Bewilderment by Richard Powers
In Bewilderment his mastery strikes a new vein, and while the takeaway by no means lacks in smarts or artistry, it makes a swift and easy read, glittering with timeless story elements; it raises goosebumps and breaks our hearts.
The tenderness and delicacy with which the father-son relationship is depicted repeatedly brought to my mind Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, though it is a pre-apocalyptic planet on which Theo and Robin struggle to find fortitude and hope.
Powers’s insightful, often poetic prose draws us at once more deeply toward the infinitude of the imagination and more vigorously toward the urgencies of the real and familiar stakes rattling our persons and our planet.
The story unfolds with an inevitability that is either pleasing or dismaying, depending on your feelings about plot.
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[.].
... so meek, saccharine and overweening in its piety about nature that even a teaspoon of it numbs the mind.
In this tender story, focusing on the love between a father and his young son as they struggle to cope with a profound loss, Powers demonstrates that his skill remains undiminished even on this smaller scale.
It’s touching. Still, it is unclear how we are to read Theo in particular. Most of what he says suggests that Powers wants us to believe in him and side with him.
If you can’t handle watching terrible things happen to a sweet, misunderstood kid, this book may be hard for you to take. Just remember, this may feel like the real world, but it’s not. In the imagination of the book, the dead can live again as re-mapped memories. The flawed world can be redeemed, at least until the grant money runs out.
Reading a Powers novel is like boarding a tour bus when you have a single day to explore an unfamiliar city. Bewilderment, his Booker-longlisted new novel, is a hop-on, hop-off trip around astrobiology, climate breakdown and neurofeedback therapy.
I almost couldn’t get through the new Powers, not because of the earnestness or the piety (though those were very real and very annoying), but because its failed ambition was so big and so honest.
...it is not the sophistication of artificial intelligence or neurofeedback that we need in order to gain insight into how Powers’s novels think and feel: all we require is a ctrl-f search.
Powers’ sentences dazzle.
Robin is a perceptive, animal-loving, budding sketch artist, and Powers puts every sentence of dialogue from his mouth in italics, giving it an intensity and urgency that the reader feels keenly.
Bewilderment in many ways seems to pick up the thread of environmental fiction that The Overstory explored, though this time dealing more with the personal and emotional toll we as a society face during the rampant climate catastrophe rather than the disaster itself.
I was prompted to ask ethical questions that Powers seemed uninterested in answering.
As always in Mr. Powers’s novels, the science itself occasions the most involving passages, and Decoded Neurofeedback is energized by the strange and tantalizing prospect of mainlining the behavioral essence of one’s loved ones straight into the mind. How this actually works is secondary to its potential psychological effects. For Mr. Powers, science is fully analogous to art in its mysteriousness, creativity and healing potential.
Bewilderment’s plot has the comforting solidity of a daytime TV series.
Bewilderment is an exercise in grief, personal and planetary. It is a practice in radical empathy. It is an exploration of what loneliness bears, whether an individual who has experienced a grave loss or an entire species on a singular planet that has lost its way, forgotten its connections, within and beyond its earthly bounds. For those who share the weight that Powers carries, about the future fate of this planet and all its inhabitants—from the rocks that humans stack into cairns to the mysterious songmakers of the forest to these familiar yet unknowable humans we give birth to—do not expect forgiveness or atonement in Bewilderment. Instead, this book will bewilder you in the best ways, not in some traditional definition of the word, but rather, as in be-wilder, to return to the wild, sometimes only possible by shifting your perspective rapidly from the astral plane to the microscopic. Powers takes us along as we travel the spectrum between these two vantages in an attempt to provide some antidote to the trouble we’re in. It’s a love without reassurance, but still a cracked-open door to possibility..
Few writers capture nature's glories quite so vibrantly.
Bewilderment is a much narrower piece of writing than the capacious, multi-stranded The Overstory. The knife-edge of Robin’s moods is rendered with remarkable believability and sensitivity, and the love between son and father has an emotional truth and vividness that wrings the heart. But the focus is so tightly on these two, while the larger tragedy of a world increasingly poisoned and abused is so unremittingly pushed home, that the novel becomes rather claustrophobic.
Its Booker Prize shortlisting indicates that many will admire it. I couldn’t shake the sense that he was using this novel to draw attention to the climate crisis and, regardless of whether you sympathise, it doesn’t make for rewarding fiction. While the novel feels urgent, it is also didactic and self-conscious. Powers can still be an exhilarating prose stylist but there are passages of cosmic drivel, too.
While lacking some of the depth of Overstory, Bewilderment is another important and timely entry in the growing genre of environmental literature.
In his vast Pulitzer-winning The Overstory (2018), Powers explored climate activists’ desperate attempts to save a last tiny fraction of the world’s ravaged ancient forests. That opus might be compared to a Mahler-esque symphony. Bewilderment, in contrast, is more-traditionally scaled—a short-chaptered chamber work, but no less searing for that.
... the most successful aspect of this novel is the story of Theo and Robin, and Powers’s portrait of an intelligent man poleaxed by his feelings.
Richard Powers’s most unusual novel lives up to the hype, not only because it is, technically speaking, a great read, a story with striking characterisation of a father-and-son duo, written in precise, enlightening prose, but also because it stretches beyond fiction to make the reader care about the real world.
Writing with the same remarkable attention to detail found in his Pulitzer Prize–winning The Overstory, Powers has created a world and characters that will suck readers in and keep them fixed until the literally bitter end..
[An] intimate novel.
[A] taut ecological parable borne by a small cast. It’s a darker tale.
Pulitzer winner Powers offers up a marvelous story of experimental neurotherapy and speculations about alien life.
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