BEWILDERMENT – Richard Powers

Even though the 2021 Booker Prize has already been announced (Congrats to Damon Galgut!), I’m still making my way through the longlist.  Richard Powers’s Bewilderment (W. W. Norton & Co., 2021) received a lot of attention, and I’m not surprised it was shortlisted for the prestigious award.  The slim novel of grief and nature made me think of last year’s shortlisted “nature” book, The New Wilderness, which I found overrated.  Both are dystopian novels dealing with parent-child relationships in a world that humans are actively destroying.  The New Wilderness is a bit more gritty and narrowly tailored, whereas Bewilderment is more ethereal and expansive, displaying a heaven full of planets and hope.  And, unlike Cook’s novel, Bewilderment is dystopian-light, with the destruction of the country and society relying heavily on current political events but slanted and exaggerated toward the extreme.  As much I disliked Cook’s attempt, I loved Powers’s.

Theo Byrne is an astrobiologist scrambling to be a good father to his special needs son, Robin.  Robin is special needs, with a diagnosis that varies depending on what professional is asked, but what remains steady is that Robin has difficulty managing his emotions and he is swimming in grief and anger following the death of his mother.  Theo is equally swimming, barely keeping his head above water as he battles his own grief and tries to parent a son who is more of an enigma than a cosmos that is constantly growing and being redefined.  Theo does not want to medicate his son, and a violent outburst at school has him asking a colleague of his wife for help.  He enrolls Robin in an experimental neurofeedback treatment that focuses on training the brain to follow the patterns of another brain.  Theo and his wife had made recordings years prior, and Robin eventually starts training using his mother’s recording.

Robin has always been a lot like his mother, passionately concerned about the life and well-being of the animals and plants that inhabit the earth.  The training intensifies and focuses this passion, such that Theo can almost hear his wife when his son talks.  The training works.  Robin is calmer, he is emulating his mother and able to face the world in ways that Theo never thought would be possible. 

It’s a novel of grief and hope set in a world not far removed from this one.  Unlike the planets Theo and Robin create as calming tools, there is no Planet B.  We are the custodians of this earth, and we need to take our jobs more seriously.  The novel is perfectly nuanced and beautifully executed.  This was the “environmental novel of our time.”

Read this book.

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