Bewilderment by Richard Powers

Richard Powers, Bewilderment (Hutchinson Heinemann: 2021, 9781785152634)

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Bewilderment is the story of Theo Byrne, an astrobiologist who lost his wife in an accident and is raising his son, Robin, alone. Robin is a neurodivergent 9-year-old boy, who has been diagnosed with “two Asperger’s, one probable OCD, and one possible ADHD”. Theo abhors the use of drug treatments on children and refuses to “dope [Robin] up”, and eventually finds a fictitious experimental behavioural therapy that helps his son.

Most of the book is focused on Theo and Robin’s relationship, but the themes that contextualise the story are just as central to the book: the environment and the search for life in outer space. These made me think I wouldn’t enjoy the book: I think that fiction with ecological themes is usually sanctimonious and frankly redundant, with characters or narrators showing the outrage that normal people feel anyway, at facts that are well-known and with not much to add to topics that are and have been discussed extensively. In Bewilderment there’s still a measure of that but it is done better. The outrage comes from Robin, and for this reason feels genuine instead of performative – of course a child who doesn’t understand how the world works would be shocked at how the environment is brazenly destroyed by humanity. This is very well-balanced with Theo’s believable complacency on the topic. He shares Robin’s despair somewhat but has very little penchant for activism and shows a more adult understanding that ultimately there will never be much improvement because, as he sometimes reminds Robin, “humans”.

Astronomy is also all over the book which I found fascinating. From what I understand, there are some facts and some fictions in the science discussed in the book but I still came out of it feeling I learned a tiny little bit about the universe. But Powers also makes the minutiae of the natural world feel as grand as the infinity of the universe. Reading about the book before its release, I thought Theo’s professional search for life outside our planet would take the form of far-fetched, physical trips to other planets that would take away from the human story. Luckily that is not the case. As Powers explained in an interview, he wrote the book in “the form that science fiction writers like to call the ‘near-term future,’ where the story treats a world that’s a lot like ours, but set in some undesignated time in the future, in a way that allows the writer to speculate about the potential of the present to unfold in different ways.” The book is firmly rooted in science that is believable and seems possible even when it is invented.

Now, all this praise doesn’t mean I’d give Bewilderment a ten out of ten. While at first sight Theo and Robin’s actions and philosophies are the “right” ones to have, if you give them a little thought there are some grey areas to be pondered. Is it awful to drug children when their behaviour is not easy for adults to deal with? Yes, but we also know that drugs are sometimes necessary in mental health treatments. Theo is extreme in his rejection of medicine, and dismissive of the physical harm Robin inflicts on a friend at school. Similarly, the initial impression on seeing a child caring so much about the environment is very positive, as are Theo’s attempts to always tell Robin the truth. We even get a stand-in for Greta Thunberg in the novel, which Robin is obsessed with. But why is the image of a child in visible, extreme distress about the environment romanticised? Surely it is something to be mourned and managed, not encouraged. The responsibility lays with the adults. Interestingly, in the novel we do end up seeing how dangerous this trend can ultimately be to a child.

Bewilderment, by Wilmar

Despite (and maybe a little bit because of?) these uncomfortable questions, I found Powers’s writing a joy to read. It’s straight forward but now and again there’s really beautiful imagery, like this description of the water in a river: “from behind us, upstream, the future flowed over our backs into the sun-spattered past.” Visually, there is some dialogue that is in italics which I found distracting, but the reason for this soon becomes apparent.

I have read a couple of reviews from the big newspapers which were underwhelmed by Bewilderment, comparing it to The Overstory, which was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2018 and won the Pulitzer in 2019. I haven’t read The Overstory, so there was nothing to be disappointed by. In fact, I was not looking forward to Bewilderment at all. I thought it would to be ecological, science-fiction that is performative and burdened by world-building and an overwrought premise. How wrong I was! Bewilderment is immensely enjoyable and moving. It has just enough wonder and ‘magic’ to make it feel special, never to the detriment of the characters and the impact that reality can have on a reader when presented by a really good writer.

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