Mark Schulter is left with brain injuries after overturning his truck on an isolated road in rural Nebraska. His sister, Karin, gives up job and home, returning to their hometown near the Platte River to provide care. The brother describes his condition like living in a video game, where he cannot advance to the next level. Karin worries about him being dependent on her for the rest of his life, that she would “fail him, as she had failed to protect her parents from their own worst instincts…. She needed him to be way he would never be again, a way that she was no longer sure that he had ever been.” Mark is belligerent and frustrated, and she describes this as a “crushing new innocence,” even though he discarded potential long before his accident.
Mark is convinced that his sister is an imposter, gradually suspecting that his home, community and friends are fake, all conspiring to cover up a government plot. Further, he fears he is the center of this plot, possibly connected with the annual mass migration of sand cranes to the Platte River.
The birds mate for life, following reliable patterns, while humans lie to one another, use one another and themselves, while destroying their own communities, families and homes. The annual migration appears massive only because increasing development reduces the birds’ habitat. The same numbers of birds crammed into less space brings stress and disease. “They used to roost along the whole Big Bend: a hundred and twenty miles or mile,” explains Daniel, the brother’s childhood friend, an environmentalist, and a lover whom Karin once discarded. “That he spent time with her at all left her amazed, ashamed, and grateful,” she notes at one point, and later decides: “What could he possibly get from their new connection? Simply the chance to do things right, at last. Reduce, reuse, recycle, retrieve, redeem.” She later finds herself wondering “Could anyone trust anyone who trusted anyone so much?” The answer, with these characters, is no.
The characters are susceptible to gossip, conspiracy theories and memories of past wrongs. Karin suggests that “people liked people who made them feel more secure,” but that is not really true of her relationship with her brother or anyone else. She lacks self-esteem, with memories of physical and sexual abuse. “Everyone alive was at least as scared as she was. Remember that, and a person might come to love anyone.”
Karin pleads for advice from a renowned neuroscientist who agrees to meet the brother. Both Karin and the doctor harbor doubts about their own motivations in providing care.
The neuroscientist seems to have the ideal life and marriage, but it soon becomes clear that he does not really listen to his wife or daughter. His job is his life, his priority, and he’s devastated after reviewers attack his most recent book detailing his approach to assisting patients. The accusation: He is “milking others’ personal disabilities for personal gain.” And so he decides to return to Nebraska and reexamine Mark, wondering why the case unsettles him so, but not hundreds of others. “What has triggered such continuous surprise in him, the sense of awakening from a long sham?”
At one point, the neurologist marvels at the brain being “Unable to recognize that it’s suffering from any disorder.” That description applies to every character in the book.
Crisis can erode or strengthen individuals. Some people step up and find the reserves to do battle. Others, like a former journalist, withdraw: “She had lost something of herself, or thrown it away, refusing to compete…”
The novel's title, The Echo Maker, suggests that an individual does not develop personality and character on his or her own, that we constantly respond to the comments and behavior of others via our own reactions and responses – a continuing echo process that imprints our behavior, forging our character and sometimes forcing us to repeat mistakes over and over. The neurologist describes how One group of scientists discovered a mirror-neuron system the monkey-see, monkey-do neurons. We observe and copy the behavior of those surrounding us, for better or worse.
There are many selves – the past and remembered self, the mirror and echo self for others, the self we strive to keep intact from the control of others: “Every burst of light, every sound, every coincidence, every random path through space changed the brain, altering synapses, even adding them, while others weakened or fell away from lack of activity The brain was a set of changes for mirroring change. Use or lose. Use and lose. You lose, and the choice unmade you.”
And so we should choose carefully among our associates, escaping those who might limit our potential.
We must decide if our values and goals, our individual personality, can remain intact within the confines of our families and communities. Are we doing what we can to lift others? And if not, perhaps it’s better to be alone.