RIchard Powers’ sequel to 2018’s Outstanding Arboreal Fantasia The Overstory – a novel as expansive, brilliant, and beautiful as you might hope to read – is much more focused, but just as committed to the environment.
Also shortlisted for the Booker, Bewilderment focuses on his two main characters and their relationship. Narrator Theo Byrne is an academic astrobiologist who programs life simulations on extrasolar planets, although his job follows that of caring for his behaviorally challenged son Robin. Robin mourns the death of his mother, Alys, an environmental activist, in a car accident. He is intensely focused on the natural world and prone to violent rages when thwarted or challenged. Bullied at school, he narrowly avoids expulsion after breaking another boy’s cheekbone by hitting him with his Thermos.
“So far,” his father notes ironically, “the votes are two Asperger’s, one probable OCD and one possible ADHD.” Theo deeply loves his son and refuses the drug regimen recommended by the authorities. ” He is nine years old ! His brain is still developing. But as Robin’s behavior becomes more and more erratic and angry, Theo has to do something.
Bewilderment is much narrower writing than the expansive, multi-stranded The Overstory. The edge of Robin’s moods is rendered with remarkable credibility and sensitivity, and the love between son and father has an emotional truth and a heart-twisting liveliness. But the focus is so narrowly on these two, as the larger tragedy of an increasingly poisoned and abused world is so relentlessly pushed home, that the novel becomes rather claustrophobic.
The first quarter details a nature trip that Theo and Robin take, exploring rivers and forests and sleeping under the stars. Powers’ nature writing here is as beautifully observed and evocative as ever, and in this world, Robin is happy and adjusted. But they cannot live forever in nature. Robin has to go back to school and Theo to work, and the world they return to is shattered and inhospitable. We’re in the near future which, although Powers doesn’t say so, looks a lot like a Trumpian second term (“did you see the president’s tweet?”). Environmental collapse accelerates, democracy crumbles, and armed private militias patrol in search of “unspecified foreign invaders.”
There’s not much that a nine-year-old neurodivergent child can do, but Robin is inspired by watching YouTube clips of Inger Alder – Greta Thunberg from this novel, an “oval-faced girl in tight pigtails. “who considers” his autism his special asset, “my microscope, my telescope and my laser put together ‘”. He paints pictures of endangered animals, hoping to sell them and donate money to environmental causes. He is standing in front of Congress with a sign saying “HELP ME I’M DYING”. He just doesn’t understand – and neither does his father, nor, obviously, Richard Powers – why people can’t see how urgent our natural collapse is why they aren’t pressured into devoting their lives to doing something about it.
The novel can be classified as science fiction, not only because of its extrapolation to a dystopian future, or Theo’s detailed accounts of possible life on other planets, but because of the main feature of the story. : a technology called Decoded Neurofeedback. AI-mediated neural imaging allows people to “approach” neural structures in other people’s brains. Robin uses this technology to get closer to the spirit of her late mother – she was one of the program’s first test subjects and her mindscape was recorded in a slightly rippling fashion.
In many ways, the story reworks Daniel Keyes’ classic sci-fi novel Flowers For Algernon (1966), in which experimental technology improves the mental capacity first of a mouse, and then from human to human. low IQ. “The boy learns of the happiness of his deceased mother,” said Theo, stunned; but if you know Keyes’ story, you have an idea of where Bewilderment is going.
If Bewilderment is a little stuffy, it’s not because Powers’ sense of wonder for the natural world has weakened: his descriptive writing is still as spacious and poetic as ever. And that’s not because the novel inhabits a tragic mode: on its own, tragedy doesn’t need to be overwhelming – indeed, at best, it is expansive and invigorating. But the narrowness of the dramatic focus closes around the reader. It may be quite appropriate; maybe we should feel suffocated by what is happening to our world. But activism is one thing, fiction is another, and Bewilderment is unable to conceive of anyone other than the wicked and the ignorant joining Theo and Robin in their intensity of belief.
The drama needs a little more of Antigone’s old dialectic, more of this conflicting balance of forces. The novel deals with Robin’s emotionally short-sighted, intense and furious obsession with the harm we do to nature as law, Actually. Maybe it is. But such polemical certainty stifles the romantic form. Powers has extraordinary gifts as a writer and there is much to admire in this book, but he does not reach the heights of his previous work.