REVIEW

Richard Powers' Book-shortlisted Bewilderment is about the anxiety of a damaged planet

Booker-shortlisted author Richard Powers. Picture: Getty Images
Booker-shortlisted author Richard Powers. Picture: Getty Images
  • Bewilderment, by Richard Powers. Heinemann, $32.99.

Richard Powers won the Pulitzer Prize for his last novel, The Overstory (2018), which was also shortlisted for the Booker prize.

Bewilderment, which was short-listed for the 2021 Booker, opens with 45-year-old University of Wisconsin astrobiologist, Theo Byrne, still struggling to come to terms with the death of his lawyer wife, Alyssa, from a car accident two years previously.

We are in a world of political upheaval, devastating climate change and an anti-science US President, who is more Trumpian than Trump.

His nine-year-old son, Robin, with an undiagnosed condition which may be Asperger's, has been even more impacted, becoming unstable and facing school expulsion through a violent attack on a friend.

Robin's words are printed throughout the novel in italics, as though he's not of this world.

Alyssa's love of the natural world has impacted Robin, who increasingly reflects "the world's basic brokenness".

We are in a world of political upheaval, devastating climate change and an anti-science US President, who is more Trumpian than Trump.

Robin fears, "Everything will be dead, before I get to tenth grade".

Theo turns to a university colleague, who is researching neurological therapy, to try to stabilise Robin's emotional trauma. This treatment will involve transmitting recorded brain waves of his mother to Robin through an "empathy machine ".

Robin's "well-being" treatment works beyond expectation. Robin, who "entered the trials a bundle of rage and graduated as a junior Buddha?", feels "like he is inside everything".

The experiment's success begins to leak beyond the scientific community. TV and social media ensure Robin's treatment goes viral, "Boy learns bliss from his dead mother . . . Boy lives again, inside his dead mother's brain" . Robin has become a rare and endangered species himself.

The neuroscience research, however, becomes a victim of both the president's savage science research cuts and the lobbying of the Human Sanctity Brigade. As a result, Robin dramatically relapses. Theo must watch, as his son regresses, "in small steps from color back to black-and-white".

SF aficionados will recall here a similar theme in Daniel Keyes classic novel, Flowers for Algernon (1966), of AI advancement and regression, a book which Powers clearly knows, as Theo and Robin listen to the Keyes audiobook on a twelve-hour car journey.

Powers has said Bewilderment is "in part, a novel about the anxiety of family life on a damaged planet...but there's another kind of drama - between the humans and the non-humans and...how do we live coherently...on this planet?".

At times, Powers's depiction of current environmental and societal concerns is overly black and white, but there is no denying his passion in a novel with a heart -rending conclusion.

This story The anxiety of a damaged planet first appeared on The Canberra Times.