Richard Powers’s “Hybrid Bastard”: The Echo Maker and “The Postpsychiatric Novel”

in Explorations of Consciousness in Contemporary Fiction
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In his renowned 1959 lecture, “The Two Cultures,” C. P. Snow, the acclaimed British chemist and novelist, argued that, because of increasing disciplinary specialization and technological advancement, “the intellectual life of the whole of western society is increasingly being split into two polar groups.” These groups, he elaborates, are represented mainly by literary intellectuals and physical scientists. However, as argued in John Brockman’s The Third Culture (1995), over the past three decades a myriad assortment of novelists, sociologists, historians, and psychiatrists have increasingly theorized approaches to overcome this disconnect.

Among novelists, Richard Powers is perhaps the ultimate exemplar of a writer striving to connect the humanities and the sciences. In works such as Galatea 2.2 (artificial intelligence), Plowing the Dark (Internet networking), and Gain (the insurance-medical complex), he has ceaselessly developed narratives that both explore and undermine contemporary scientific paradigms by juxtaposing them with the perspectives of subjective meaning and humanistic values.

The Echo Maker, winner of the 2006 National Book Award, is perhaps the most profound example of this Powerian approach. This essay argues that Powers creates a neuroscientific context, based on a character suffering from Capgras Syndrome, and uses his authorial stand-in, Dr. Gerald Weber, a writer and neurologist, to refute the presuppositions and practices of clinical, evidence-based medicine, replacing them with a postmodern hermeneutics that foregoes bioreductive treatments via a concentration on story, empathy, and the redemptive function of “self-narratives.”

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