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Review: With ‘Bewilderment,’ expansive novelist Richard Powers goes dark and narrow

Richard Powers next to the cover of his new novel, "Bewilderment."
Richard Powers, author of the forthcoming novel, “Bewilderment.”
(Dean Dixon / W.W. Norton & Company)

On the shelf

Bewilderment

By Richard Powers
Norton: 304 pages, $28

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Over four decades and 13 books, Richard Powers has combined literary fiction and real science. This alchemy earned him a MacArthur Fellowship in 1989, the 2006 National Book Award for “The Echo Maker,” a Pulitzer Prize and a longstanding bestseller in 2018’s The Overstory.” His earlier books explored more arcane or intriguing aspects of science, but recently he’s zeroed in on a deep concern for what humans are doing to our planet. He was so compelled by trees, one of the main subjects of “The Overstory,” that he moved from Illinois, where he taught, to Tennessee and the Great Smoky Mountains.

“Bewilderment,” his new novel, just shortlisted for the Booker Prize, is a continuation of the same, but simultaneously “The Overstory’s” opposite. Where the last was grand, this is intimate; instead of nine main characters and the spread of their lives, we have just two, a father and his troubled son.

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Theo Byrne works as an astrophysicist trying to find life on other planets, and in passages he relates to his son Robin at night, he imagines wildly different possible scenarios. Robin, turning 9, is engaged and curious but also quick to anger, and increasingly violent. He’s been diagnosed with Asperger’s or OCD or ADHD, none of which his father finds valid.

Both are still grieving the loss of Alyssa — Theo’s wife, Robin’s mother — who died in an accident two years earlier. Theo seems to hope that if he can just give Robin enough love and indulgences, like taking him camping, his son will find better footing. The one thing he doesn’t want to do is medicate him. So when things reach a breaking point at Robin’s school, Theo turns to an experimental neurotherapy treatment at his university.

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And it does help Robin. His anger dissipates; his curiosity deepens; his empathy expands; his creativity explodes. He becomes the best possible version of himself. He decides to paint every endangered plant and animal, then sell those paintings and donate the money to charity to save the earth. He’s inspired by a young environmental activist, a fictional version of Greta Thunberg. If there is hope for our planet, it is in young people like the real Greta and fictional Robin who, despite the harshest realities of climate change, believe they can make a difference.

That’s not all there is to the story, however. As Robin improves, his father is barely holding it together. After he lets Robin homeschool, his own work suffers. (This was written, prophetically, before the pandemic-driven proliferation of home learning, with all its negative impacts on parents and children alike.) Theo is failing his university partners. Still bereft, he convinces himself his dead wife had an affair with the scientist leading the neurotherapy experiment.

There are a series of crises brought on by the right-wing American president. He’s anti-science, he’s anti-immigrant, and he’s forcing through measures that will allow him to stay in office. Although these developments animate the plot — Theo goes to Washington to testify as a scientific expert — they don’t loom large in his mind. He mentions answering emails to defend his immigrant students, but we don’t read them. The book lives instead in a universe of two: Theo and Robin.

The neurofeedback therapy allows Robin to train his brain to follow healthier patterns, like an fMRI video game. The catch is that instead of mirroring an aggregate or anonymized set, he’s using his mother’s. It’s something she recorded on a lark before she died.

In the most positive sense, this allows his mother to aid her son after she’s gone. With the training, he doesn’t just stabilize; he blossoms. If this sounds a little bit like “Flowers for Algernon,” the much-adapted story (1959) and novel (1966) by Daniel Keyes, Powers wants you to see the similarities; father and son listen to the audiobook together.

But while Theo was celebrating his much-improved son, I was prompted to ask ethical questions that Powers seemed uninterested in answering. Why does the father opt for an experimental treatment when there seem to be less risky, or at least better tested, options? And put his son into a machine with his dead mother’s mind, of all things. Robin can’t get through a school lunch without losing his cool — should he be expected to sort out the implications of his ghostlike brain-tutor mom? Is it OK to put even a fictional child at risk?

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I realize there is no Robin, there is no Theo. Their story works as metaphor: Theo is making choices for a son who, when he’s operating at full capacity, is trying to save the world. Meanwhile his father is trying to find life on other planets. Although he supports Robin’s efforts, Theo has turned his attention away from Earth, abandoning the climate crisis to the next generation.

It’s a relief to see great novelists like Powers, Lydia Millet and Jenny Offill tackling climate change in ways that make for really good stories, brilliantly told. But there’s a key difference here. Millet and Offill, in their most recent books (“A Children’s Bible” and “Weather,” respectively), are optimists. Even if the solutions their novels come up with are utopic or near-miraculous, the young people in them create something that might last. Powers cannot seem to find a way.

When the plot of “Bewilderment” turns, it’s animated not by ethical questions but by external forces. There’s internet virality and then pushback, all under the shadow of the right-wing administration in Washington. This is fiction taking its cues from dark reality.

When Robin first undertakes his project, he reads that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists more than 2,000 North American species as being threatened or endangered. “The amphibians are in trouble. I’m going to start with an amphibian,” he tells his father. He sets to painting them, but how far can he get? Later he tells his father, only slightly hyperbolically, “There’s no point in school. Everything will be dead before I get to tenth grade.”

Powers is an essential member of the pantheon of writers who are using fiction to address climate change. “Bewilderment” shows how tenuous their hopes may be.

Lydia Millet, whose latest novel, “A Children’s Bible,” tackled climate change, reads new fiction on climate and argues against calling it a genre.

Kellogg is a former books editor of The Times. She can be found on Twitter @paperhaus.


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