Through complex novels such as The Gold Bug Variations (1991), Operation Wandering Soul (1993, National Book Award Finalist); Gain (1999, James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Best Historical Fiction); The Echo Maker (2006, National Book Award), Orfeo (2014) and The Overstory (2018, Pulitzer Prize), Richard Powers has established himself as one of the world’s most ambitious and accomplished writers.
His new novel, Bewilderment, is simpler than most of its predecessors, but the ideas it tackles are as big as they get. Readers will find themselves marking passage after passage as Powers provides insight into the mysteries of life, weaving together the personal, the planetary and the galactic. The beautifully written story – trust me, you will cry at the end – is the kind of book one gives to friends with the promise, “you must read this, you will love it.”
The crux of the story is the relationship between Theo Byrne, an astrobiologist searching for life on other planets, and his troubled nine-year-old son, Robin. Both are reeling from the death of wife/mother Alyssa – an animal rights activist who had swerved to avoid an opossum crossing in front her of her car.
Smart and offbeat, Robin is incapable of controlling his anger. When Robin is nearly expelled from school after breaking a fellow student’s cheekbone, Theo’s philosophy, based on the wondrous diversity of life, makes him rebel at the idea that there is a problem. "Life itself is a spectrum disorder, where each of us vibrated at some unique frequency in the continuous rainbow," he writes. "Oddly, there's no name in the DSM for the compulsion to diagnose people."
Theo is also practical, and he knows he must do something to help his singular son cope in the world, hopefully without psychotropic drugs. Recalling a novel explicitly mentioned in this book – Daniel Keyes' Flowers for Algernon – Theo enrolls his son in an experimental behavioral treatment called Decoded Neurofeedback. It seeks to realign the boy’s brain with those of another person – in this case the pre-recorded waves of his dead mother. The experiment works better than expected. Robin not only assumes his mother’s calm state and radical empathy for all living things, but also her intelligence and many of her memories. Bewildering!
The treatments sharpen Robin’s mind: “He’d discovered, on his own, what formal education tried to deny: Life wanted something from us. And time was running out.” This gives him a purpose: to get humanity to see that we are destroying our planet and hence ourselves.
Powers transforms what could have been an eco-drama about a Greta Thunberg wannabe into a far more expansive tale by masterfully layering bigger ideas into this tale. Theo’s failed hunt (so far) for life on other planets raises questions about whether life should exist at all. “Much of existence presents itself in one of three flavors: none, one, or infinite. One-offs were everywhere, at every step of the story. We knew of only one kind of life, arising once on one world, in one liquid medium, using one form of energy storage. … Was the mind of God inclined toward life, or did we Earthlings have no business being here?”
The idea that we are truly alone – truly an accident – is impossible to understand: life is the only reality we know; all else is an abstraction. And so Theo and Robin pass their time creating “consoling playthings – countless sealed-off planets where life could evolve again in its pristine state.”
Stasis, Isola, Tedia and the other planets they imagine not only allow Powers to display his whimsical imagination but to make the point that things can always be different. Life never has to be the way it is – even if we are forced to deal with things as they are.
The Online Etymology Dictionary reports that the word bewilderment - a feeling of being perplexed and confused - dates back to the 1680s and was formed by combining two words: be - "thoroughly" + archaic wilder "lead astray, lure into the wilds."
Powers evokes this deeper meaning of his title. Without making an argument, he floats the idea that life might often seem confusing because of how far we have drifted from its natural state. Wildness, wilderness, bewilderment may not be things to hold at bay; they may offer clarity and even salvation.
Age 5: Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson (1955).
Age 10: The Bible (see below) and The Odyssey by Homer (ninth century b.c.e.?).
Age 15: The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien (1954–56).
Age 20: Ulysses by James Joyce (1922).
Age 25: Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851).
Age 30: The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (1924).
Age 35: In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust (1913–27).
Age 40: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (1860–61).
Age 45: My Ántonia by Willa Cather (1918).
Age 50: Something wholly unforeseen that will change all these picks, again.