When Jupiter pretends to be Alcmene’s husband, and fathers Hercules, in Plautus’ comedy Amphitryon, we laugh; but there is also something immeasurably sinister at work. This doubling is a trope throughout literature. In Spenser’s Faerie Queene, Duessa and Archimago slip on other people’s guises to tempt and corrupt. In James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner, Wringham believes he has an evil doppelganger, since he is accused of crimes which he cannot remember committing. Folklore has a rich tradition of changelings and demonic possessions: that which we cannot control, that which takes over us, but that which is also, somehow, ourselves.

Cover of The Echo Maker by Richard PowersThese works thrill and intrigue, because they reflect our obsession with the notion of self. We see ourselves as continuous, whole beings with a temporal and physical exis-tence that is defined by our relationship to others. But the more science delves into the brain, the more it discovers strangenesses: neurons fire in our fingers just before we “order” them to move; cut off a limb and you will still “feel” it there.

Powers attempts, in this vivid, challenging yet ultimately unsatisfying novel, to explore these questions. He is a writer preoccupied with the scientific; genetics and computer science have been previous subjects. Here the mind comes to the fore.

Bleak, flat, Midwestern America is the setting, in a small town where nothing thrives but the cranes – which are, for a few months of the year, the only tourist attraction. The birds form a constant background to the shifting selves of the human characters. They have a mythic resonance in most cultures: they are called, by the Anishinabe, the “Echo Makers”. Powers is no stylist, and his constant use of bird or crane imagery can sometimes jar, but they do make an effective counterpoint. In the end it seems that only they are constant, and that whatever humans do to destroy themselves and their surroundings, the birds will still call in the silence, making echoes boom and fall.

Mark Schluter is a man who had “long ago taken every wrong turn you could take in life”. He likes hanging around with his buddies, drinking beer after working at the meat-packing plant, playing video games – and more dangerous games with real cars. One night he is found all but crushed to death in a metal tangle of wreckage on a lonely stretch of road, watched only by the cranes. With him is a mysterious note:

    “I am No One
   but Tonight on North Line Road
   GOD led me to you
   so You could Live
   and bring back someone else.”

This note proves spookily accurate. Schluter goes into a coma, and his sister, Karin, rushes down to see him. She gives up everything for him, but when he wakes up, he does not recognise her. He is found to be suffering from Capgras syndrome, in which “the person believes their loved ones have been swapped with lifelike robots, doubles, or aliens.” He sees Karin as a “Kopy”, refusing, against all the evidence, to believe that she is his real sibling. His house, his dog – even the whole town, he decides – have been rebuilt as some sort of government plot to hide some meaningful truth.

The first third of the novel is clunky and dense, although the author beautifully captures the gradations of Mark’s consciousness, as he goes from broken phrases in his mind: “This may be days. No saying. Time flaps about, wings broken,” through echolalia (where he repeats words), to full – but not whole – understanding.

Powers deals well with the feelings “Kopy Karin” goes through, showing us a stalwart, dogged, almost saintly character. But, of course, this book is about the shakiness of everyone’s self. And this is the real problem with it. When Gerald Weber, a specialist, who writes bestsellers about the problems of the brain, flies in to see Mark, we soon find that he is not what one might think. Since we expect everything to be uncertain, there is no real surprise as the author takes us through the various conflicts of self that everyone goes through. Is Karin really the Karin that her brother remembers her to be? Is her boyfriend Daniel the heterosexual she thinks him to be? Is Weber the rigorous, ethical scientist America believes him to be? Will Karin and Mark come to some sort of fulfilling yet unfulfilled conclusion? You can guess the answers.

The novel does pose fascinating questions about our “baseline experience”. We do not know who we are, or even whether what we perceive is what is really there. Powers’s explorations of the mind and its relationships with others are sharp and exacting. Though the climax is powerful enough, what a novel this could have been – he could have built up the pressure as Hogg does, or the sense of paranoiac fantasy that haunts Spenser; he could even have made us laugh. ■

The Echo Maker is published by William Heinemann