Richard Powers’s Bewilderment
(W.W. Norton & Co., 2021)
The latest from Richard Powers invites plenty of literary considerations. 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 text and author alone give a critic lots to cover⎯ but I can’t do the job right without turning first to the morning’s news.
In The Guardian, today’s lead piece concerned the global climate crisis. An alarming new study finds “many of the key indicators … getting worse.” The numbers indicate that our planet has already exceeded its “tipping points,” with both the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide and the oceans’ acid levels at devastating new levels. The peristaltic cloud out of Vesuvius is bearing down, you could say. Then what am I doing, dithering around the villa library? The question, the bad news, has a special bearing when it comes to the latest Powers. As in the novel that preceded Bewilderment, the Pulitzer winner The Overstory, major developments are provoked by humanity’s destruction of the natural systems on which it depends.
The Overstory worked on a far bigger canvas. Trees were central, intrinsic to every storyline, and as for humans, the action swept up at least eight. All took part somehow in the fight for the environment, and all suffered vicious smackdowns. The violence ranks as this author’s worst (though the blood of World War I smeared his 1985 debut, Three Farmers on the Way to Dance), and even more disturbing, in the 2018 opus it’s US police and guardsmen wielding the heavy weapons. There’s no mistaking the novel’s indictment of American capitalism and the damage it’s done. Despite a Tolstoyan structure and subtlety, The Overstory presents nothing less than a panorama of rape. In that larger sense, its acclaim seems an encouraging development⎯ as does its wide readership, an audience extending far beyond what you’d expect for fiction of such quality. I’ve seen the evidence both in book clubs around Iowa and the publicity materials for Bewilderment. These include a page of Hollywood endorsements, Halle Berry and others.
The movie business tends to complicate matters, but I’m trying to get at something simple: the text’s remarkable accessibility. This too makes the latest novel a companion to the previous, something Powers claimed to have in mind (for instance, in a Publishers Weekly conversation with Barbara Kingsolver).
The obvious connection is in the alarms Bewilderment raises over our disintegrating biosphere, and its setting is an Ugly America indeed, more or less a renewed round of the Trump nightmare (though #45 is never named). After forest fires take out much of the San Fernando Valley, this president starts “blaming the trees. His executive order called for two thousand acres of national forest to be cut down.” Worse, should anyone speak out against the man, “they could put you in jail.” Both democracy and sustainability hang by a thread, in other words⎯and yet the novel’s first impressions have less to do with global peril than with a pair of deeply sympathetic characters.
These are a father and son, taking in the night sky over the Smoky Mountains, “one of the last patches of darkness in the Eastern US” The fragility of this opening heightens its tenderness, as does the grief these two suffer; the woman in their lives, wife and mother, was recently “crushed to death.” On top of that, the dramatic elements all emerge in poignant two- and three-page snapshots, with a few chapters even briefer. Such quick turnover is a fresh move for this writer, and so too is playing a two-hander, largely the case here.
The narrator is Theodore Byrne, doing the best he can with his Robin. Theo looks like a standard Powers model, with an encyclopedic mind and a vocation most of us need explained: astrobiology, the search for life among the stars. He’s won esteem, a tenured position in Madison, Wisconsin, but outside the lab, “everything about parenting terrified me.” He’s taken this wilderness retreat in part to celebrate the boy’s ninth birthday⎯but also to give them both a much-needed break. The child’s plenty smart, but that’s little help with his grief and rage. His meltdowns send the boy to the doctors, but what’s a parent to do with all these diagnoses? “So far the votes are two Asperger’s, one probable OCD, and one possible ADHD.”
After all, what’s the acronym for “inconsolable”? Less than two years back, this odd couple lost their Aly, Alyssa, in a car wreck. Details emerge with careful timing, enhancing suspense and underscoring how Theo cares, wrestling with how much to reveal. In the same way, the father resists drug therapies; “when two different physicians want to prescribe three different medications, there’s something wrong.” Hence Bewilderment’s primary narrative, the alternative healing provided by science and the hair-raising carnival of its consequences. By Robin’s next birthday⎯the climax, in a book all quick turnover⎯he and his father have opened a Pandora’s Box.
That myth, however, isn’t a key reference. The earlier story which matters here is the science fiction chestnut “Flowers for Algernon,” as Powers explains in a prefatory “note” (another first for him). Between Theo and his son, too, the Daniel Keyes story comes up often. Both enjoy sci-fi, naturally, and more than that “Algernon” provides a parallel for the boy’s response to an experimental therapy called decoded neurofeedback, “DecNef.” This involves first reading a troubled brain and then steering it towards better, and in his explanations and demonstrations, Powers lays in the fresh scientific ballast that distinguishes all his work.
Not that Bewilderment ever loses its dread over the environment. Just as smoke from a forest fire sickens far-off children, the ruin of the world is no small contributor to Robin’s pathology. “Everything will be dead,” he wails, “before I get to tenth grade.” Then too, he and his father remain haunted by the work to which Alyssa dedicated her life, as a ferocious lobbyist on behalf of animal rights. The woman could get so distraught over “ravaged ecosystems,” her accidental death prompts rumors of suicide; Theo has to assure his son, and himself, that Mom “didn’t choose anything … it was a reflex.” Still, when they watch a video of Aly addressing the Wisconsin legislature, there’s no denying her passion⎯or the author’s gift for the vivid thumbnail:
She said how ninety-eight percent by weight of the animals left on Earth were either Homo sapiens or their industrially harvested food. Only two percent were wild.
Stinging declarative jabs like that erupt throughout. Many express a bitter worldliness, as in this description of the police, under a hard-right regime: “Bullying had trickled down.” In the Smokies, however, father and son find respite, an “elated” bewilderment. Amid “thirty kinds of salamander,” their drama begins in joy⎯a crucial counterpoint, since the rest can seem a headlong tumble into tragedy. Ugly America turns monstrous, by the closing chapters. A flight delay in a crowded airport feels downright Boschean, and the two protagonists are left casting around for any glimmer of hope. Outside the Smokies, often their best options seem extraterrestrial.
Theo’s work affords him an inventive means of soothing his troubled son. He dreams up faraway life-sustaining planets, where they poke around a freakshow of sentient beings. For sheer imagination, these bedtime stories surpass anything in earlier Powers, protean, charming, and unsettling:
Pelagos … was covered in water. … Intelligent kelp hundreds of meters long spelled messages in colors that rippled up the length of their stalks. Annelids practiced agriculture and crustaceans built high-rise cities.
For these Wonderworlds, the model is plainly Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino’s love song to humanity’s gift for setting up housekeeping. But Bewilderment’s unearthly populations remind us eventually that, on this planet, humanity is the problem. The names Theo come up with can suggest unhappy business, like isolation and immobility (though “Pelagos” appears innocuous, a reference to fishes and islands); as with Calvino’s Cities, too, by the end these bizarre locales take on a gloomy relevance. The life forms on one planet disappear into electronic replication; they only exist online. Another world keeps hidden, wanting nothing to do with the crazies from Sol 3.
It’s a dark fable, all in all. There’s no denying the intellect at work, “myriad-minded,” as Coleridge said of Shakespeare. Whether the subject’s harmless and invertebrate or venal and in the Senate, the author’s on top of it, knowing and pithy. Yet that’s not what’s most impressive about Bewilderment. Rather, it’s how every moment reveals the instincts of a master: an unerring touch with development and cutoff, with bearing down and easing off, and with where to put the punctuation. If I had misgivings, they concerned Aly. At some points she seemed too sunny a presence, a happy-face sticker, and at others too shadowy, her own fallen episodes smudgy. But then, the woman’s seen only at a remove; she matters more as a reflection of whoever’s calling her to mind, whatever they’re going through. Regarding her own deeps, psychological spelunking would throw off the text’s focus, its balance⎯ at once the author’s shortest work and his most far-seeing. The novel voyages clear across the universe in order to assert the sanctity of our own Goldilocks Zone. Between his last outing and this latest, I daresay Richard Powers has brought off something more than two exemplary and superb fictions of the climate crisis. He’s also unearthed and refurbished the timeless link between artist and shaman, a voice crying in the wilderness.