By Joppe Kips
After his previous novel The Overstory received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2019, I found myself wondering where Richard Powers might take us next. Having themed his novels around subjects such as brain disorders, the First World War, the Holocaust, and eco-activism, it was safe to say that the subject of his next work could be anything.
Yet his new novel, Bewilderment, remains focused upon the same question that The Overstory poses: What the hell is wrong with humanity? It is a question you find yourself asking more than once while reading Powers’ thirteenth novel, which turns away from the wider, interconnected plot towards a more emotionally focused look at astrobiologist Theo Byrne and his neurodivergent, nine-year old son Robin.
Powers places us deep within the wilderness, as Theo has taken Robin out of class for a week of camping, after trouble arose between his son and his classmates. Here, in the Smoky Mountains, we are introduced to father and son, and their great affection for all that is living. Especially young Robin is thrilled to be out in nature, relishing each and every animal fact and insisting on sleeping under the stars. Powers’ own recent relocation to the Smokies is apparent in this first part of the novel, his descriptions captivatingly realistic. As Theo and Robin ‘visit’ the planets made-up by Theo you cannot but fall in love with Robin’s raw enthusiasm as the two of them ponder upon the age-old question: Is there life out there, somewhere?
However, they cannot stay in the mountains forever. Upon returning home Bewilderment follows Theo and Robin through the rollercoaster of everyday life as a father struggling through parenthood, and an emotionally challenged environmentalist boy in a world dead set on destroying its environment. After another incident, in which Robin smashes a classmate’s face in with a thermos, and unwilling to put his son on psychoactive drugs, Theo turns to his late wife Aly’s ex-boyfriend, Dr. Currier, for help.
Currier, who has been working on an experiment that is applicable as behavioural treatment through neurological feedback, agrees to help Theo by putting Robin in one of DecNef’s trials. In the treatment, participants are trained to match their emotional state to that of earlier participants, which should lead to more emotional control. For Robin, it works wonderfully. Less agitated and better able to shrug off his classmates’ teasing, he becomes even more environmentally interested then he already was, selling drawings of endangered animals and – being inspired by famous child activist Inga Alder, who in turn is based upon Greta Thunberg – protesting at the Capitol. Robin’s development can be compared to that of Charlie Gordon in Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon, a novel named early on in Bewilderment. Like Robin, Charlie undergoes treatment – in his case surgery – to enhance his overall intelligence. What Charlie gains in intelligence, Robin gains in emotional control. The parallel, while interesting, is a bit too much ‘in your face’ and weakens the overall reading experience, as those familiar with Keyes’ novel can already predict where Powers’ Bewilderment might end on.
Robin’s participation/progress in the trial, although doing wonders for his emotional control, is accompanied by depression, caused by the ever-increasing news of nature’s decline and humanity’s willful ignorance of this decline, which hurts Robin greatly. Currier’s solution? To emotionally train him on the brain-scan of his deceased mother which he happens to have kept all this time, made while she was thinking upon the emotion ‘ecstasy’. I am no scientist, but upon reading this I was pretty sure that Currier might be breaking a couple of ethical principles in the process. Learning in the same chapter that Aly, who up to that point had been described only positively, had cheated on Theo with Currier at some point during their marriage, did not make me like Currier more either. However, DecNef’s treatment worked again! The novel seems to take a turn for the better, and Theo and Robin finally seem relatively at peace. This, of course, cannot last.
It’s broken by Currier, when he asks whether his team can use a video of Robin, which’ll be completely anonymized, in order to make a case as to why DecNef should keep its governmental funding. Theo, after checking with Robin, reluctantly agrees. The video goes viral and is eventually traced back to Robin, after which the media will not leave them alone.
From this point on, Bewilderment spirals out of control. The video, and Robin’s subsequent media-attention, aggravates governmental parties running for the elections, and Currier’s experiment is pulled ‘on hold’. Without treatment, Robin quickly slides back into old patterns of screaming fits and erratic behaviour. At the same time, Theo’s work is at risk as the government threatens to put a stop to both the Earthlike Planet Seeker and NextGen Space Telescope projects, powerful telescopes through which extraterrestrial life might be found. Powers’ multiple storylines turn themselves against Theo until he is almost ready to break. Almost.
Finally, Theo decides. Robin and he will take a break and go back to the Smoky Mountains. When they return, he will take Robin to the doctor to start on a drug treatment.
Those who have read Flowers for Algernon hope that Powers chooses to end his parallel here, with Robin having lost his emotional control and being his original self again. However, Powers is relentless in showing that the parallel was not between Robin and Charlie, but between Robin and Algernon, the little mouse whose deterioration is even worse than Charlie’s.
Bewilderment’s tragic ending, though heart-breaking, completes Powers’ powerful message to his readers. Earth is dying, and if we continue like this, we’ll end up dying alongside it. Although some choices Powers made were unnecessary in that they did not add to the story nor character development, such as Aly’s being pregnant when she died and her having cheated on Theo, the novel skillfully makes its readers aware that, in our willful ignorance, we are killing the only planet we have. Overall, Bewilderment makes for a more than interesting read, and the depiction of the love of a father struggling through parenthood for his wonderful, different son is nothing short of incredible.
Joppe Kips is a post-graduate student of English literature, currently enrolled at Utrecht University, and part of both the editorial and PR teams of RevUU.
- Powers, Richard. Bewilderment. London: Hutchinson Heinemann, 2021. Print.
- Keyes, Daniel. Flowers for Algernon. Eugene: Harvest Books, 2005. Print.