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When a child misbehaves at school, there are often logical explanations. In Bewilderment, the 13th novel from Richard Powers, it is no different. Robin Byrne, aged nine, has plenty of reasons to behave erratically. He doesn’t understand his classmates’ jokes, his mother died in a car accident two years ago, and, like her he is profoundly disturbed by the speed at which humans are destroying the planet. Bewilderment is told from the point of view of Robin’s father, Theo, who has no idea how to be a single parent, especially when everything his son does reminds him how much he misses his wife Alyssa.
Powers’s previous novel The Overstory won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018, so, naturally, there are high expectations for his follow up. The Overstory was universally praised for the way it made the reader care about trees; Bewilderment, which has just made the Booker shortlist, has a similar ecological drive.
Alyssa was an environmental activist and Theo is an astrobiologist who has found a way to search for life on other planets. He and Robin are victims of the Cassandra complex - knowing something that no one wants to hear, so dismissed as being too clever for their own good. We see how they are treated as outsiders for caring, and their protests are met with punishment from the police and politicians.
We hear about a Trump-esque President who refuses to engage with what is happening to the planet. Theo has a personal axe to grind with him: the President doesn’t want to fund his deep-space telescope.
All of this is maddening, but 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. The passages about Theo’s helplessness in the face of bringing up his son alone reminded me of the ground explored in Max Porter’s 2015 novel Grief is The Thing with Feathers, another story where a man’s sense of grief and loneliness at parenting alone takes a surreal direction.
Theo may know everything about extraterrestrial fauna, but he has no idea what to do about his unhappy little boy, and no one to support him. Robin’s teachers want to put him on psychoactive drugs but Theo thinks this is a last resort and ends up trying an unorthodox solution instead. This is where the book tips into sci-fi. Before Alyssa died, she and Theo had their brains mapped, recording what happened when they felt certain emotions. It is decided that Robin will be played the recording of Alyssa feeling ecstasy (a bit oedipal perhaps, but Powers doesn’t go there). Theo knows he is taking a risk but never expects what happens next and the plot takes some unexpected twists encompassing our interest in the brain and the nature of fame.
Theo’s pain is compounded by his conflicted relationship with the man who is doing this neurofeedback experiment. Theo suspects he had an affair with Alyssa but Powers doesn’t overplay this storyline, only giving us titillating details. This is not a romance novel - rather, it is all quite earnest, about people who are interested in the world and want the best for all the plants and animals who inhabit it with us.
Theo talks about his work with Robin, going off on tangents about planets which can be a bit hard to follow. He owns a 2,000-book library of science fiction, which Powers mentions multiple times, and tells his son bedtime stories about made up planets that Powers has clearly had fun inventing. On Stasis, everyone knows just one “infinitely deep” thing, while Tedia is a place where civilisation destroys itself each time people realise the end is nigh. At its best, Robin and Theo’s relationship is like a boy’s own adventure - two geeky men talking at length about facts rather than feelings, so that when they do reveal their emotions it feels more poignant.
There is a lot packed in and not everything works. Some may find the passages about the planet worthy, but I was so charmed by Theo and Robin that I didn’t mind a little preachiness. The plot is entirely implausible, like a Black Mirror episode, but all the feelings behind it ring true. This won’t be as successful as The Overstory: it’s less ambitious than that, and I think it is unlikely to win the Booker as parts of it are too niche. But I found it completely refreshing, original and moving.
Bewilderment by Richard Powers (Cornerstone, £18.99)