Bewilderment: Too Grim?



By Richard Powers

W. W. Norton, 278 pages.





I admire the zeal of Richard Powers and enjoyed immensely his 2019 novel The Overstory, which won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Alas, his newest novel, Bewilderment, is, well, bewildering. It’s not that I don’t agree with Powers that climate change and political chaos are existential threats. As a work of literature, though, the truth an author speaks is no excuse for a lack of nuance and a jejune style.


The storyline involves widower Theo(dore) Bryne and his son Robin, aka/ “Robbie.” Both are adrift after the tragic death of Aly(ssa), the glue who that kept everything together. That took some doing, as Theo is a busy University of Wisconsin astrobiologist looking for life signatures in outer space and Robbie has been diagnosed as autistic. In the book’s most astute passage Theo notes that he has been told that Robbie is “on the spectrum” and muses, “Aren’t we all on the spectrum?”


Good line, but that doesn’t help Robbie whose lashing out and poor impulse control are definitely a handful for his teachers, though they also agree he’s creative and smart. At age 9, though, I doubt he’s smart enough to hold the complex science discussions he has with his father in their camping sojourn to the Great Smokies. I also doubt that a professional educator would pull his special needs kid from school for a week to bond in the boonies. Especially one already on the radar of Child Protectors.


Those science discussions–which occur throughout the book–are among the places where Bewilderment grows ponderous. Far too often potentially genuine father/son emotions give way to mini lectures. Powers knows his stuff, but these make for striking tonal breaks and give the novel the feeling of having been scotch-taped together. This is true also of attempts to give his narrative contemporary relevance via stand-in references. For example, Inga Adler is Greta Thunberg and there are nods to threats from a rightwing president. I can’t imagine whom that could be! Madison has Ted-like talks that are called COG talks; reverse the letters. Theo’s NexGen project is SETI with a fake moustache. Again, pretty ham-handed. If we toss in flights into science fiction–Theo loves the stuff and Robbie likes comic books–the lines between science and speculation blur Powers’ thesis that humankind is on a one-way street to extinction, Bewilderment is thus a very depressing novel. Even if Powers is right–and he may be–what are we to do with all of this? 


More to the point, why bother with subplots? Theo is trying his best but failing to keep up with his research, recover from Aly’s death, or raise a kid with emotional and social adjustment problems. Temporary hope appears from an unlikely source: Martin Currier, a colleague that Theo distrusts because he once held a torch for Aly. Martin is working on an artificial intelligence neurofeedback program that uses a specialized scanner (fMRI). Robbie becomes both a subject and a boy transformed into an activist, artist, and empath. Even some of his wildest autistic dreams appear feasible. The deal is, though, Theo wants Robbie’s identity to be completely anonymous lest he become part of a media circus.


Powers would have it that he who lives by AI dies by AI. AI exposes Robbie’s identity. Let the circus begin in front of Congress and in the dark light of a president who is successful at overturning an election. Two steps forward, four steps back. Everything spirals out of control and the only open question is whether a pandemic, climate change, or civil war will hasten the end. If it’s all over now Baby Blue, does the fate of any individual matter? It answers Theo’s question: “Was the mind of God inclined toward life, or did we Earthlings have no business being here?”


Powers is not the first to write a dystopian novel, nor will he be the last. Most who pen one avoid the sermon, leave readers with a glimmer of hope, or simply write with more elegance. Because Powers does not I must return to an earlier question of my own. What does he want us to do with all of this?


Rob Weir

No comments: