Bewilderment by Richard Powers

Review by David Starkey

Richard Powers’ new novel, Bewilderment, is—despite its portrayal of a mother and son who are capable of ecstatic connection with the natural world—one of the most depressing books I’ve read in a while. Although it was written prior to the pandemic and the 2020 election and is set in the near future and/or a slightly alternate universe, Bewilderment is sadly prescient. Granted, in the America of the novel there are COG talks instead of TED talks, the unnamed Trump-like President is actually capable of imposing his totalitarian policies, climate change is more immediate and more catastrophic, and you wouldn’t want to sit out the vaccine in a Bewilderment pandemic, but it all feels far too realistic for comfort.

Powers, who in previous novels has covered topics ranging from artificial intelligence (Galatea 2.2) to genetics (The Gold Bug Variations and Generosity: An Enhancement) to soap (Gain), continues the investigation of environmental devastation that he began in 2018’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Overstory, while also focusing on astrobiology and neurobiology. However, where passages of previous novels occasionally felt like excerpts from nonfiction, Bewilderment’s trim narrative mostly keeps its eye on the father-son relationship of Theo and Robin Byrne. Theo is an astrobiologist at the University of Wisconsin who frequently diverts his son, who may be on the autism spectrum, with tales of the many worlds possible in a universe of two trillion galaxies. There’s a science fiction element to these short chapters, but father and son are always “exploring” the planets together, and each story relates back to issues in their troubled lives.

When the novel begins, Robin’s mother, Alyssa, has been dead for two years due to a car accident in which she apparently was willing to sacrifice herself rather than hit an opossum. Soon-to-be-nine-year-old Robin has inherited his mother’s love of other “creatures”—one of her favorite words—but he does not possess her indefatigability in the face of obstacles. In fact, he is anxious and fearful, prone to screaming tantrums when things don’t go his way. Theo, however, will do anything to avoid medicating his son, which leads to Robin’s participation in a Decoded Neurofeedback experiment, where he learns to mimic, then inhabit, his mother’s brainwaves, recorded when she was in a state of ecstasy.

“Training” in the DecNef allows Robin to channel Alyssa’s optimism in the face of near-certain defeat, and before long he is a different boy, one who is capable of observing the flora and fauna of his hometown with astounding clarity, and who can say, “You know how people sometimes worry: Is that person mad at me? Well, if anyone’s wondering, I’m good with the whole world.” Unfortunately, the DecNef’s inventor needs to monetize his creation to keep it running, and while that initially leads to Robin’s internet celebrity, in the anti-science milieu of the novel, anything that can’t be explained by conservative truisms or Christianity is suspect. Let’s just say the fact that Theo and Robin are listening to an audiobook of Flowers for Algernon early in Bewilderment isn’t a good sign.

As I read the novel, the news from my America seemed to echo, or perhaps presage, Powers’ rapidly failing country, but it was only after I finished the book that I realized what I’d found so disheartening was how completely I sympathized with Robin’s point of view, almost as though I’d been training in the DecNef of Bewilderment. The boy so wants to be hopeful, and at the height of his mental powers he is, but Robin is always aware of the hard truth that he can do to nothing to avert the oncoming disaster that anyone who bothers to look can see.

Early in the novel, Theo tells us that astronomy and childhood have a number of things in common: “Both are voyages across huge distances… Both are humbled every few weeks. Both operate out of ignorance. Both are mystified by time.” And both, he concludes, “are forever starting out.” But the strength of Bewilderment is what makes it so grim. Far from “forever starting out,” the characters in the novel appear to be approaching their inevitable, agonizing ends.