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In a recent interview, Richard Powers was asked to compare the experience of writing his new novel, BEWILDERMENT, to his epic THE OVERSTORY, which won him the Pulitzer Prize in 2019. Powers remarked that he would do so “in a way to a composer writing a string quartet after a symphony. There’s something beautiful about going to a more restrained space.” In this tender story, focusing on the love between a father and his young son as they struggle to cope with a profound loss, Powers demonstrates that his skill remains undiminished even on this smaller scale.

BEWILDERMENT tells the story of astrobiologist Theo Byrne and his son Robin, who turns nine as the novel opens. A professor at the University of Wisconsin, Theo’s research involves writing computer programs to investigate the varieties of atmospheres that might sustain life on other planets. After the death of his wife Alyssa, a lawyer and animal rights activist, in a car accident, he’s struggling to manage both his own grief and Robin’s.

"The scale of this enthralling novel is both painfully intimate and inconceivably vast, stretching into the deepest reaches of space and some equally distant and mysterious places in the human heart, helping us discover hints of a path through both of those worlds."

Augmenting Theo’s daunting task is the undeniable fact that Robin is far from an ordinary boy. “So far the votes are two Asperger’s, one probable OCD, and one possible ADHD,” he replies, in answer to the question of whether his son has been diagnosed. Robin is a bright, sensitive child who’s obsessed with endangered species, a fascination that forms the basis for an ambitious art project, augmented by some nascent political activism. He also is prone to emotional outbursts, one of them manifesting in violence against a fellow student.

Desperate to avoid treating his son with psychoactive drugs, Theo puts aside his misgivings and allows Robin to participate in a trial conducted by a university neuroscientist of a process called Decoded Neurofeedback, which uses fMRI technology aided by artificial intelligence to enable its subjects to map onto the emotional states of others. Theo and Alyssa had participated in an earlier version of the trial. Unbeknownst to Theo, when Robin begins, the researcher who conducted it had retained the record of their scans, which contain rich fragments of Alyssa’s inner life.

As Robin’s treatment proceeds, his anxious father is pleased to observe some welcome changes in the boy’s behavior, but Powers subtly charts a more complex and emotionally resonant course. As the training “helped him to find and match the patterns of his mother’s brain,” Robin engages in what Theo comes to think of as his son’s “ongoing séance with Aly” and forges an almost miraculous bond with some of the deepest parts of her being. For all Theo’s pleasure at his son’s improved emotional state, the process reveals to him that “I never knew my wife of a dozen years. She was her own planet.” In subtle but potent ways, Powers also alludes to some of the challenges of preserving and connecting to our memories of those we’ve lost.    

Not surprisingly in the age of social media, Robin’s involvement in the neurofeedback training takes some unexpected turns, passing into a realm that’s beyond the control of its participants. Though Theo and Robin’s story remains firmly in the foreground, Powers paints it against an ominous backdrop. The novel is set in a frightening near future, in which the United States is governed by a Trump-like president who’s succeeding, where Trump failed, in carrying out his authoritarian impulses. Amid a “steady destruction of norms” and rising domestic violence, a national emergency is declared, an election nullified and then rerun to achieve the desired result, and funding for scientific research, including some for telescopes essential for Theo’s work, is slashed. Ecological collapse proceeds apace, and pandemics are becoming commonplace.

As he demonstrated in THE OVERSTORY, Powers has an intense connection to the nonhuman world, and his concern for it here is no less passionate. There’s a quiet but persistent urging to care for the gifts of our fragile planet before it’s too late. Whether he’s writing about a forest in Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains, where above “a manic shrub layer rose a canopy of hickories, hemlocks, and tulip poplars just as lush,” or one of the fanciful exoplanets he describes to Robin in what passes for a bedtime story that “had nine moons and two suns, one small and red, the other large and blue,” his imaginative and descriptive talents are dazzling.

“Which is bigger, outer space or inner?” Moving seamlessly between those two realms, that’s the profound and ultimately unanswerable question that Richard Powers poses in BEWILDERMENT. The scale of this enthralling novel is both painfully intimate and inconceivably vast, stretching into the deepest reaches of space and some equally distant and mysterious places in the human heart, helping us discover hints of a path through both of those worlds.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on September 24, 2021

by Richard Powers

  • Publication Date: November 1, 2022
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
  • ISBN-10: 1324036141
  • ISBN-13: 9781324036142