Review: In a dystopian future, a family navigates grief in the midst of political and environmental upheaval
Richard Powers’s new novel, Bewilderment, is a story of great love and the lengths one will go for it, but it is also a profile of grief and loss—grief for a person, a nation and a planet; personal, political and existential loss.
Set in a near-future American dystopia when climate change has intensified and the president continuously postpones the election but life otherwise goes on as normal, the book explores the relationship between Theo, an astrobiologist, and his precocious, emotionally disturbed 9-year-old son, Robin. The story takes place in the aftermath of the death of Alyssa, Robin’s mother and Theo’s wife of a dozen years, in a car crash.
Bewilderment raises the question of how we train ourselves, so to speak, through what we consume as readers and viewers.
Robin is said to have A.D.H.D., O.C.D. or Asperger’s, and his father is resolutely against medicating him. Robin grieves for animals that are going extinct and for the planet, even staging a one-person protest at the state capitol; meanwhile, they both grieve for Alyssa, who was an animal activist lawyer. The broader backdrop of summer flooding, immigration crises at the border and a president declaring national emergencies is all too plausible. Yet the experiment at the heart of the book will seem unfamiliar.
Moved to action after Robin gets into an altercation at school and cracks a friend’s cheekbone, Theo agrees to let Robin study a brain scan left behind by Alyssa, Robin’s mother, in an experiment conducted while she was alive. The idea is that Robin can learn the patterns and emotional states his mother left behind, which include ecstasy, from her neural patterns. “Scanning AI would compare the patterns of connectivity inside Robin’s brain—his spontaneous brain activity—to a prerecorded template,” Powers writes. Visual and auditory cues shape Robin’s responses, rendering them more and more similar to the neural responses of his mother’s brain template.
Robin is indelibly changed by the treatment, which not only soothes his moods and tempers but swings him in the other direction, toward the beatific. Of the people whose brains he is training on before he begins training on his mother, Robin says, “I feel like they’re coming over to my house to hang out or something. Like we’re doing stuff together, in my head.”
But after Robin becomes moderately famous (to the extent that he becomes a meme, as his image is used to promote the neurofeedback technique), the experiment runs afoul of regulators and is shut down, depriving him of the sensory experiences that help him achieve his calm, blissful state. He also loses the neural connection to his mother that seems to help him tap into memories and knowledge of his her. Predictably, Robin begins to slide back into his old, disgruntled self: “Enthusiasm and distress had become the same thing.”
In a desperate bid to regain some calm and tranquility, Theo takes Robin on a trip to the Smoky Mountains, where he once honeymooned with his wife and where father and son enjoyed an earlier adventurous trip before the experiment began. Theo vows that when he returns he will take Robin to the doctor. The trip takes place in the glorious shadow of the galaxy’s four hundred billion stars.
The book raises the bigger question of how we train ourselves, so to speak, through what we consume as readers and viewers: How are we conditioning ourselves to think and feel? But it also raises questions about the currently available treatments for children like Robin, and it raises the question of why Theo is so resistant to them, going to the extremes of the neurofeedback in the first place. What are the hazards, and do they outweigh the benefits? This is an area that the book overlooks, because of its very premise that Robin needs something other than medication, which seems demonized.
To be bewildered means to be perplexed and confused. There is much that perplexes the characters in this book, from how Theo and Robin can live without Alyssa to why a democracy has become authoritarian to why the world has not awakened to take action to save the planet. This state of confusion is punctuated by moments of happiness and excitement when Theo and Robin explore imaginary planets, lyrically described by the landscapes’ relationship to the life forms that live on them. The book brims over with explorations of how life should relate to other life, and to what extent communication is possible among life forms.
Powers’s language is taut and spare, rendering what is sometimes devastating into something beautiful. In a meta moment, the book proclaims, “Brain science knew that even imagination could change our cells for real.”
In Bewilderment, the vastness of the universe is again and again contrasted with the smallness of the human ambition to understand and explore it.
Pondering the extent of these changes and how they affect our identity as well as our relationships with others is part of the author’s meditative work in this novel. Robin’s so-called success in the experiment leads to unintended consequences in his behavior with everyone he interacts with, including strangers who recognize him once his identity is revealed. What is sacrificed by becoming a public example of what is possible? Should every possibility be considered an advancement? Does changing the life of one individual affect the trajectory of a species?
The novel has an urgency that propels the reader through it, as we turn the pages to find out what is happening to Robin as he evolves on a dying planet. Robin is fascinated by endangered species and passionate about saving them in any way possible. While homeschooling Robin, Theo muses: “He’d discovered, on his own, what formal education tries to deny. Life wanted something from us. And time was running out.” Through Robin’s eyes, we see the tragedy of climate change and species loss for what it truly is: a betrayal of the future of the next generations, but also a threat to the singular beauty and value of creation for its own sake.
The vastness of the universe is again and again contrasted with the smallness of the human ambition to understand and explore it. But Powers imagines a world in which we can not only connect to the brain patterns of other human beings and measure that through functional magnetic resonance imaging, but also be tuned in to the patterns of the natural world. “Someday we’ll learn how to train on this living place and holding still will be like flying,” Robin’s father thinks in Bewilderment.
Perhaps one day we will shift from destroying our planet to living in harmony with it and even experiencing its rhythms on a deeper level. In the opening line of the book, Robin asks his father about extraterrestrials: “But we might never find them?” A sense of yearning permeates the novel. We yearn to connect with those we have never encountered, but especially with those we have lost. Can science ever truly reunite us with them, or is that something that only the afterlife can do?