Hot off of winning the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for 2019’s The Overstory, a near-Homeric ode to trees and the ecosystem they help create, Richard Powers continues his prolific output with his 13th novel Bewilderment. 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. In Bewilderment, Powers shrinks the scale down from The Overstory’s ensemble cast and zooms in, focusing on a scientist single-father searching for exoplanets while trying to care for the only planet we know we have and his nine-year old son who struggles to live on it. This schizophrenic pull is felt across the novel, resulting in a book that is both affecting and personal, while also feeling at times misguided.
I’ve long admired Powers’ ability to weave a compelling narrative, while posing deep questions about the nature of life around us as it is and as it may be. He manages to convey the enthusiasm he so clearly possesses for his topics in a way that becomes infectious for the reader, though at times, I’ve felt like the themes in his books eclipse the stories and characters within, in a way that can leave them feeling somewhat cold. Bewilderment seems to seek to address that head on, tightening the scope dramatically from The Overstory’s sprawling natural history and cast of characters, down to the close-knit family of astrobiologist and single parent Theo Byrne and his troubled son Robin. Both the Byrnes are struggling, in fact, in the wake of the death of Theo’s wife Alyssa. The loss has sent the two into a downward spiral, and the novel picks up in the midst of a camping trip to the Smokies (where Powers himself lives) in an attempt to find some grounding. There, they share in their mutual love for the natural world, celebrating Robin’s birthday away from the society that upsets them both. Theo is hoping the distance and quiet will help calm Robin, who struggles with controlling his anger, leading to emotional outbursts that have gotten him in trouble at school. The gambit works somewhat; the days spent in the mountains mostly pass without incident, and before long it’s time to return home.
Once back home, trouble finds the Byrnes almost immediately. Theo remains behind on his research at the University of Madison, and is slacking on his teaching. His first lecture back is cut short by a call from Robin’s principal, as he’s thrown a thermos at a friend after a screaming fit in the cafeteria. The principal urges Theo to consider treatment for Robin. Despite being a scientist, Theo is deeply skeptical of psychology, particularly medical treatment for mental disorders, one of a few discrepancies throughout the book I found odd. I’m not a parent, and I can certainly understand the hesitancy around prescribing a psychoactive drug for a nine-year old, but Theo has a disdain for clinical psychology that feels not only harmful for the Byrnes, but strange as a take in the contemporary world, particularly at odds with the science-forward nature of the rest of the book. “No doctor can diagnose my son better than I can,” Theo asserts at one point. Instead, he enlists the help of another scientist peer, the somewhat dubious Dr. Currier, and enrolls Robin in an experimental medical trial that both Theo and Alyssa had participated in a few years prior.
Currier’s experiment involves training a brain on the emotional responses aggregated from other participants, all while monitored in an MRI machine, in effect teaching someone to be more measured in their own emotions. It’s an effect Currier likens to meditation. The concept is interesting, but I struggled to get past the logic that sold Theo on it. The decision is made only more complicated by the unclear nature of the relationship Currier had with Theo’s deceased wife. Alyssa, like perhaps a third of the characters present in contemporary fiction, was an avid birdwatcher; was Currier simply someone who shared the hobby, or possibly more? “I was entrusting my traumatized son to a careerist neuroscientist-birder who still had a thing for my dead wife and decorated his office with cheesy posters quoting Thoreau,” Theo remarks to himself. Well jeez, man, when you put it like that it sure sounds bad!
Regardless, they do it, and it works, for a while. Through the trial, Robin becomes almost a different person, and begins to channel his passion for nature into an art project to paint all the creatures on the endangered species list. He also becomes enamored with a teen environmental activist, the novel’s Greta Thunberg stand-in. There’s a dense political undercurrent at play here, Trump’s America having continued on and taken (somehow) into even further extremes than reality offered. It’s a setting that feels tailor-made for a certain type of liberal, but Powers doesn’t really reckon with it fully. He is able to see the problems presented by American conservatism, but lacks vision into the larger issues at play. Despite decrying the divisive politics of the American right-wing, there’s an isolating us-vs-them mentality throughout the book, a far cry from the vast inclusiveness and nuanced radical politics of The Overstory.
The Byrnes do as much disengaging from society as they do participating in it. At one point, after the treatment begins, Theo and Robin encounter some boys who are attempting to vandalize a stop sign—tearing at the very rules and order of this country! In other words, hooligans. Worse still, one is wearing a shirt emblazoned with a slogan associated with the American right wing. Rather than avoid them, Robin decides to engage with them, with Theo in tow. He calls their attention to an owl who’s taken up residence in the neighborhood, and leads them to it. They manage to catch a glimpse, but end up scaring it away; Theo and Robin simply return home. Robin had them, made them engage more with the world, but the point is simply dropped. Were these boys incapable of learning, doomed to their ignorant ways? Powers seems to shrug, as the situation in the novel deteriorates enough to get to even Robin, despite his progress.
With Robin now in a state that feels bordering on depression, Theo seeks out Currier once more. Currier suggests that feeling distraught about the world is a logical response, but Theo is desperate for his help. Currier suggests something drastic: rather than the aggregate training from earlier, this time they will train Robin’s brain on the record of his mother’s individual scan, her experience of ecstasy. Somehow, scientist Theo raises only minor concerns about this, and Robin begins to undergo the treatment, which heightens all the effects from the earlier trial, making Robin into the picture of stoicism and inquiry. He appears in the novel’s version of a TED Talk with Currier, which then goes viral. The Byrnes try to parlay this into a form of activism, the world’s most mild not-protest, during a trip to the Capitol where Theo and his astrobiologist colleagues attempt to defend their funding in front of Congress. Their funding is retracted, as is Currier’s, and Theo ends up being fingerprinted by Capitol police for protesting without a permit.
The situation similarly devolves across America. The President turns despotic, in a move that feels inevitable, and the climate catastrophe continues apace, as a particularly visceral section describes the video of a plague sweeping through cows in an industrial farm. In the wake of this turmoil, without continued treatment from Currier, Robin regresses into the troubled boy he was at the start. Even harder, he loses the small connection he had felt with his mother, almost re-experiencing her passing. Despite the novel feeling trite at times, I found this loss to be deeply moving, and Powers commands this trauma well. Robin becomes inscrutable in the middle of the novel, a mystery even to his dad, but this spiral and the vulnerability it evokes is poignant. The two go back into the Smokies, intentionally mirroring the trip made at the start, after which Theo resolves to seek medication for Robin.
Bewilderment feels like a follow-up to The Overstory, but this time around Powers has written a much less compelling book. He aims a microscope at a family in chaos, as well as a telescope into what may lie just beyond our sight, but misses what’s right in front of him. Despite clumsy writing, some unconvincing leaps of logic, and improbable choices, there is a raw, resonant core here; it’s just spread too thin, and buried too deep to be worthwhile.
By Richard Powers
W.W. Norton and Company
Published September 21, 2021
Ian is a writer based out of Chicago, and one of the Daily Editors at The Chicago Review of Books. His work has appeared in The LA Review of Books, Input Magazine, The Kenyon Review, Chicago Reader, among others. He is working on a novel. Follow him on Twitter as @IanJBattaglia.