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‘Bewilderment’ explores the stars and the soul

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A good book can take us on a journey. Perhaps it is a journey outward, into the wider world and what lies beyond. Or maybe inward, an exploration of psyche and emotion and personal truth. A book that can do both with thought, precision and heart, however? That’s not just a good book – it’s a great one.

“Bewilderment” (W.W. Norton & Company, $27.95), the latest book from Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Powers, definitely meets the criteria for the latter. A thoughtful deconstruction of the relationship between fathers and sons set against the backdrop of a troubled time and place that is a slightly skewed reflection of our own, it’s a story that manages to strike the perfect balance between looking out to the stars and into the soul.

Deftly plotted and constructed from the sorts of sentences that only Powers can craft, this is a book that is unafraid to explore the many forms that goodbye can take.

Theo Byrne is an astrobiologist. His life’s work is theorizing about what life might exist out there among the stars, considering the myriad possibilities of extraterrestrial existence. He’s also a single father to nine-year-old Robin, a brilliant and sensitive boy who struggles to engage with the world in the ways in which everyone expects. Both father and son are somewhat adrift, each failing in his own way to deal with the death of the woman they both loved – Theo’s wife and Robin’s mother.

But fascination with other worlds can’t hide the problems with this one. There are the issues writ large – a country devolving into police state tactics and economic chaos behind an unhinged authoritarian president, a climate whose changes are rapidly accelerating, a destabilization of the educational sector – but there are also more personal issues. Robin’s outbursts lead to incidents, which lead to school administrators questioning Theo’s fitness and not-so-gently pushing for pharmaceutical interventions.

Theo doesn’t want to medicate Robin. He sees Robin’s brilliance even as he struggles with the boy’s difficulties. Robin draws elaborate pictures of endangered species and seeks to find ways to follow in his late mother’s animal rights activist footsteps. He wants to hear the tales his father spins about the endless potential possibilities of life out there. But Robin’s outbursts become more and more difficult to manage.

When a university colleague suggests that Robin might be a candidate for an experimental process called decoded neurofeedback – a process intended to help remap the centers of the brain using neurological “maps” of others – Theo is somewhat skeptical. However, he is also desperate, and allows his son to begin the treatments.

What follows is nothing short of miraculous. Slowly but surely, the process retrains Robin’s brain, allowing the boy a much higher degree of self-control and far more emotional empathy than he’d ever displayed before. Theo is grateful, seeing his son finally break through and outwardly become more like the boy he always was inside.

And yet … is he still the same Robin? That question looms large, even as other aspects of life, both personal and in the wider world, threaten to collapse around them.

“Bewilderment” is a thoughtful and mesmeric tale, one that seeks to plumb the depths of the human condition while also casting hopeful inquiries out into the cosmos. The idea that life – any life – is precious is one that permeates a lot of Powers’ work, but the dichotomy he lays bare here is as effective an exploration of that idea as any he’s yet produced.

Theo is a fascinating protagonist. He’s a person who is consumed by a desire to understand, yet those things he most fiercely wishes to fully grok – the life outside Earth’s ken and the life inside his son’s psyche – remain outside of his reach. It’s all theory, whether he’s extrapolating extraterrestrial existence or simply trying to predict Robin’s next meltdown. And all the while, the ebb and flow of the tides of his grief, his constant awareness of what has been lost, tugging at him.

The world Powers has built around Theo and Robin is compelling in its own right. It’s not quite our world, but it bears more than a superficial resemblance; it’s a bleak and troubling place whose societal foundation is crumbling in ways that feel awfully plausible, a parallel America not as far removed from ours as we might wish it to be. The speculative nature of the work might lead to elicited comparisons; the classic Daniel Keyes short story “Flowers for Algernon” is name-checked multiple times, but there are plenty of allusions and influences at work that are considerably less overt.

And of course, Powers’ own thematic touchstones are present, continuing precepts and concepts with regard to man’s relationship to nature and the environment. “Bewilderment” really digs deep into the idea that no matter how hard man tries to exert his dominion over nature – whether it be the sweeping depths of the greater cosmos or the granular intimacy of the human brain – he will inevitably be faced with the hard truth that victory is not forthcoming.

But how can man accept that truth? And how can he pass that truth on to those who come behind?

“Bewilderment” is a story both large and small, a tale of what it means to connect. It is a thoughtful and haunting book, one that will resonate with the reader; it argues that rather than wage war with the world, we should make our peace with it. Novels like this one echo, their ideas and plots reverberating through our heads and hearts long after the final page is turned.

Last modified on Wednesday, 22 September 2021 07:20

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