Penguin Random House
“Criticism of Powers’ works often pivot around the idea that his investment in scientific thought experiments comes at the cost of characterisation and emotional engagement.”
Richard Powers’ thirteenth novel Bewilderment offers a tight, carefully constructed story about a widowed man, Theo, and his young son, Robin.
Robin is a difficult child: angry, passionate and intelligent. He’s fairly obviously neurodiverse, although his father refuses labels: “What deficit matched up with all of that? What disorder explained him?… everyone alive on this fluke little planet was on the spectrum. That’s what a spectrum is.” (Hard not to roll your eyes: Robin is an interesting and likeable character, and neither ADHD nor autism are dirty words.) He shares his mother’s interest in nature, and his father’s interest in space.
Theo’s job is to imagine what other inhabited planets might look like. “I made worlds by the thousands,” he says, reflecting on the way that “they share a lot, astronomy and childhood.” The similarity might be described as imagination, but it’s more accurate to go back to the title: both children and astronomers in this novel live most authentically in a state of productive and all-encompassing bewilderment. The questions that living in the world raises are huge, too huge to care about anything else, and yet nobody else seems bothered.
Before the novel begins, Robin’s parents agreed to contribute to a research project, DecNef (‘decoded neurofeedback’). This is, basically, a machine that scans people’s brains as they are experiencing particular emotional states; it then uses those recordings to ‘steer’ other people towards the same states. As Robin’s behaviour becomes more unstable, Currier, the scientist in charge, suggests they try DecNef out on him. It works: he becomes calmer, but depressed, anxious about the injustices of the world. Currier offers another solution: he has a recording of Alyssa’s state of ‘joy’ saved. Robin can learn to inhabit the brain of his mother.
If it sounds like there’s a lot going on, there is: both grief and love on an individual and global scale. Criticism of Powers’ works often pivot around the idea that his investment in scientific thought experiments comes at the cost of characterisation and emotional engagement. As if in response, this becomes one of the driving points of Bewilderment: the two cannot be separated. When Robin wants to miss school to protest, Theo tells him it can wait. “That’s why they’ll all go extinct,” his son retorts, “because everyone wants to solve it later.” Observation and knowledge, thinking things through, drives Robin’s emotional character, just as Theo’s grief for Alyssa drives his love, just as love for the planet drives a furious grief for it.
Powers includes references to a Trump-like President, as well as a Greta Thunberg-figure, but he didn’t need either. Robin does all the work, articulates all those huge questions that we cannot face-on for fear that once we do, we will never be able to look away. “How would we ever know aliens? We can’t even know birds,” he exclaims. People don’t pay attention. The planet is dying. Bewilderment is not perfect, but it is brilliant.
Words: Alice Wickenden