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Richard Powers Spins A Smaller, Sadder Story In 'Bewilderment'

W.W. Norton & Company

"Life assembles itself on accumulating mistakes." That's just one nugget of wisdom in Richard Powers' latest novel, a heartrending tale of loss. Bewilderment is a smaller, less complex book than his Pulitzer Prize-winning magnum opus, The Overstory (2018), although it also involves the devastating toll of environmental catastrophes. But in his 13th novel, Powers turns his attention from trees to creatures, and from a large cast spanning decades to a tightly bound father-son pair. His overarching concern is with endangered species — including humans, whose habit of turning a blind eye toward what doesn't immediately affect them has imperiled our future on this planet.

Theo and Robin Byrne, a grieving widowed father and his acutely sensitive, motherless 9-year-old boy, are painfully aware of this dire situation. We meet Theo, an astrobiologist whose work involves positing and seeking signs of life in the universe, on a camping trip in the Smoky Mountains with his son. Their impromptu trip to the site of Theo's honeymoon with his late wife, Alyssa — a legal advocate for animal rights who died two years earlier in a car crash — is meant to clear the air after another unfortunate incident in Robin's third grade classroom.

Robin, we quickly learn, has anger issues and has been variously diagnosed with possible autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, and OCD. But Theo doesn't accept the conflicting diagnoses and resists adding his son to the millions of American children taking psychoactive drugs. "Life itself is a spectrum disorder, where each of us vibrated at some unique frequency in the continuous rainbow," he writes in this plangent first-person narrative. He adds, "Oddly, there's no name in the DSM for the compulsion to diagnose people."

Although, as Powers informs us in an author's note, bewilderment has come to mean confusion and bafflement, its original meaning was to head back into the wild. Indeed, at times of extreme stress, Powers' bewildered duo do head back into the wild, where they find temporary solace — and where Powers clearly finds inspiration.

Few writers capture nature's glories quite so vibrantly. A spectacular "fluted ribbon of fungus rippled through itself to form a surface as convoluted as an Elizabethan ruff." A millipede smells like almond extract, which reminds Robin of his mother's baking. The Milky Way spills out in the dark sky like "countless speckled placers in a black streambed. If you held still, you could almost see the stars wheel."

The margins of my reviewer's copy of 'Bewilderment' look like checklists, with their columns of ticks flagging noteworthy lines.

In novel after novel, Powers has built a case for holding still and really looking at the natural world. He helps us see things differently. The margins of my reviewer's copy of Bewilderment look like checklists, with their columns of ticks flagging noteworthy lines. Powers remains a king of the active verb, beginning on the very first page: "[Robin's] arms pinwheeled as they did when words defeated him."

Once again, Powers is ineluctably drawn to the pinwheeling petals of science, literature, nature and emotions, though this time, heavy feelings weigh down the whirl. As in Orfeo (2014), Bewilderment involves a kind of neurobiological brain hack — in this case an experimental behavioral treatment called Decoded Neurofeedback, a.k.a. DecNef. Theo is desperate enough to try it as a non-chemical approach to altering his troubled son's behavior by channeling his late mother's recorded brain waves in order to enhance Robin's emotional intelligence. The particulars are strange, but Powers makes it sound no more incredible than fMRIs.

Bewilderment is in part modeled on Daniel Keyes' classic, Flowers for Algnernon, which also involves a novel therapeutic technique whose efficacy turns out to be dismayingly impermanent. Powers' book also recalls Max Porter's Grief is the Thing With Feathers (2016), another novel about a suddenly widowed, grieving father who conjures up a fantastical, shape-shifting creature as he struggles to stay on top of his work and raise two small sons.

In Bewilderment, Theo conjures up bedtime stories about alien life on a series of fictional planets, which he and his bereft son explore together in their imaginations. With names like Stasis, Isola, and Tedia, many of these planets offer cautionary allegories about the wages of isolation, loneliness, and depletion. Unfortunately, rare among Powers' flights of fancy, these fantasies lost me in the cosmos. Some of Robin's winsome observations throughout the novel, presented in italics, also failed to land.

With this novel, Powers continues to raise bold questions about the state of our world and the cumulative effects of our mistakes.

Written during the Trump administration and predating COVID, Bewilderment paints a scathing, dystopic portrait of a country losing its way. The novel rues a belligerent, anti-science government "filled with politicians who looked like yesterday's America," and a pervasive heedlessness about the manmade dangers facing our civilization. It wouldn't be a Powers novel if it didn't sound the alarm for necessary change. He writes, "Earth had two kinds of people: those who could do the math and follow the science, and those who were happier with their own truths. But in our hearts' daily practice ... we all lived as if tomorrow would be a clone of now."

At one point, Theo argues before a Congressional panel to preserve funding for a powerful Earthlike Planet Seeker that's essential to his work. He closes his presentation with a well-known quote from Carl Sagan: "We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and the depth of our answers." With this novel, Powers continues to raise bold questions about the state of our world and the cumulative effects of our mistakes. In Bewilderment, some of these mistakes lead to an upsetting ending. The result is a sobering elegy sure to spark discussion.

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Heller McAlpin
Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.