In Bewilderment his mastery strikes a new vein, and while the takeaway by no means lacks in smarts or artistry, it makes a swift and easy read, glittering with timeless story elements; it raises goosebumps and breaks our hearts ... the dramatic elements all emerge in poignant two- and three-page snapshots, with a few chapters even briefer. Such quick turnover is a fresh move for this writer, and so too is playing a two-hander, largely the case here ... Bewilderment’s unearthly populations remind us eventually that, on this planet, humanity is the problem ... It’s a dark fable, all in all. There’s no denying the intellect at work ... Whether the subject’s harmless and invertebrate or venal and in the Senate, the author’s on top of it, knowing and pithy. Yet that’s not what’s most impressive about Bewilderment. Rather, it’s how every moment reveals the instincts of a master: an unerring touch with development and cutoff, with bearing down and easing off, and with where to put the punctuation ... I daresay Richard Powers has brought off something more than two exemplary and superb fictions of the climate crisis. He’s also unearthed and refurbished the timeless link between artist and shaman, a voice crying in the wilderness.
The tenderness and delicacy with which the father-son relationship is depicted repeatedly brought to my mind Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, though it is a pre-apocalyptic planet on which Theo and Robin struggle to find fortitude and hope ... Among the novel’s many virtues is the mood it radiates of sheer cosmic awe ... Powers is coming to seem a gift to those of us who admire Stapledon’s genre but regret its indifference to human complexities. Impressively precise in its scientific conjectures, Bewilderment is no less rich or wise in its emotionality. Moreover, science fiction is not just a looming generic presence, but part of the novel’s narrative mechanism ... channels both the cosmic sublime and that of the vast American outdoors, resting confidently in a lineage with Thoreau and Whitman, Dillard and Kerouac. It’s also a ghostly and affecting love story ... Sorrowing awe is Bewilderment’s primary tone, and its many remarkable scenes are controlled with high novelistic intelligence. Robin is as compelling a fictional creation as I’ve encountered in some time – fierce, lovable and otherworldly. In dreaming him up, Powers was clearly working out a bold fictive question: what must it be like to father a Greta Thunberg?
Powers’s insightful, often poetic prose draws us at once more deeply toward the infinitude of the imagination and more vigorously toward the urgencies of the real and familiar stakes rattling our persons and our planet ... Regarding the inevitable forms of tragedy with which this book is intent upon grappling—that loved ones die, that progress has its limits, that as a species we fail more often than we succeed—Bewilderment invites us to ponder not only our dominance of the planet and the ways that the unjust power of a few dominates the lives of others. It also insists we ponder this: At what cost do we allow our capacities for fear, jealousy and appetite to trounce other equally intrinsic capacities, like empathy, courage and forbearance? What if our worst enemy is not barricading himself in the White House or pelting our children with taunts on the playground? What if it’s right here, lighting up neural pathways inside our own skulls? ... Two characters identified as Black play briefly but significantly into the narrative arc of Bewilderment. On the depth spectrum, I’d say they occupy spots somewhere between extras and archetypes; their choices help Powers trip the switch on certain narrative inevitabilities, but, by and large, the bewilderment of the novel’s title is played out in white bodies and minds and in spaces where whiteness can be taken for granted ... Perhaps there’s nothing surprising or unusual about that. Neither is there anything surprising or unusual about the kicking in of my readerly desire to bring my whole self, race included, to the pondering of this profound novel. I’ll admit there was a tiny pang in discovering that the Blackness of those two characters was planted in the narrative only to be almost immediately retreated from. As is often the case, my corrective capacity rushed in to try to assure me that the white imagination may be a better setting than many for an exploration of the abysmal ends of power ... What is the bigger scheme of things, and how do we get—and stay—there? If any writer is capable of invoking such scale, and allowing us to linger there awhile, it is surely Powers, whose capacity for world-envisioning offers rapt readers moment after moment of captivating recalibration. The possible—like the real—is enormous. Like other intelligent life in the universe, the possible is everywhere and nowhere, hiding in plain sight.
The story unfolds with an inevitability that is either pleasing or dismaying, depending on your feelings about plot ... Bewilderment feels, in certain respects, too familiar and tidy. Once the stakes are clear, the plot is obvious, and its mechanisms will be recognizable, along with the book’s themes, to readers of earlier Powers novels ... Characterization is not Powers’s forte ... But if Theo’s other relationships remain one-dimensional, the connection between father and son has greater density and texture, as does Robin’s urgent and unbridled passion for the natural world. Unabashedly issue-driven, Bewilderment may neither challenge nor surprise, but admirers of Powers’s ability to fold near-futuristic scientific facts into a meticulously constructed plot will nonetheless find satisfaction.
This all might sound a bit sci-fi technical, but all the scientific razzle-dazzle, including the details of the planets that Theo elaborately imagines for Robbie, simply underlines the human story at its center—and makes the tenderness between father and son seem so real and heartfelt that the novel becomes its own empathy machine. What's more powerful, though, is how the emotions Bewilderment evokes expand far beyond the bond of father and son to embrace the living world and Robin's anguish at its plight, experienced ever more exquisitely as the experiment progresses. And then, in case you figure your feelings for this man, this child, and this benighted planet can't get any stronger, fair warning[.]
... so meek, saccharine and overweening in its piety about nature that even a teaspoon of it numbs the mind ... equal parts earnest opinion-page essay (humans + nature = yikes) and middling Netflix science fiction product (boy reconnects with dead mother through high tech) ... The medical science described in “Bewilderment” is really interesting, in the manner of a New Yorker article. As fiction, the novel is D.O.A. — shallowness that requests to be taken seriously ... it’s got a nubbly sentimentality ... To be fair to Powers, he retains an ability to alchemize the strangeness of everyday global life...But these moments are rare here ... There are some books you want to give to your best friend; this is one to give to your distant aunt, for her reading group. It’s a James Taylor song when you require a buzz-saw guitar. There’s no impudence, no wit, no fire and little fluttering understanding, despite the ostentatious science, of how human minds really work ... It’s a book about ecological salvation that somehow makes you want to flick an otter on the back of the head, for no good reason at all.
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 ... 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 ... 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.
It’s touching. Still, it is unclear how we are to read Theo in particular. Most of what he says suggests that Powers wants us to believe in him and side with him ... It raises a host of questions (Can we call emotions acquired this way our own? Would a scientist father really not think through the risks?), but the issues in which Powers seems interested have more to do with the relationship between our broken selves and our broken world ... Might wholeness, courage, and empathy save creation? And could Powers have erected the whole creaky edifice that is this novel in order to air this idea? It does seem so ... Powers’s interest in Alyssa, Robbie, and Theo is not strictly limited to their thematic usefulness ... How I would have loved to see more of this sort of thing in the book. Or what about Theo’s ambivalence about Robbie’s condition? ... For all his brilliance, Powers can be sloppy in his use of language ... As for whether readers are persuaded that the urgency of this message justifies the instrumentality of its vehicle, I predict a split between those who do and don’t believe the novel must, above all, live ... If we feel something important about humans is glancingly captured there—something about grudging respect and all we can’t help but feel—we might well agree with Powers’s message but still not press this book upon our friends, finding it, ironically, not wild enough. If we believe, on the other hand, that the saving of the earth comes before all, including what Powers might see as the arrogant, individualistic, humanist product that is contemporary literature, we are likely to embrace Bewilderment whole hog—even to find this the most moving and inspiring of all Powers’s books.
If you can’t handle watching terrible things happen to a sweet, misunderstood kid, this book may be hard for you to take. Just remember, this may feel like the real world, but it’s not. In the imagination of the book, the dead can live again as re-mapped memories. The flawed world can be redeemed, at least until the grant money runs out ... Powers finds magic in the commonplace ... a pastoral elegy for a planet that is already doomed. Look around and take it in with everything you have.
Reading a Powers novel is like boarding a tour bus when you have a single day to explore an unfamiliar city. Bewilderment, his Booker-longlisted new novel, is a hop-on, hop-off trip around astrobiology, climate breakdown and neurofeedback therapy ... it is impossible to deny the importance of Powers’s message ... here’s another inconvenient truth: these books are aesthetically impoverished. Characterisation is crude; dialogue constantly veers between the functional and the sentimental ... The novel’s alternative present is like our world, only a little bit worse. There’s a president who’s Trumpier than Trump; the environmental crisis is further forward; global politics are even more unstable. While we do live in scary times, this Petri dish feels rigged ... Emotionally, too, there is manipulation. Robin’s speech is rendered entirely in italics, as if he’s some kind of deific savant. Mostly he functions as a human Geiger counter, growing more distressed as he learns of each new atrocity adults have wreaked on the planet. Occasionally he comes out with wistful schmaltz about the richness of the world we live in ... The problem with the hop-on, hop-off tour bus is that you don’t get to lose yourself down the city’s side streets, the digressions that are the novel form’s essential substance. Ditto with those parallels between writing code and writing fiction. When you’re coding, you exclude the extraneous, the random. Yet it’s in the unnecessary detail that the best novels come alive ... What a shame it would be if the climate crisis were to create a monoculture of worthy, single-minded tracts such as Powers’s—turning the untamed novel with its weird and wonderful microflora into an endangered species.
I almost couldn’t get through the new Powers, not because of the earnestness or the piety (though those were very real and very annoying), but because its failed ambition was so big and so honest ... Robin’s emotions are on overdrive, and a lot of the book is very difficult to read, because the strange intensity (and accompanying transience) of kids’ feelings is hard to represent well ... There may yet be a great novel to write about children’s climate anxiety. The topic combines two terrible parental worries: the child may be unhappy; the world may be broken. (Or: The child may be broken; the world may be unhappy.) Bewilderment is a few shades too lumpy, sincere, and strangely plotted to be it. But the road is open for the next.
Of all the novels responding to the Trump presidency, Richard Powers’s Bewilderment may come closest to pure propaganda ... most of its politics will be innocuous to any imagined audience. If you aren’t in favour of killing endangered animals, of invalidating visas, of throwing out properly cast votes and of denying helpful therapies to suffering children, you will find little in the novel to argue with ... It’s hard to find characters more in need of sympathy outside a Hallmark card ... you feel yourself getting stupider and meaner the wiser and more prophetic Robin becomes. Powers seems to want Robin’s indignation to appear as a form of righteous cuteness, but his benevolence is immediately insufferable ... lowest common denominator liberalism: a combination of self-pity, self-flattery, self-flagellation and baseline contempt for declared (Trump) and putative (unscienced) enemies ... Robin's...less a boy than an allegory: for the death of democracy, for the death of the Earth, for human self-destruction trumping life of all kinds, here and in outer space. Certainly, all of this is sad, and none of it is cool.
The first third of the book is a slow-paced, intimate, pleasantly meandering introduction to the domestic life of the Byrne household, thick with much back and forth between father and son. We get all the family backstory, plus immersion into Robin’s capricious nature and predilections ... Powers’s character study of Robin is the paramount achievement here, charting his arc from gifted but not unique, through uniqueness, and then, inevitably, back to a lower plateau. It’s a heartbreaking passage, but also one with the dimensions of a fated tragedy not unredeemed by a legacy of accomplishments. Of course, Powers also succeeds in limning the dilemma of every thoughtful and caring individual when faced with Anthropocene issues. And he navigates the tension between microcosm and macrocosm skillfully ... one more fine and distinctive production from Richard Powers.
...it is not the sophistication of artificial intelligence or neurofeedback that we need in order to gain insight into how Powers’s novels think and feel: all we require is a ctrl-f search ... 'Bewilderment' ('confusion arising from losing one’s way; mental confusion from inability to grasp or see one’s way through a maze or tangle of impressions or ideas', according to the OED), along with its loose synonyms, is a useful word-key for unlocking Powers’s oeuvre ... The Overstory is the superior novel ... This is a tender and moving novel of multiple bewilderments ... While the subject matter is weighty, the narrative feels lighter on its feet than some of Powers’s previous novels, and it makes for compulsive reading ... There is a great deal of sentimentality in Bewilderment that comes close to mawkishness at times but achieves genuine poignancy at others. But sentimentality, or sentiment, can be its own kind of truth ... Yet, there is an overwhelming sense that the form of this novel is not always open to bewilderment itself. For all the 'wonderment,' 'bafflement,' 'puzzlement,' 'amazement' and 'fascination' so frequently flagged, it is a slickly controlled affair ... The emotional gravity of Bewilderment is palpable on every page, in its poignant depictions of the knotty love between a father and son.
Powers’ sentences dazzle ... This is a must-read novel for anyone who loves novels, a nominee on the National Book Awards’ fiction longlist. It’s urgent and profound and takes readers on a unique journey that will leave them questioning what we’re doing to the only planet we have.
Robin is a perceptive, animal-loving, budding sketch artist, and Powers puts every sentence of dialogue from his mouth in italics, giving it an intensity and urgency that the reader feels keenly ... As in The Overstory, Powers seamlessly yet indelibly melds science and humanity, hope and despair. The narrative in Bewilderment leads to a conclusion that is as heartbreaking as it is inevitable.
Bewilderment in many ways seems to pick up the thread of environmental fiction that The Overstory explored, though this time dealing more with the personal and emotional toll we as a society face during the rampant climate catastrophe rather than the disaster itself ... I’ve long admired Powers’ ability to weave a compelling narrative, while posing deep questions about the nature of life around us as it is and as it may be. He manages to convey the enthusiasm he so clearly possesses for his topics in a way that becomes infectious for the reader, though at times, I’ve felt like the themes in his books eclipse the stories and characters within, in a way that can leave them feeling somewhat cold ... It’s a setting that feels tailor-made for a certain type of liberal, but Powers doesn’t really reckon with it fully. He is able to see the problems presented by American conservatism, but lacks vision into the larger issues at play ... Despite the novel feeling trite at times, I found this loss to be deeply moving, and Powers commands this trauma well. Robin becomes inscrutable in the middle of the novel, a mystery even to his dad, but this spiral and the vulnerability it evokes is poignant ... Despite clumsy writing, some unconvincing leaps of logic, and improbable choices, there is a raw, resonant core here; it’s just spread too thin, and buried too deep to be worthwhile.
I was prompted to ask ethical questions that Powers seemed uninterested in answering ... It’s a relief to see great novelists like Powers, Lydia Millet and Jenny Offill tackling climate change in ways that make for really good stories, brilliantly told. But there’s a key difference here. Millet and Offill, in their most recent books...are optimists. Even if the solutions their novels come up with are utopic or near-miraculous, the young people in them create something that might last. Powers cannot seem to find a way. When the plot of Bewilderment turns, it’s animated not by ethical questions but by external forces. There’s internet virality and then pushback, all under the shadow of the right-wing administration in Washington. This is fiction taking its cues from dark reality ... Powers is an essential member of the pantheon of writers who are using fiction to address climate change. Bewilderment shows how tenuous their hopes may be.
As always in Mr. Powers’s novels, the science itself occasions the most involving passages, and Decoded Neurofeedback is energized by the strange and tantalizing prospect of mainlining the behavioral essence of one’s loved ones straight into the mind. How this actually works is secondary to its potential psychological effects. For Mr. Powers, science is fully analogous to art in its mysteriousness, creativity and healing potential ... Maybe the problem, then, is that this book doesn’t have enough science to work with. Set amidst a caricatured version of the Trump presidency (which you wouldn’t think required caricature), it sketches a society that has turned against its researchers, accelerating its route to climate collapse. The one-dimensional dynamic of political messaging bleeds into the characterizations. On every page, in every interaction, Robin is entirely defined by his sorrow over his mother and his linked outrage at environmental destruction. Plot events are obedient to an equally simplistic mode of cause and effect ... Has Mr. Powers ever written a novel with less capacity for surprise than Bewilderment? I’ve read most of them and I don’t think so, and it’s hard not to connect this novelistic narrowing with the contraction in the genre of science and nature writing to works of doomsday proselytizing. The trend is melancholy even if it’s justified. Despair is an impatient muse; it doesn’t have much time for art.
Bewilderment’s plot has the comforting solidity of a daytime TV series ... celestial fables, which recall the cosmological wit of Italo Calvino, add a playfully inventive extra layer to the novel’s atmosphere ... As it speculates about 'exoplanets' and their outlandish inhabitants, Bewilderment sometimes skimps in its attention to the earthbound here-and-now. Theo exists in a liberal bubble of them-and-us assumptions. Marty proves his good-guy credentials; Alyssa shines in memory as a departed saint. Yet their truth-denying enemies feature as an amorphous mass of bigotry, personified by the thug-president ... Powers’s unchained imagination stretches its empathy circle from lichen to nebulae, in finely crafted prose. It fails to humanise the local menaces to life on Earth. Bewilderment suggests that, even at its strongest, American fiction now dwells on a polarised planet of night-and-day divisions, not one where dialogue and interaction thrive.
Bewilderment is an exercise in grief, personal and planetary. It is a practice in radical empathy. It is an exploration of what loneliness bears, whether an individual who has experienced a grave loss or an entire species on a singular planet that has lost its way, forgotten its connections, within and beyond its earthly bounds. For those who share the weight that Powers carries, about the future fate of this planet and all its inhabitants—from the rocks that humans stack into cairns to the mysterious songmakers of the forest to these familiar yet unknowable humans we give birth to—do not expect forgiveness or atonement in Bewilderment. Instead, this book will bewilder you in the best ways, not in some traditional definition of the word, but rather, as in be-wilder, to return to the wild, sometimes only possible by shifting your perspective rapidly from the astral plane to the microscopic. Powers takes us along as we travel the spectrum between these two vantages in an attempt to provide some antidote to the trouble we’re in. It’s a love without reassurance, but still a cracked-open door to possibility.
Few writers capture nature's glories quite so vibrantly ... 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 ... 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 ... 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. In Bewilderment, some of these mistakes lead to an upsetting ending. The result is a sobering elegy sure to spark discussion.
... poignant ... a cri de cœur ... a hauntingly intimate story ... The whole novel comes across in that wounded, confessional tone, the voice of a man so overwhelmed that he can barely contend with the ordinary diversions of life ... if those earlier novels sometimes felt like auditing a graduate course in neurology, Bewilderment holds forth in a shadowy forest of fables ... This mother-son spirit mingling may be incredibly lovely, but it’s also irreducibly creepy. And there’s a high risk of sentimentality here: the precious Messiah child mewing his little Whitmanesque profundities at us about the unity of all life. More problematic still is a corny story line in which Theo suspects that the lead neurologist might be carrying on some kind of adulterous affair with his dead wife’s brain print. All this neurological mumbo-jumbo creates a clammy atmosphere for what is, at its heart, a tender story about a child who responds to the plight of our planet just as passionately as we all should ... Unfortunately, Bewilderment goes out of its way to cast the tale of Robin’s miraculous evolution as a green version of Daniel Keyes’s Flowers for Algernon. That classic tear-jerker has taught generations of seventh-graders that the only thing worse than being intellectually disabled is getting smarter and then becoming intellectually disabled again. Powers’s thoroughly modern fable of environmental mourning hardly needs to dredge up that cringeworthy antecedent. It feels like just one more bit of fantastical melodrama that dilutes the potential power of Bewilderment.
Bewilderment is a much narrower piece of writing than the capacious, multi-stranded The Overstory. The knife-edge of Robin’s moods is rendered with remarkable believability and sensitivity, and the love between son and father has an emotional truth and vividness that wrings the heart. But the focus is so tightly on these two, while the larger tragedy of a world increasingly poisoned and abused is so unremittingly pushed home, that the novel becomes rather claustrophobic ... Powers’s nature writing here is as beautifully observed and evocative as it’s ever been ... If Bewilderment is a little suffocating, it’s not because Powers’s sense of wonder at the natural world has waned: his descriptive writing is as spacious and poetic as ever ... But the narrowness of dramatic focus closes around the reader. Perhaps that is only fitting; perhaps we ought to feel suffocated by what is happening to our world. But activism is one thing, fiction another, and Bewilderment is unable to conceive of anyone except the wicked and the ignorant failing to join Theo and Robin in their intensity of belief ... polemical certainty cramps the novelistic form. Powers has extraordinary gifts as a writer and there is much to admire in this book, but it doesn’t reach the heights of his previous work.
Its Booker Prize shortlisting indicates that many will admire it. I couldn’t shake the sense that he was using this novel to draw attention to the climate crisis and, regardless of whether you sympathise, it doesn’t make for rewarding fiction. While the novel feels urgent, it is also didactic and self-conscious. Powers can still be an exhilarating prose stylist but there are passages of cosmic drivel, too ... the novel lacks the true take-it-or-leave-it eccentricity that set Powers’s early books apart.
While lacking some of the depth of Overstory, Bewilderment is another important and timely entry in the growing genre of environmental literature ... Based on actual science, at times Bewilderment reads like the science fiction that Byrne favored as a child. Scattered throughout the book, in fact, are episodes where Byrne and Robin seem to be visiting other planets ... Ultimately, Bewilderment is a clarion call.
In his vast Pulitzer-winning The Overstory (2018), Powers explored climate activists’ desperate attempts to save a last tiny fraction of the world’s ravaged ancient forests. That opus might be compared to a Mahler-esque symphony. Bewilderment, in contrast, is more-traditionally scaled—a short-chaptered chamber work, but no less searing for that ... elegiac, with a mature confidence that allows for passages of sustained, quiet intensity ... Whether concerning family or nature, this heart-rending tale warns us to take nothing for granted.
... the most successful aspect of this novel is the story of Theo and Robin, and Powers’s portrait of an intelligent man poleaxed by his feelings ... At its best, Robin and Theo’s relationship is like a boy’s own adventure—two geeky men talking at length about facts rather than feelings, so that when they do reveal their emotions it feels more poignant. There is a lot packed in and not everything works. Some may find the passages about the planet worthy, but I was so charmed by Theo and Robin that I didn’t mind a little preachiness. The plot is entirely implausible, like a Black Mirror episode, but all the feelings behind it ring true. This won’t be as successful as The Overstory: it’s less ambitious than that, and I think it is unlikely to win the Booker as parts of it are too niche. But I found it completely refreshing, original and moving.
Richard Powers’s most unusual novel lives up to the hype, not only because it is, technically speaking, a great read, a story with striking characterisation of a father-and-son duo, written in precise, enlightening prose, but also because it stretches beyond fiction to make the reader care about the real world ... Bewilderment wears its mammoth subject matter lightly. In a dexterous narrative, the various strains complement each other, with the connections left to the reader to figure out ... It is at once a thoughtful exploration of individual grief, a study in empathy for the biosphere, a questioning of the medical profession’s pathologising of children and a beginner’s guide to astrobiology ... both cerebral and heartfelt, a rigorous and damning assessment of the state of the world today.
Writing with the same remarkable attention to detail found in his Pulitzer Prize–winning The Overstory, Powers has created a world and characters that will suck readers in and keep them fixed until the literally bitter end.
[An] intimate novel ... With soaring descriptions and forthright observations about our planet and the life it supports, Bewilderment is centered on a devoted father-and-son relationship, but it also offers rich commentary on the complex, often mystifying intersections between science, popular culture, and politics.
[A] taut ecological parable borne by a small cast. It’s a darker tale ... Yet there are also shared moments of wonder and joy for a father and son attuned to science and nature and each other ... As always, there’s a danger of preachiness in such stories. Powers generally avoids this ... A touching novel that offers a vital message with uncommon sympathy and intelligence.
Pulitzer winner Powers offers up a marvelous story of experimental neurotherapy and speculations about alien life ... The planetary descriptions grow a bit repetitive and don’t gain narrative traction, but in the end, Powers transforms the wrenching story into something sublime. Though it’s not his masterpiece, it shows the work of a master.