Bewilderment begins with Theo and his son Robin, at a cabin in the forest, wondering about the possibility of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. Theo is an astrobiologist developing computer models of possible worlds that will help determine which atmospheric gases might indicate we are not alone. Robin is voraciously curious and loves endangered animals. His passion mirrors the devotion of his mother and Theo’s partner, Aly, a researcher and activist who has recently died in a car crash.
Theo is struggling to parent Robin, whose precocious intelligence and sensitivity lead him into volatile behaviour, dangerous to himself and others. “I never believed the diagnoses the doctors settled on my son,” Theo muses, wanting to tell a paediatrician that “everyone alive on this fluke little planet was on the spectrum”.
The narrative that emerges is driven by urgent, difficult questions. How can we sustain empathy in the face of overwhelming species loss? Could humanity be not only the source of the Earth’s crisis, but its answer?
Bewilderment is written in short, unnumbered chapters, giving it a compelling momentum. In intermissions, Theo and Robin explore various model planets together; life, it seems, might manifest itself in infinitely strange and wondrous forms. On Pelagos, intelligent kelp speak in colour, and worms practise religious ritual. On Xenia, “everyone was everyone else’s parent and everyone else’s child ... all other transitory feelings were lost in a shared grace, the way that separate stars are lost in the daytime sun”. The poetry and imagination of these passages is stunning.
It’s disappointing to see Powers falter at building an original character and fate for Robin, who embodies many tropes of autism – exceptional memory, meltdowns, difficulty socialising. When Theo agrees to enrol him in an experimental neural feedback therapy, he loses his volatility and gains an uncanny calm. The therapy is fascinating in its implications for subjectivity, memory and empathy, but its implications in the story are unsettling.
As Robin’s newfound equanimity is threatened by the withdrawal of project funding, Bewilderment seems motivated by a profound ambivalence towards neurodiversity. Autism appears here as an archetype of sensitive, truth-telling humanity, where narrative resolution can only be achieved at a tremendous cost. Robin’s fate is increasingly entwined with his mother, Aly, who becomes saintly through her death.
Powers has written an undeniably beautiful and haunting novel, but it is unable to rise to its own provocations.
William Heinemann, 288pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 2, 2021 as "Bewilderment, Richard Powers".
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