Bewilderment – a novel by the author of The Overstory

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December 1, 2021

Life is as vast and endless and ultimately unknowable as the universe, or the human brain and body with its cells and microbiome and unfathomable consciousness.  It is embodied by a many-acre ancient forest, one huge millennials-old redwood, or one father trying to raise his brilliant, troubled son. 

Richard Powers became well-known in recent years for his epic novel, The Overstory, which won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 2019. That book told the story of the importance of forests, with a series of interlocking characters whose lives have been affected by trees in both large and small ways. His prose was beautiful, the protagonists complex and flawed, like all of us. 

In Bewilderment, Powers’ narrative switches to first person and shrinks to a father and son who try to navigate a world that is out of control.   Theo broken-heartedly tries to care for his almost 9 year old son, Robin, after his mother dies. Theo is an astrobiologist, one who looks for and models life on other planets. 

He feels both unprepared to be a parent and in awe of childhood. “THEY SHARE A LOT, ASTRONOMY AND CHILDHOOD. Both are voyages across huge distances. Both search for facts beyond their grasp. Both theorize wildly and let possibilities multiply without limits. Both are humbled every few weeks.”

This novel takes place in the not too distant future, which is recognizably our world, but with more advanced technology. Robin is fascinated by his father’s work and cuddles up for Theo’s bedtime stories of possible life elsewhere in the universe, realistically conceived with sunlit and dark areas, oceans and cores and atmospheres and vast expanses of time. 

But, he is also his mother’s son.  She was a lawyer with a focus on saving THIS planet. Robin feels too much, how species are disappearing, rivers polluted, wild places being infringed on, and NO ONE SEEMS TO CARE.

His father tries to preserve Robin’s passion, without letting him become overwhelmed.  Robin has difficulty relating to most other children and he gets into trouble at school. Familiar to those of us with “different” children, Theo is told that Robin has Asperger’s, OCD or ADHD.

As Robin becomes more depressed and angry, his father, wants to avoid putting him on medications, worried that they will change his developing brain. A neuroscientist friend of his mother’s has recorded brain waves of different people in more positive, calm frames of mind. Teaching Robin to access and emulate those brain waves could ultimately help his mood and self-control.

What the scientist doesn’t anticipate is that Robin feels the personalities of those whose brain waves have been recorded, including those of his mother. And Theo deals with his mixed feelings of relief and sorrow as his son changes in front of him. He is also jealous of his son’s ability to be in contact with his mother’s feelings.

This book is very compelling and it haunted me for days after I read it. It’s dystopian science fiction and left me sad and shaken, though not without hope. It’s grounded in the tension that parents, or children will recognize—how to raise a child in a world that demands conformity, without breaking that which is innocent and unique and passionate inside them. And how do we pay attention to the future when the present moment needs so much from us?

Is it pathological or logical to feel depressed when the planet is being destroyed little by little and no one seems to be paying attention? How much can we know or understand another person, who is their OWN complete world?

The author inspires me to look around, to be grateful for the wonders of the planet that we live on, and to ask what my small part could be in keeping it going as long possible. 

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