Skip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.
Edit
Review: 'Bewilderment,' by Richard Powers
AP

Review: 'Bewilderment,' by Richard Powers

  • 0
{{featured_button_text}}
BOOKS-BOOK-BEWILDERMENT-REVIEW-MCT.

"Bewilderment," by Richard Powers. (W.W. Norton/TNS)

FICTION: A deeply moving story about an astrobiologist and his young son, anguished by the state of the planet.

"Bewilderment" by Richard Powers; W.W. Norton (288 pages, $27.95)

———

As he did in his Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Overstory" — which the Financial Times called a "Great American Eco-Novel" — Richard Powers takes up the life of the natural world and its suffering at human hands in "Bewilderment." In this much shorter, more sharply focused novel, though, the suffering is central and viewed through the lens of a father's love for his troubled child.

In a not-too-distant future, much like our own culture-warring times but with the volume and heat turned up, Theo is an astrobiologist working on a project trying to identify life on distant planets; as he puts it: "we studied how the absorption of lines in the spectra of distant atmospheres might reveal biology."

His wife, an animal rights lawyer and activist of luminous character and boundless energy, has recently died, and his 9-year-old son Robin is struggling.

A brilliant, volatile little boy, Robbie takes the plight of the Earth's living creatures, and the failure of humans to protect them, personally and hard. Rather than see the child as oversensitive, "Bewilderment" asks whether the rest of us aren't in fact under-sensitive. Trying to help his son without resorting to medication, Theo allows him to participate in an experimental program "called Decoded Neurofeedback. It resembled old-fashioned biofeedback, but with neural imaging for real-time, AI-mediated feedback."

In what Theo calls an "empathy machine," a subject learns to mirror emotions mapped from other participants — in Robbie's case, his dead mother, who'd once modeled "ecstasy" for the program. 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:

The book "Flowers for Algernon" is Powers' touchstone in "Bewilderment," mentioned in the author's note and listened to by Theo and Robin as they drive across the country. But, as Robin reassures his father after discovering the debased state of the Mississippi River: "We're just an experiment, right? And you always say, an experiment with a negative result isn't a failed experiment. … Don't worry, Dad. We might not figure it out. But Earth will."

———

Ellen Akins is a writer and writing teacher in Wisconsin.

Stay up-to-date on what's happening

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Most Popular

DETROIT — Bethany Ball was a child on the playground of Royal Oak Township's now-gone Grant Elementary School when she got an early sense of her family's tradition of writing. "Somebody picked up a newspaper that was flying around ... and said, 'Your dad is in here,'" she recalls. "It was the first time I saw my dad's name in print and really sort of understood how cool that was." Her father, ...

NONFICTION: A lively popular history of the 1960s. "The Shattering: America in the 1960s" by Kevin Boyle; W.W. Norton & Co. (464 pages, $30) ——— On Aug. 23, 1963, South Vietnamese generals asked President John F. Kennedy whether the United States would approve a coup. The White House replied that if President Diem was removed, the U.S. would support an interim government. On Aug. 26, Kennedy ...

At age 38, with a toddler son and a thickening waistline, Katherine May makes the decision to hike the 630-mile South West Coast Path in England, a rugged trail that "clings as close to this island's crinkled edge as possible; so close, in fact, that chunks of it regularly fall into the sea." She will hike in stages, she decides, sometimes alone, sometimes with a friend. She will finish before ...

FICTION: In this dark but witty satire, Percival Everett explores racism, vengeance and the horrors of lynching. "The Trees" by Percival Everett; Graywolf Press (308 pages, $16) ——— Trees, when left unmolested, typically enjoy a long life span. Imagine if trees in the United States, particularly in the South, could speak. Many might tell us of something sinister they got roped into — literally ...

Jessica Nordell's "The End of Bias" dives deep to help us transform ourselves and our world. MINNEAPOLIS — Jessica Nordell earned degrees in physics and poetry and has worked as a journalist for more than 15 years. But in her soul, Nordell is an archaeologist, digging deep into the human psyche on a quest to understand why we move through the world with realities "tinted and tinged and tweaked ...

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.

Topics

Trending

Breaking News