From the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Overstory. The astrobiologist Theo Byrne searches for life throughout the cosmos while single-handedly raising his unusual nine-year-old, Robin, following the death of his wife. His son grows troubled, but Theo hopes to keep him off psychoactive drugs. He learns of an experimental neurofeedback treatment to bolster Robin's emotional control, one that involves training the boy on the recorded patterns of his mother's brain.
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.