Last night I was reading Richard Powers’ new novel, The Echo Maker. It’s about a man, Mark Schluter, who suffers brain damage in a car accident. He develops Capgras syndrome, which makes him think that certain people close to him are impostors. One of these is his sister, Karin Schluter, who has quit her job to care for Mark and now finds herself despondent at Mark’s constant requests to produce his “real” sister.
Karin writes a letter to Gerald Weber, a cognitive neurologist whose books weave case histories of bizarre brain disorders into compelling narratives with bestselling appeal – a bit like Oliver Sacks. Weber is reluctant to become personally involved, and anxious to move toward more pure research, but is intrigued by the rarity of Mark’s case (Capgras resulting from an accident is almost unheard of). He travels from Long Island to Nebraska to examine Mark.
The book has rich use of language and a provocative blend of science and philosophy (two disciplines that seem more and more inseparable). I’m sure I’ll be writing more about Powers’ powerful prose, but a passage I read last night made me think more about myself.
And no, not because I think the people in the offices next to mine have been replaced with people who look, talk, and act exactly like them. I do think that – “Ray Olson” is obviously an actor – but this is a blog about book reviewing, not the government’s elaborate plan to replace everyone and everything in my life with an exact replica.
In one scene, Weber calls his editor, who tells him that the reviews for his latest book are starting to come in:
The Kirkus review is a little mixed, but the Booklist is to die for.
Now, reading a book that explores how the brain weaves external and internal stimuli into its own version of reality – I felt as if my synapses had suddenly decided to mix things up a little. Here I was, reading a book for review, evaluating it but also losing myself in the narrative, when I came across a mention of a fictional character responding to the kind of real-life review I’ll be writing when I’m done. In its own small way, it was like watching a movie and glimpsing myself in the background.
I write a lot about the impossibility of achieving true objectivity as a book reviewer, and the many complications that can sabotage even the simple goal of writing down an honest opinion. I haven’t written much about ego yet, but ego is, of course, a big part of reviewing – not everyone who reads a book feels compelled to publish their opinion of it.
Anticipating what readers will think about my opinion might cause me to second-guess myself. Wondering or worrying what publishers and authors will think is even worse. We do get to know some publishers and authors in this line of work, and it’s a balancing act to ensure that professional friendliness doesn’t become friendship. It’s a natural human trait to want to please the people who please us.
There’s insecurity (do I seem smart enough? do I have the right opinion)? and its cousin, pride (my opinion is important!). Honestly, thinking about it too much is enough to make a book reviewer afraid to review books.
Of course, I have to think my opinion is helpful to people – that’s what drives me to work hard and write well. But thinking too much of it – thinking that it matters – keeps me from simply getting down what I think of the book, and gets me back to thinking how my opinion will appear to people.
I do my best to ignore the idea of people reading my reviews, because it makes the whole exchange too complicated. Yet having a writer with the stature of Richard Powers mention Booklist reviews, even in a minor scene, seems to affirm their importance. It’s enough to make me hook my thumbs in my imaginary suspenders and puff out my mental chest (sorry about that turn of phrase) just because I’m part of the process. If Powers reads his reviews, then in a way, I’m having a dialog with him.
And who needs that kind of pressure?