Bewilderment by Richard Powers

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Reviewed by Gill Davies

Although he has published twelve novels since 1985, I only discovered Richard Powers through his stunning 2018 novel The Overstory that was short-listed for the Booker and won the Pulitzer prize. The Overstory is a long, wide-ranging novel, switching between many characters and settings, (reviewed by Peter Reason for Shiny here). This novel, though sharing some of the same concerns about our planet and its future, is rather different. It is shorter, more of a fable, focusing on only two main characters with a series of brief chapters and repeating motifs and situations. The format gives the book an emotional intensity and political focus that is sometimes hard to bear. At its centre is a powerful picture of a father/son relationship. The bond between them, as well as their individual interests and personalities, carries the novel’s main themes.

Theo Byrne lives in the shadow of the death of his wife Alyssa, killed two years before in a car crash when she swerved to avoid an opossum. She was an activist working for an NGO striving to protect animals from the brutalities and carelessness of humans. Her work took her into legal and political spheres where she was a dynamic and persuasive figure.

Theo is a teacher and researcher, an astrobiologist who models the possible conditions for life on other, as yet undiscovered, planets. Their nine year-old son Robin is a highly intelligent and unusually sensitive boy who has been diagnosed by the medical establishment at different times as having OCD, ADHD, Aspergers – whatever was the current label and its available pharmaceutical or behavioural solution. Theo rejects the medicalisation of his son, and the social controls that school and state try to impose on the boy. “Life is something we need to stop correcting. My boy was a pocket universe I could never hope to fathom. Every one of us is an experiment, and we don’t even know what the experiment is testing.”

As school and medical interventions fail to support him, Theo finds other ways of helping Robin focus his intelligence  and restlessness – gazing at night skies in the Smoky Mountains, learning about the natural world, and telling him tales about imagined planets. The tales are derived from the speculative models that Theo has been developing as part of his research. They act as a kind of chorus for the characters’ daily lives, and comment on the growing political and environmental crisis. The imaginary planets to which Theo takes Robin offer parallels to Earth problems or contrasts with the crisis we face. And they sometimes echo shifts in the father-son relationship, the emotional stages they are going through. Even though I am not remotely interested in life anywhere other than Earth and I find Branson, Bezos and moon landings disgusting distractions from our current situation, I admit that this is powerful fiction. 

It is really a parable, told through a series of parables. It is a history of where we are now, predicting where we are going. Although its setting is projected to a near future (not so much sci-fi as cli-fi, according to The Guardian), the behaviour of politicians and people is all too familiar. It is a world where a lying populist president and vacuous media and “influencers” work together to rouse the already mad and aggressive to even more stupid actions. The President orders that trees be cut down as a solution to forest fires, he encourages right wing terrorism, interferes with elections, closes down free media and so on. We encounter the political moments through the experience of Robin as he comes to understand the global environmental crisis through paying attention to the smallest, insignificant parts of nature – a patch of moss, an ants’ nest, the disturbance of the smallest habitats. He wants to raise money for charities by painting the thousands of endangered species in America. Asked to imagine a journey down the Mississippi, he only discovers the consequences of industrial agriculture and human contamination.

The strand of SF in the novel works to shift the focus slightly and make us see things afresh. It makes vivid the smallest instance of human thoughtlessness, as well as the deliberate actions of autocratic rulers. For example, father and son camping in the Smoky Mountains come across a mass of stone cairns built in a remote river. An innocent pastime one might think – and perhaps one of the less harmful consequences of the plague of social media photography. But they “destroy the homes of everything in the river. Imagine creatures from another world materialising in our airspace and tearing up our neighbourhoods, again and again.” It’s another of the astrobiologists’s parables. The other sci-fi element in the novel is Robin’s “therapy” via a neuro experiment in which a subject’s brain patterns can be learned by other subjects, thus enlarging their awareness and educating their feelings. (What a breakthrough that might be!) “Emotional telepathy”, as Theo calls it. It transforms Robin’s ability to function socially – especially when he gains access to his mother’s neurological patterns. And he becomes a wise and un-fearing, if despairing, spokesperson for the earth. But the problem is humans. As Robin says, “Everyone knows what’s happening. But we all look away.” The difficulty with this message is that it can only promote despair. Powers does try to create a resolution at the personal level that might ameliorate the political – but the ending didn’t work for me. Nevertheless, the novel as a whole is a stunning vision of what we humans are, what we should value, and how far we have fallen.

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Richard Powers, Bewilderment  (William Heinemann, 2021).  978-1785152634, 278pp., hardback.

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