husband.
Mr. SIMMONS: (As Mac) How you doing? Mac McGuff.
Mr. BATEMAN: (As Mark Loring) Nice to meet you. Hi.
Ms. GARNER: (As Vanessa Loring) This is Gerta Rauss, our attorney.
Ms. PAGE: (As Juno) Gerta Rauss!
Ms. EILEEN PEDDE: (As Gerta Rauss) Hi. Nice to meet you.
Mr. SIMMONS: (As Mac) And this, of course, is Juno.
Mr. BATEMAN: (As Mark Loring) Like the city in Alaska.
Ms. PAGE: (As Juno) No.
Mr. BATEMAN: (As Mark Loring) No?
Hon, should we sit down and get to know one another.
Ms. GARNER: (As Vanessa Loring) I thought I'd get some drinks. What would
anyone like? I have Pellegrino or vitamin water or orange juice with folic
Ms. PAGE: (As Juno) I'll have a maker's mark, please. Oh...
Mr. SIMMONS: (As Mac) She's kidding. "June Bug" has a wonderful sense of
humor, just one of her many genetic gifts.
(End of soundbite)
Mr. EDELSTEIN: "Juno" does have an amusing conceit at its core: The teenage
heroine is trying to seem smart and precocious, whereas the 30-ish would-be
father played by Bateman is trying to stay a kid, and they meet in the middle
and it undermines his marriage. If only the dialogue weren't so
cringe-worthy, and if the jokes didn't disappear on cue at the end of every
major segment, when you're supposed to shed a little tear. Jason Reitman was
mysteriously acclaimed for his ugly and inept adaptation of Christopher
Buckley's "Thank You for Smoking," but that movie didn't break out the way
Juno will. It's already getting Oscar buzz, and it will certainly make Ellen
Page a star. She has a gift for making her motor-mouth lines sound like
they're really coming from her head, and an instinct for mixing almost
supernatural self-possession with flashes of vulnerability. It's possible her
Juno will even become a new archetype, a role model for teenage girls who've
long craved their own Ferris Bueller. Brace yourself, folks, for the Juno
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.
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