As he did in his Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Overstory" — which the Financial Times called a "Great American Eco-Novel" — Richard Powers takes up the life of the natural world and its suffering at human hands in "Bewilderment." In this much shorter, more sharply focused novel, though, the suffering is central and viewed through the lens of a father's love for his troubled child.
In a not-too-distant future, much like our own culture-warring times but with the volume and heat turned up, Theo is an astrobiologist working on a project trying to identify life on distant planets; as he puts it: "we studied how the absorption of lines in the spectra of distant atmospheres might reveal biology."
His wife, an animal rights lawyer and activist of luminous character and boundless energy, has recently died, and his 9-year-old son Robin is struggling.
A brilliant, volatile little boy, Robbie takes the plight of the Earth's living creatures, and the failure of humans to protect them, personally and hard. Rather than see the child as oversensitive, "Bewilderment" asks whether the rest of us aren't in fact under-sensitive. Trying to help his son without resorting to medication, Theo allows him to participate in an experimental program "called Decoded Neurofeedback. It resembled old-fashioned biofeedback, but with neural imaging for real-time, AI-mediated feedback."
In what Theo calls an "empathy machine," a subject learns to mirror emotions mapped from other participants — in Robbie's case, his dead mother, who'd once modeled "ecstasy" for the program. This all might sound a bit sci-fi technical, but all the scientific razzle-dazzle, including the details of the planets that Theo elaborately imagines for Robbie, simply underlines the human story at its center — and makes the tenderness between father and son seem so real and heartfelt that the novel becomes its own empathy machine.
What's more powerful, though, is how the emotions "Bewilderment" evokes expand far beyond the bond of father and son to embrace the living world and Robin's anguish at its plight, experienced ever more exquisitely as the experiment progresses. And then, in case you figure your feelings for this man, this child, and this benighted planet can't get any stronger, fair warning:
The book "Flowers for Algernon" is Powers' touchstone in "Bewilderment," mentioned in the author's note and listened to by Theo and Robin as they drive across the country. But, as Robin reassures his father after discovering the debased state of the Mississippi River: "We're just an experiment, right? And you always say, an experiment with a negative result isn't a failed experiment. … Don't worry, Dad. We might not figure it out. But Earth will."
Ellen Akins is a writer and writing teacher in Wisconsin.
By: Richard Powers.
Publisher: W.W. Norton, 288 pages, $27.95.
Event: PenPals, April 28-29, 2022; Hopkins Center for the Arts. Tickets $45-$55, supporthclib.org/richard-powers.