"A heartrending new novel from the Pulitzer Prize-winning and #1 New York Times best-selling author of The Overstory. "Richard Powers, whose novels combine the wonders of science with the marvels of art, astonishes us in different ways with each new book." -Heller McAlpin, NPR Books. 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. Robin is a warm, kind boy who spends hours painting elaborate pictures of endangered animals. He's also about to be expelled from third grade for smashing his friend in the face. As his son grows more troubled, 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. . . . With its soaring descriptions of the natural world, its tantalizing vision of life beyond, and its account of a father and son's ferocious love, Bewilderment marks Richard Powers's most intimate and moving novel. At its heart lies the question: How can we tell our children the truth about this beautiful, imperiled planet?"--
Q; how, as an author, do you follow the best book of the last few years – The Overstory?
A: you write the Booker shortlisted Bewilderment.
I can’t begin to tell you how wonderful this book is. It’s the story of a father and son struggling to get over the death of their wife/mother and
Theo Byrne is a college professor searching for extraterrestrial life. He is also a single father raising a special son, Robin, after the death of his beloved
In broad sense, the book is a sort of homage to Flowers for Algernon, and has similar themes to that earlier book. But it is also a beautiful story about a father's relationship with his son. It is all told against the backdrop of a slightly near-future, almost-dystopian, anti-science America, a society faced with climate change, mass extinction, and environmental disaster. But don't think this is too science-fictiony for you if you are not a scifi fan: it's mostly just about the love between a father and son, although it is also heart-breaking and bleak, and offers no easy answers.
Robin loves, like his mother, the natural world and all in it. His father looks for other planets and these planets and imagined happenings on them, form a strong bond between father and son.
This is a novel of love but also loss. Not only people but all we on earth have destroyed and are continuing to destroy, with all the consequences this will have on environment, climate. It's also political, as the last administration pulled funding on many scientists of different backgrounds, exploring many different areas.
This won't be for everyone. It helps if one has an interest in the natural world as there are beautiful descriptions detailing different species. Or an interest in science, as the stories of planets are a big part of this book. It takes patience but ultimately it is a wonderful story of a father who loves his son, no matter how differently he sees, handles what is going on in our world.
ARC from Edelweiss.
Their story is a sad one as Theo looks to neuroscience to help solve the riddle of Robin's thoughts; he is also hoping to keep him from resorting to pharmaceutical solutions. Powers, always the scientist, can articulate well the explorations of the galaxies and his bedtime stories to his son are often visits to the possibilities of life forms in the universe. But it is his relationship with his son that propels the novel, the depiction is both realistic and tender to read.
“This late in the world’s story, everything was marketing. Universities had to build their brands. Every act of charity was forced to beat the drum. Friendships were measured out now in shares and likes and links. Poets and priests, philosophers and fathers of small children: we were all on an endless, flat-out hustle.”
Theo Byrne is a astrobiologist, raising his nine year old son, on his own since his wife died a few years before. Robin is a gifted child bursting with ideas and possessing a deep love for nature. He has also been growing more troubled and to avoid putting the boy on pyschoactive drugs, Theo decides to try an experimental neurofeedback treatment. This story is a riff on Flowers For Algernon, which is mentioned a few times in the narrative. Powers is a fine writer and I love his thoughts on nature and the cosmos but this one didn’t have the impact on me, the way his last novel The Overstory did. Still worth reading.
Robin is a 9-year-old boy living with his widowed father, an
But Powers brings in more: school, climate change, habitat destruction, disease, autocracy, a Trumpist-sort of president who is all about profits and control. A lot of discussion revolves around possibilities of life on other planets (an astrobiologist's interest) and research--what is life? What could life be? How do we define life? Why do we say life must be carbon-based, does it really matter?
There is a lot to think about here--from how we eat and the food chain; to life throughout the universe, to climate change, extinction, medical advances, profit over all, and more. For such a short book (
A father and his 9-year-old son deal with the aftermaths of the death of their beloved wife/mother. Robin is a special child who may or may not be on the spectrum, yet his intelligence and unique insights are often way beyond what one would expect from a young boy.
The book begins with their taking a camping trip to the Smoky Mountains where the father and mother had honeymooned. Once they return home Robin’s problems follow him to his school setting and his temper tantrums and hypersensitivities take prominence. His father resists Robin being diagnosed and “treated” and becomes a champion for his son’s development. When disoriented the son often asks his father to describe a far-off planet which he does dozens of times, each description unique in its details and possibilities.
At the university is a neurological experiment that maps basic emotions which are then transmitted through a rigorous training session in an MRI setting. The lead investigator was a close friend of the deceased mother and may even had been a secret lover. He takes an interest in Robin’s issues and the boy starts training and shows marked improvements in his ability to process emotions. Marketed as Decoded Feedback (DecNef) Robin becomes the poster child for its promise.
“Well-being is like a virus. One self-assured person at home in this world can infect dozens of others. Wouldn’t you like to see an epidemic of infectious well-being”, Currier the investigator asks. Indeed, Robin’s newfound attitudes, his empathy and optimism are infectious, “his face lights up from within”.
Unfortunately, in America, all is not well:
“That first Tuesday in November, online conspiracy theories, compromised ballots, and bands of armed poll protestors undermined the integrity of the vote in six different battleground states. The country slid into three days of chaos. On Saturday, the President declared the entire election invalid. He ordered a repeat, claiming it would require at least three more months to secure and implement. Half the electorate revolted against the plan. The other half was gung-ho for a retry. Where suspicion was total and fears were settled with the like button, there was no other way forward but to do over.”
“I wondered how I might explain the crisis to an anthropologist from Proxima Centauri. In this place, with such a species, trapped in such technologies, even a simple head count grew impossible. Only pure bewilderment kept us from civil war.” (Surmises the boy’s father)
Richard Powers who recently won the Pulitzer Prize for his book, The Overstory, has written an enchanting, charming, and heartfelt touching father-son tale. Seeped in science and ecology the story unfolds on both universal and intimately personal levels.
The writing moves quickly, in brief interludes, and as I read I thought of two other books I have lasting memories of: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in which a father prepares his son for apocalyptic times, and The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt, a miraculous tale about a single mom and her precocious son. Powers has written an equally masterful novel; a lasting inventive tale of the unique relationship between parent and child.
Furthermore, I'd heard this novel was a bit heavy on message. It is, but somehow (perhaps because of my own connections to astronomy? not sure) it didn't bother me.
The central conceit is engaging, and Powers drew me in with it, convinced me and held my interest. There was never much suspense about how it was all going to end, though the manner of the ending was surprising and upsetting. This falls for me only short of *Galatea 2.2* in the Powers canon. It's speculative fiction (what is sometimes called, ugh, "sci-fi") by any other name. Well done.
The writing was great as usual and I appreciate this book for what it is and what it tries to do, I just felt it was a bit of a miss for me personally.
As a side note mostly for myself, I had a lit class in college (eons ago) and we read "Man Walks Into A Room" by Nicole Krauss which is partly about implanting a memory into another person and I am thinking that this book would make a great companion to that book and it would be very neat to discuss memory and empathy and experience through a postmodern/deconstructionist lens.
I could not get into Bewilderment. At first I thought it was because I started reading it in a semi-busy location, so restarted it when I was at home. That helped a little, but not much. The writing, storyline, and characters did not grab me.
Like the rest of us, Powers experienced 2016 to COVID, and this novel is the result. It is not a pretty story, or a happy story, but then neither is the truth.
I hope Powers writes long enough to express optimism about what is to come, again.
As Richard Powers notes in a Foreword, Bewilderment is strongly influenced by the story Flowers for Algernon that which the author read as child. Indeed, this novel can be viewed as an updating of that classic fable, which focuses on, among other things, how we teach our children to process information about the world around them. It also advances Powers’ recent agenda, begun with his masterful The Overstory, to examine the damage that mankind is inflicting on the planet with its hubris and willful ignorance. This is also the author’s most overtly political novel to date, with a Twitter-obsessed, environmentally insensitive, and reactionary president conveniently serving as the ultimate villain in the tale. While unnamed, there is little doubt who Powers had in mind when creating this character.
I found this to be a deeply affecting story that was also quite enlightening in terms of the applications and ethics of the new science it explores. Powers is an extremely thoughtful writer and his descriptions of the flora and fauna of this world, as well as his imaginings of what life might look like on other worlds, were remarkable. My only real criticism of the novel would be that the main characters were not always quite believable—Theo was one-dimensional and far too clueless while the swings in Robin’s emotional state and mental prowess were too dramatic—and they served mainly as devices to deliver the message the story needed to impart. Still, Bewilderment was book that this fan of the author enjoyed, even if it might end up being an acquired taste for other readers.
I’d be a bit leery about picking up anything else by this author.