This is the second book I’ve read by Richard Powers (I read The OverStory in 2019), and I’ve again been left with mixed feelings about Powers’ writing. Powers’ is inflamed by the real potential for disasters faced by humanity. But his writing is often imbued with a zealotry which can feel didactic, even preachy.
In The OverStory, his focus is on the world of trees and deforestation. In Bewilderment, the threat becomes more personal. Theo Byrne is an astrophysicist whose son, Robin, has been diagnosed by a variety of clinicians as “on the spectrum”; either Asperger’s, OCD or even ADHD. There is no consensus. What Theo is sure of is that he does not want to experiment upon his son’s brain by pumping his body with drugs that will alter him and potentially have deleterious effects. The story of Theo’s attempts to help his son overcome his grief for his recently lost mother, Alyssa, combined with the sense of panic both father and son feel for the natural world, is the basis of the story.
Before I read this book I had heard a few people call it Science Fiction. This is mainly based on the idea that Theo ‘takes’ Robin to other planets to explore. While it really doesn’t matter how the book is categorised, this seems to me to be a misrepresentation. As an astrophysicist who is involved with a project to create a model from current data for various kinds of planets, along with the possibility of one day finding evidence of life, Theo is filled with a sense of wonder for the universe and the natural world. He imbues his son with this sense of wonder and often, whether to connect with Robin or to help take him out of his darker moods, Theo tells Robin stories of other planets, of the possibilities of variant worlds he has gleaned from his work and his love of Science Fiction. This is a wonderful aspect of the novel that works well in several ways. We get a sense of the love Theo has for his son and, if like me, you have ever looked into the night sky and wondered, Theo’s stories have that potential to take you back to wide-eyed astonishment. Years ago I looked at the moon and nearby planets with binoculars, subscribed to an astronomy magazine and dreamed of one-day owning my own telescope. I hoped to take time-lapse photography with new equipment I would buy to capture the light of the universe, and would become an amateur astronomer. Theo’s stories invoke those feelings again. And they provide us a sense of perspective that only the immensity of space can achieve.
The ‘journeys’ to other planets reminded me a little of the way Kurt Vonnegut would intersperse Science Fiction elements into his otherwise worldly narratives about war or people he knew. Of course, there was always a point to these digressions, as there is in Bewilderment. Apart from the sense of wonder they imbue, apart from the way Theo’s stories give us an insight into his relationship with his son and their thinking, the imagined planets sometimes reflect issues in the main narrative. The planet Geminus has stopped rotating, leaving one side of the planet frozen while the other side boils. We understand this as a metaphor for Robin’s mercurial character. When the inhabitants of the planet Isola cloak their planet to hide from Theo and Robin’s approach, Robin’s observation – “Everyone’s hiding. All the smart ones, anyway” – ties neatly with the threat foreign students face, many forced to hide after their student visas have been revoked by the President. Powers’ is a skilled writer, able to bring disparate issues into his narrative and tie them neatly together and make them relevant. But he doesn’t have the lightness and play of someone like Vonnegut.
Bewilderment, it seems to me, is not so much a science fiction story, even though elements of its plot still rely upon that, but political (the only time I remember the word ‘bewilderment’ used in the book is in reaction to the President’s declaration that the election is invalid). The experimental program Theo enrols Robin in, Decoded Neurofeedback, helps Robin to model and control his emotions based upon his mother’s brain scans recorded during experiments Theo and Alyssa participated in years before. The political exists on every level in this book, from the debate over the use of psychotropic drugs with children, to the funding of science, to concerns about the degradation of the natural world and the economic factors limiting a response to that, as well as the Trump administration’s attitude to science (even though Trump is never specifically named, the President’s response to wildfires in California, and even to an election result, are pure Trump).
Bewilderment is shorter and more personal than The OverStory, and this is a strength. The Overstory was stretched between different narratives and its message was sometimes repetitive. But Bewilderment also has its quirks which some readers might find alienating. Theo and Robin’s lives are focussed obsessively upon the natural world which affects every decision and thought they have, even to the detriment of Robin’s state of mind. This singlemindedness at times verges upon moralising. For example, Robin’s emotional meltdowns, sometimes in response to the mistreatment of animals or the degradation of the natural world, are clearly meant to be a counterpoint to the inertia and indifference of a capitalist society. And there is a kind of mystic connection that Robin develops as he trains his brain patterns to match those recorded by his mother that suggests a level of insight and knowledge beyond his years. Theo doesn’t know where Robin gets his insights and can only attribute them to a connection with his dead wife. But there is always the risk when putting wisdom into the mouth of children who speak beyond their years, that we feel the hand of the writer upon our back, nudging us towards a certain path. “Dad? Know how the training is rewiring my brain?” Robin asks his father. Then, with a gesture that includes consumers in an airport he says, “This is what’s wiring everybody else.”
Despite my niggling feelings about the way Powers’ manipulates his reader and presses his case, I have to admit that Bewilderment is a moving story about a son and father relationship. And even if you feel the author’s hand at your back from time to time, the rationale behind the writing and the way his characters think is hard to refute.