‘Everything’s going backward’ [book review]

A review of Bewilderment by Richard Powers

‘Moving’ is the word I have most often seen describing Richard Powers’s new novel, Bewilderment. The reviewers and blurb writers aren’t wrong: any novel about a widowed father trying to help his fragile son negotiate the horrors of the world we humans have created is – unless something has gone seriously awry – almost certainly bound to be moving. Yet Bewilderment takes things one step further, tightens the screws an extra notch. This is a novel that seems hell-bent on leaving its readers emotionally ragged. At times, it all threatens to become a little bit too much.

Cover image - Bewilderment

Theo Byrne, Powers’s first-person narrator, is an astrobiologist – a scientist who has devoted his career to looking for life beyond the confines of Earth. His wife, Alyssa, a highly successful animal rights lobbyist (and, in his memories at least, a saint-like figure) was killed in a fatal car crash two years before the present-day narrative begins. Their son, Robin, who was already finding several aspects of life a challenge, was undone by grief when first his mother and then, a few months later, her beloved dog passed away. Just turning nine when the novel opens, he has been diagnosed variously with Asperger’s, OCD and ADHD, none of which Theo wishes to accept. Problems managing his anger at school have led to increasing pressure for Robin to be medicated, a course of action which his father is vehemently against. Bewilderment is in part a tender exploration of their relationship, an account of Theo’s not untroubled efforts to do right by his son in a world that seeks to make humans conform as much as possible, and in which any sign of ‘difference’ is to be medicated or otherwise smacked down. As much as he can see that his son his suffering, Theo is determined to find another way.

This unwavering resolve to keep his son away from psychiatry throws up a potentially knotty problem around issues of consent, safeguarding and children’s mental health, but Powers seems surprisingly uninterested in this. Theo is against such a course of action, and that is all we readers need to know; though he has developed an array of coping strategies for deflecting or defusing Robin’s fury and anguish, and worries perpetually about his boy, he is content too to utter sentences such as, ‘My boy was a pocket universe I could never hope to fathom.’ The point is, of course, that this is not really the crux of the book. Bewilderment is, like Powers’s preceding work, a novel dedicated to the planet.

The Overstory, Powers’s prize-winning 2019 novel, is a work of fiction I often cite in conversation or reviews as having changed my perspective on the natural world. Though at times a little unwieldy – a novel that seems to trip over its own enthusiasm to convey the message with which it has been charged – it offers a beautiful, bounteous reading experience, and is capable of having such an impact that even its own author later moved to the Smoky Mountains, to be among trees. As its successor, Bewilderment makes for an interesting contrast: here, the narrative has been fiercely pruned, focusing on just two characters and those who immediately orbit them, while Powers’s prose – though still given to occasional flights of breathless description – is stripped back and tightly controlled. Stylistic indicators, like the setting of dialogue, provide clues as to where the plot might be heading. But while the crafting of this novel is rather more streamlined, Powers has widened his thematic net considerably. Where The Overstory tried to teach us to appreciate trees, Bewilderment embraces the planet as a whole.

From a gorgeously rendered camping trip in the Smokies to Alyssa’s love for birding and Robin’s fervent desire to paint and sell pictures of all two thousand species listed as endangered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Powers does his utmost in this novel to demonstrate the vast beauties of Earth – and, of course, how humanity appears intent on destroying them. Even as Theo conducts an increasingly desperate (and, later, politically thwarted) search for life on other planets, Robin, the representative of the younger generation, unfurls a homemade banner in front of the Capitol, falls in love with videos of a young environmental activist (a thinly veiled Greta Thunberg), and is plagued by an existential angst that leads him to bleak proclamations such as ‘“Everything’s going backward.”’ Theo is not immune to Robin’s urge to take immediate planet-saving action, allowing himself to be swayed by the boy’s morbid but not unfounded argument that as the world will be destroyed soon enough, he might as well be home-schooled rather than participate in a system training him for a future that will never exist. He, Theo, admits that ‘we all lived as if tomorrow would be a clone of now’, yet he is somehow too conditioned by his work or society ever to believe that Robin can really make a difference. A terrible resignation pervades the narrative, even as Powers gives us reason to hope.

When Robin joins the trial of a new neurotherapy treatment – it’s complex, but recordings of his mother’s brain patterns from before she died allow him to train his own mind to copy her (happier) emotions – things start to improve. Robin’s angry outbursts subside; he becomes focused on his schoolwork and seems able to take even life’s cruellest disappointments in his stride. Though we suspect it surely can’t end well, Powers buoys us up for just long enough to make the catastrophic ending doubly cruel, even if the deciding scenes themselves are perhaps a little overwrought. In the weeks and months leading up to the total implosion of Theo and Robin’s world, race riots erupt across America, a new disease spreads from cattle to humans, and the extreme right-wing president clamps down on civil liberties to the point at which ‘only pure bewilderment kept us from civil war’. It is effective, this leaning on real events, if slightly labouring of the point, filling the reader with a rising sense of impending doom which we are powerless to stop. The feeling we are left with is quite different to that effected by The Overstory – there (for me, at least) the world was vast and indescribably beautiful and needed to be saved; here, the world is still beautiful, just tragically so, and the message more along the lines of ‘We’re all screwed.’

Perhaps Powers doesn’t mean to be entirely bleak about things. Repeated in the novel is a conversation between Robin and his father, in which the boy explains that in total darkness he can see better out of the corners of his eyes than when he tries to look straight ahead. Perhaps if we look directly at the novel – at Theo’s and Robin’s stories, not to mention the probable fate of the world in which they live – all we can see is the bewildering darkness, but if we look sideways, at the message Powers seems to be aiming for, there is still a glimmer of light. In fiction this carefully crafted, the almost overwhelming emotional aspect may simply be a form of shock tactics. If we can be forced into feeling for Robin and Theo, perhaps we’ll start feeling for Earth as well.

Bewilderment was recently shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, and I can understand why it’s a contender. It is a novel that works on a planetary scale, trying to condense vast galaxies of thought and feeling into a mere few hundred pages. Powers is an extremely creative author – the stories of other planets Theo invents for Robin are small works of art in themselves – and a person who feels something very deeply, as conveyed here in pretty much every line of text. Though for me it lacks the wild, specific magic of The Overstory, it is a book that is perhaps technically better written, and which wrestles with a by now familiar subject from a lesser seen angle, conspicuously failing to find answers or even much hope. Bleak, beautiful and somehow a desperate cry for help, this is the bewilderment so many of us are feeling poured out on to the page.

Bewilderment by Richard Powers is published on 21 September by Hutchinson Heinemann (Cornerstone) in the UK and W. W. Norton in the US. Many thanks to Cornerstone and NetGalley for so kindly providing a digital review copy.

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