I have a novel on my shelf that I bought many years ago and haven’t ever finished.
It’s the story of a man who has a near-death experience that brings him to the revelation that the woman he knows as his sister is actually not his real sister. Possibly she’s been abducted by aliens on the road and replaced with a replica. Possibly he’s just discovered some kind of distinction between our spiritual and our bodily forms. It’s not clear. Whatever the reason, he decides that he needs a different kind of woman in his life.
That’s Richard Powers’ 2006 novel, The Echo Maker.
No, not really. It’s The Echo Maker as imagined from the point of view of one of the most important male characters in the novel . . . who is not, however, its narrator. The narrator is his sister, and the novel is, in fact, about a woman who resigns her corporate job and returns to her hometown, to live on her savings and to help her brother, who’s been in a serious car accident, the cause of which nobody knows. But when she visits him in the hospital, he insists that she’s an impostor.
Those are, of course, the same story, the same content—and of course they can’t be. The Echo Maker isn’t about a woman who pretends to be a sister to its protagonist, yet can’t possibly be the kind of sister he needs. It’s about a man who angrily rejects his sister, in spite of her virtuously having only his best interests in mind. Whenever I read a story about double characters or double lives, these days, especially if it involves a woman, I think of this novel. The Echo Maker has become ground zero, for me, of books about people living lives just slightly off-kilter from what they personally feel.
Philip Roth wrote about doubles all the time. John Updike’s Bech novels could be described as an attempt to describe what John Updike would be if he’d been Philip Roth himself. David Foster Wallace wrote about what he called “the statue,” the image of the writer that was generated by fans and a writer’s perception of their reaction to him. But these are something different from what The Echo Maker asks us to consider. The Echo Maker isn’t about a writer. It’s about a member of a family. It’s not about the public’s incomprehension when face-to-face with a genius. It’s about a woman’s incomprehension when face-to-face with a man she doesn’t properly appreciate. The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides, does something similar: this time, setting a woman off against two men, one of whom she thinks is terrific and the other of whom (the narrator, and the novelist’s apparent stand-in) is really so.
Or is he? It’s natural that the point of view character would see himself as pretty darn special. But must the reader join him in his self-assessment? Surely not. That’s pretty much the point of the development of partial and unreliable narration as it’s developed from the late nineteenth century to the present day. We see the novel pretty much as one of its characters sees it. We definitely do not allow the writer to pretend that she or he has been granted a God’s-eye view of reality.
Wallace seems to have been obsessed with the impossibility of narrative objectivity to the point where he stripped it all away, leaving only dialogue and the close narration of minimalistic vignettes. This is the approach of literary modernism, and arguably it reaches for an impossible goal. Postmodernism, as it developed to its high point in the early 1990s, gave up on that goal, embracing in turn either the lush narrative omniscience of the classic novels of a century and two centuries earlier, or unreconciled, incommensurable concatenation of different individuals’ takes on the same events. In 1978, A.S. Byatt published her first novel in ten years as an expansive, digressive, and old-fashioned examination of the links between the twentieth century’s Elizabethan age and the sixteenth’s, and in 1990 explicitly explored traditional mythological forms (as David Lodge had previously done), abandoning a strict adherence to a narrowly conceived realism, in Possession. In Babel Tower, published in 1997, she interweaves multiple points of view, court transcripts, and texts within the text (including a fantasy novel based on Fourier and the Marquis de Sade). Frederica Potter’s attempts to write about her divorce illustrate the problem and the method:
“She has changed the word ‘struck’ to the word ‘hit.’ She has a vague idea that this piece of writing should be bare, unemotive, scrupulously neutral, whatever that might mean. ‘Struck’ carries a stronger emotional charge.
When I locked myself in the lavatory, he turned off the house electricity, to leave me in the dark.
Does this act, which was indeed frightening and humiliating, class as cruelty, or as petty comedy?
I was frightened. Afraid. Alarmed.
All crossed out.
When I tried to run away, he threw an axe after me.
He has had military training. He meant to hit me.
Is Frederica’s opinion on this evidence or not evidence? Is it even her opinion? She remembers the smell of the soil in the night, the wriggling horizon, a sound of rushing wings, which was probably only in her head. She does not remember the impact of the blow. She remembers the later seeping and oozing of the wound, the changing colours of the bruising.”
Frederica calls her idea of a literature formed by separated individualities “laminations.” This and the others are all versions of postmodernism. By definition, a postmodernist novel expresses something that a novel written in a commercial or mainstream style can’t, but that a genre novel can’t do either.
A standard, nonsciencefictional way of writing about a question like duality would be to create two different characters: sisters, mother and daughter, friends, rivals, parallel characters in different geographical locations. Or the narration might incorporate two different points of view in a grammatically complex way. “Mainstream” fiction almost never foregrounds ideas, especially not ideas different from those you’d find in Time magazine or Newsweek, and “literary” fiction (especially in recent decades) almost never foregrounds ideas having to do with literature itself. But more experimental kinds of writing, such as some kinds of SF, can do this (literary fiction does the same, occasionally, but then James Wood calls it “hysterical”). So I was interested in seeing the idea of this specific kind of “doubling” explored.
But if science fiction does have a “problem” in this regard (“problem” is obviously much too strong a word), it’s that by making its metaphors literal, it makes unclear which part of the “as if” is the point of the writing. Is Never Let Me Go, for example, “about” the dangers of cloning, or “only” the dangers of exploitation? It shares this with magical realism: is Hilary Mantel’s Fludd “about” the reincarnation of Robert Fludd, or only a man who pretends to share his name, about a young woman who really suffered stigmata or about a poor family who was too eager to believe their daughter might have a vocation (to take a far-fetched example)? And so the question arises whether My Real Children is about the hypothesis that there are parallel worlds that diverge at choice points (and therefore might re-merge, perhaps near death), or whether it’s about the way our actual lives are haunted by the lives of other versions of ourselves, whom we chose not to live.
This is the kind of thing that might have been explored at greater length and in greater depth. Instead, it’s confined to the first and last chapters. The rest is a quite straightforward novel about two women with similar childhoods and much less similar adult lives. Both form what Adrienne Rich called “survival relationships” primarily with other women, but both have brief sexual relationships with men. Both have large families, enjoy cooking and the arts (in a vaguely consumerist way), and engage in left-leaning politics, though at different stages of their lives. Both help care for disabled family members. And both end up a nursing home with senility or possibly Alzheimer’s. But one is entirely heterosexual and the other is a lesbian. One has children very early, and the other only after several years of single life. One travels and the other stays at home. One enters politics and the other writes books. It’s interesting to see what the reviews made of their differences and similarities—there’s a remarkably priggish tone to some of them—but in reality, the differences and their significance are not so clear. I didn’t, however, find either of them especially “likable.”
As Henry James said, you should always give a novelist her or his donnée. Walton’s donnée, in My Real Children, is to explore the consequences of the classic question of the modern novel (including many of those by James): the choice to marry or not. The rest of the story unspools from this choice—which is not to say that the novel makes a big statement about the differences between marriage and lesbian partnership. My ambivalence about it may be partly due to the fact that Walton’s taste is apparently more Drabble than Byatt, more Byatt than Mantel, and mine is the opposite. Something about the first chapter rubbed me the wrong way, and the second chapter made me fear I was in for something like Meet the Austins, one of Madeleine L’Engle’s least successful books. But the bulk of the novel is a perfectly fine story, as I said, of two women who lead parallel lives. And the parts I liked less well, I think, were necessary (as Jonathan Franzen has said of difficulty) to the payoff. Which it was worth reading to the end to find. A good read.